Time to banish memories of limp lettuce and soggy school salads
and introduce children to this most summery of dishes.
Jake, one of my oldest friends, used to claim he was allergic to lettuce. It made his throat tickle, he said, and his nose itch. So there was no way he could touch the stuff, he explained to any teacher who would listen, as it might well cause his demise. The same went for cucumber, and grated carrot and tomato. In fact, he could confidently argue that salad in any form didn’t agree with him.
He had a point. The school salad was a truly despicable affair. A few desultory flaps of gritty, watery lettuce, smothered by a depressing heap of watery carrot and watery tomato. Which lurked, in turn, below a wan splodge of over-vinegared salad cream. If things were really bad, a few chunks of bullying beetroot would be in there, too, staining all and sundry with its vicious hue. This wasn’t salad, rather salad abuse.
OK, so salad’s never going to rank up there with Haribo, Mini Magnums and chips in the top 10 of children’s food. But with infinite variations on the crisp, verdant theme, it’s not too difficult to get it down their throats. ?My daughter seems to have inherited my wife’s adoration for all things sharp, so she’ll happily munch away on little gem leaves, thinly coated with the most acidic of vinaigrettes. Whereas my son will merrily demolish an entire vine’s worth of cherry tomatoes, sliced in half and sprinkled with a little salt. But try to swap the two dishes around, and encourage a bit of edible adventure, and the shutters clash down. Then there’s the fact that ?Lola won’t touch any cooked vegetables, while Freddy merrily ploughs a path through peas, broccoli and pretty much anything else that emerges from the steam.
So endless hours are spent slicing raw carrots into batons, and celery into strips, only to have to coax and cajole every last nibble into the mouth. It means little that Bubble and Squeak, the guinea pigs, like vegetables of every kind. When the children take a view on all things vegetal, compromise is not an option.
So then we pull the trump card. Like all kids, they crave what they can’t have. So if I make some vast couscous salad, say, studded with spring onions, pickled chillies, parsley, coriander, tomatoes and red onion, they’ll disdain it at first. But the more grown-ups who eat the thing and express some form of enjoyment, the more interesting it becomes. Until it reaches the point where they’re begging for a taste. This trick has stood us in good stead with everything from Caesar salad to one made with bacon, avocado and spinach.
Thanks to the horrors of school food, salad became a dirty word for many years. But things have changed. I know the children would far prefer a plate of pasta or a burger. And that’s fine. But little by little is our philosophy. Plus bribery. Lots and lots of bribery. Oh, and forget about beetroot. This is one ingredient that’s best saved for teenage years.
Serves 6 as a side
500g couscous (cover with 600ml water, cover, leave for 6 minutes, then fluff up with fork)
1 red onion
2 long fresh chillies, chopped Splash of red wine vinegar
20 cherry tomatoes, quartered
8 spring onions, sliced up through white and into first half of green
4–12 pickled chillies, sliced
8 radishes, sliced
Handful of chopped coriander
Handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley
150-200ml olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
Big pinch of salt
1. Make the couscous.
2. Take chopped red onion and mix with chopped fresh chilli. Then add vinegar and let sit for 30 minutes
to an hour. Mix with couscous.
3. Add the rest of the ingredients, apart from the olive oil, lemon juice and salt, and mix well.
4. Add olive oil, lemon and salt to taste.
Serve alongside barbecued lamb, steak or vegetables.