Monday, November 29, 2010

Nice Salad, Flowers Optional

In her marvellous book The Savory Way, Deborah Madison includes broad suggestions for 'Celebration Salad with Blossom Confetti'. As the mother of three girls, all of whom adore bright colours and flowers, I have used this idea countless times to make them eat. My experience is that a girl who turns up her nose at a perfect green salad, delicately dressed, cannot resist the same green salad when it's scattered with ribbons of flower confetti. The girl who screams every time she sees a potato will quietly eat if it's garnished with a few bright strips of nasturtiums.

If the nasturtiums aren't flowering, I might use whole borage flowers – the tiny blue stars taste ever so faintly of cucumber – or perhaps rocket flowers for a bit of zing. Violets are beautiful; red pineapple sage adds a slightly tropical fragrance; tiny marjoram, basil and thyme flowers each have their own flavour and are delightful to look at. You can eat most if not all herb flowers, as well as calendulas and rose petals. Cut larger petals into strips, so they do not catch on one's tongue; and use a sharp pair of scissors or a good knife to slice them cleanly. Eat smaller flowers whole.

As well as paying attention to petals, I look for interesting leaves. Soft green mignonette, freckled lettuces, red oak leaf: all make a pretty salad base, especially if they are complemented by tiny little rainbow chard or beet leaves. Use chard or beet leaves no longer than two inches in length, before they become tough.

On a hot night last week, we ate salad for dinner. I used to shop to make a classic salade niçoise; but one day it occurred to me to use whatever fresh ingredients I had in the garden. Now my salad changes month in month out. Later in the summer I will use the more traditional generous handful of green beans instead of cucumber, blanched for a minute or two; and yellow and red cherry tomatoes off our vines.

The quantity of tuna makes it filling enough for our family of five – three of whom are quite little – to consider it dinner, especially if it's accompanied by a thick piece of sourdough brushed with olive oil and char grilled. If your household is smaller, use less tuna and fewer eggs.

We call this Nice Salad, because some days it's salade niçoise and other days, it's just nice. Flowers are, of course, optional.

Nice Salad

- a fancy lettuce
- a handful of tiny beet leaves and/or rainbow chard leaves, if you have them
- 8 to 10 new potatoes (those tiny little golf balls, fewer if your potatoes are large)
- 2 to 6 eggs (depending how hungry everyone is and how many people there are)
- a cucumber, preferably a sweet Lebanese cucumber, but an English one will do
- 425g tin tuna (packed in oil because it tastes approximately a thousand times better)
- 2 or 3 tomatoes
- a dozen black olives and in this house this means Kalamata (optional)
- 5 or 6 nasturtium flowers, as bright and fresh as possible (optional)
- a lemon (or some wine vinegar or even tarragon vinegar if you have it)
- olive oil, salt, pepper

Bring a pot of water to the boil, and cook the potatoes until they are done. Add the eggs for the last six minutes. Drain, and halve the potatoes. Place the eggs in a bowl of cold water, then peel and quarter them.*

Separate, wash and spin the salad leaves. Arrange on a large platter. Tumble the potatoes over the lettuce.

If your cucumber is English, peel it, halve it, slice out the seeds, cut each half into three or four lengths and chop them into pieces. If your cucumber is Lebanese, halve it lengthwise, quarter it lengthwise, and chop it into pieces. Scatter over the lettuce.

Cut the tomatoes into sixths or so – you want manageable wedges – and add them to the salad. Flake the tuna out of the can and onto the salad. Arrange the eggs over the top.

Press on the olives with the base of a heavy glass and remove the pip. Tear each olive into four or so pieces, and tuck them in.

Drizzle the lot with olive oil and a generous squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of tarragon or other light vinegar. Season if you wish, although I find the tuna and olives are enough seasoning for me.

Shake your nasturtium flowers to dislodge any ants. Snip the petals from all but one of the flowers. Holding the petals over the salad, snip them into pretty ribbons which will float down onto the salad. Place the last flower artfully in the centre, and serve.

*If, like us, your eggs are from the backyard and too fresh to peel without losing great chunks, poach them instead and gently lay the poached eggs on top of the salad – and throw in another couple of eggs because people will eat more when they're so delicious. A nice problem to have!

The idea of eating flower blossoms came from The Savory Way, an indispensable book for anyone learning to cook good food. Madison has a deep appreciation for vegetables, herbs, oils, vinegars and other flavours, and uses them to create wonderful dishes which are intelligent and delicious. She writes thoughtfully about ingredients, and in careful detail about technique. This book was my training ground – I worked my way from cover to cover, and have drawn from it ever since.

The photograph shows a version of this salad as requested and assembled by my four year old: lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, cucumber, tuna, and nasturtium and borage flowers.

(Local: salad leaves, potatoes, eggs, cucumber, tomatoes, nasturtium flowers, olive oil, lemon. Not local: tuna, olives.)


  1. Yum :-) I love eating flowers. I particularly like day lilies - don't know if they grow where you are, but I expect so - Melbourne and Auckland have pretty similar climates. At my place they flower almost all year round, although they're more abundant in summer. You get new flowers every day, and they have quite substantial petals that are fantastic in salad and also make a pretty garnish on a cake. The whole plant is technically edible, but the leaves, on steaming, taste like nothing so much as grass clippings, so I stick to the flowers :-)

  2. My mum used to freeze borage flowers into her ice cubes to encourage me to drink water!