My best friend lives in Darwin, and she’s having a baby (!!!), so I went up for a quick visit last weekend, to hang out, help out a bit, but mostly just have a good chance to catch up for the last time before there is an adorably cute little barrier to conversation in the house!
My friend has gestational diabetes, and her husband has a number of allergies and food sensitivities, and when you add to these culinary challenges the fact that Darwin is appallingly hot and humid, figuring out dinner is a bit of a challenge.
Like many people in Darwin, they don’t have family living locally, so we also talked a fair bit about planning for food that requires minimum preparation time when there is a small baby in the house. (Not that I have ever had a small baby in the house, but I am all about minimal food preparation in hot weather. Or grant season.)
We came up with this modular salad, which has the capacity to tick lots of mutually-exclusive boxes. It’s more an idea than a recipe, and it’s pretty simple, but it’s a useful one and worth sharing, I think.
(It’s unofficial name is Franken-Niçoise salad, because originally, there was going to be tuna. But since we skipped the tuna, and the green beans were looking a bit dodgy, it’s just Modular Salad now.)
We liked it, and hope you will too.
Your shopping list (for about 5-6 serves, which can be held over for later if need be)
Two punnets of cherry tomatoes
Two Lebanese cucumbers
Two red capsicums
One tin of cannellini beans, drained
Six smallish potatoes, preferably waxy ones
A handful of olives (optional)
A few spring onions (optional)
A tin or two of tuna or salmon; or leftover poached or roasted chicken; or tuna steaks if you are willing to cook such; or marinated and grilled tofu; or pre-prepared felafel, or even toasted hazelnuts or cubes of cheese. You want about 100g per person of protein that is ready to eat, essentially.
Extra virgin Olive oil
Red wine vinegar (or cider vinegar if that’s what your friend can eat)
Tzatziki, or mayonnaise, or plain greek yoghurt with a teaspoon of dijon mustard
Now what will you do with it?
The first rule of modal salad is that you don’t talk about modal salad.
Since I have now broken that rule, which is a silly rule anyway, I will point out that the second rule is that variations are endless. I’ll try to list some of these as I go.
The third rule is basically you do the prep, but let people assemble according to their needs. This has the disadvantage of more bowls to wash, but the extremely admirable advantage of leftovers which are fresh and not soggy and can be reconfigured in a different formation tomorrow. A chickeny, tzatziki-dressed salad today will taste quite different to a tinned fish and vinaigrette-dressed salad tomorrow.
Start by hard boiling the eggs. Put them in a saucepan of cold water, bring to the boil, and boil for about eight-ten minutes, depending on how vital it is that your eggs are really, really hard boiled.
Pour cold water over them to stop them cooking and cool them down. When they are cool enough to handle, remove the shells and cut them in half, then into quarters or sixths. Put into a small bowl, and set aside. Note that slightly older eggs are much easier to peel than super fresh ones. This is a good place to use the eggs you bought last weekend and forgot about for a week.
While they are cooking, peel the potatoes and chop into bite-sized cubes. Boil them until they are cooked but not mushy. (You could use sweet potatoes instead of white ones, but the flavour will be quite different. Nice, though.) Drain, and let cool, then put into a small bowl and set aside.
You can do these two steps a day or two ahead.
If you are using Spring onions, or olives, they each get a bowl at this point. So do the drained cannellini beans (you could also use mixed beans or chickpeas).
Your protein of choice also goes into a bowl now, unless you plan to cook it at the last minute, in which case it is your problem not mine, and up to you to remember it from here on.
Get out a big salad bowl. Peel and de-seed your cucumbers (halving them lengthwise and running a teaspoon down the centre works well for this), then slice and put in the salad bowl. Chop your capsicums, halve your cherry tomatoes, shred the lettuce, and add to the bowl. (If you are feeling Niçoise or just have a more exciting set of vegetable options than we did, you could add radishes, lightly poached green beans, or avocado to this salad. Or any other veggies you like.) Toss these together.
The stuff in the salad bowl is your base, and should contain only things that everyone can eat. The veggies I’ve listed above fit that criteria for most people, but check with your eating audience before you start.
Now you can make one or more dressings. Tzatziki is a nice, creamy dressing option if you have someone who can’t have mayonnaise but likes potatoey eggy mayonnaise goodness. If you don’t have tzatziki, half a cup of plain greek yoghurt with a little salt, pepper and dijon mustard, and maybe a splash or two of vinegar, is a pretty nice dressing, too. For vinaigrette, I tend to splash on vinegar and oil by feel, but for this purpose, I’d whisk together two parts vinegar to one part oil with a little salt and pepper, and put this in another bowl. You could also do a lemon and olive oil dressing if you are planning to make fish for this.
Put all the bowls, including the dressing bowls, on the table to serve, and give your guests bowls or plates that are big enough to toss their own salads on, once assembled.
Construct and enjoy!
There really should be enough here to cover just about everyone’s dietary requirements – you would need marinated tofu for the vegans, but the options are all gluten free and nut free. Your fructosey friends will need to avoid the beans and the Spring onions, but will be able to get plenty of protein from the eggs and other meaty bits (though not the felafel, and I have my doubts about the tofu). For those who need to avoid carbs, the potatoes are the biggest issue – there are some carbs in the beans, but they have a very low glycaemic index. Dairy avoiders should use the vinaigrette dressing, egg avoiders can avoid the eggs – that’s all pretty straightforward.
Planning for this salad
Ideally, you don’t want to be cooking up a storm every day. The veggies will need some preparation, and you will need to open a tin of beans, but ideally, everything else should be ready to go at the point you start making lunch. Or dinner, because this salad is also fine for dinner.
The potatoes and eggs are fine to cook up to 3 days in advance of final eating (possibly longer, but that’s how long I’d give them) and store in the fridge. But if your dinner involves potatoes or your breakfast involves eggs, cook extra, prepare them, and stick them in the fridge for tomorrow’s lunch.
As for the protein, cook extra of whatever protein you were having at dinner, and keep a few tins of tuna or salmon in the pantry, or cubed cheese or bocconcini in the fridge, ready to go, just in case you ate up all that lovely protein after all. (The trick here is basically that any time you are cooking something that you know can be eaten cold or re-heated, cook extra, and stick the leftovers in the fridge or freezer. That’s one less meal to worry about.)
Good luck, and enjoy!