The Time is Now

June 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Once upon a time, well, just about 13 months or so ago to be more precise, Cakesnail was becoming slightly more than a twinkle of an idea. I was taking occasional pictures in the kitchen and had probably already dedicated three or four notebooks (my minimum notebook count for any single task) to scribbles and lists of ingredients and recipes. There was a warmer than usual May evening where the apartment was all mine and I put on whatever album I had on repeat at that time, picked up an affirming bottle of wine, and set to making an asparagus and halloumi salad with oven roasted tomatoes and basil oil dressing from the first Ottolenghi book. It seemed, at the time, delightfully indulgent as a dinner for one: the tomatoes requiring an hour of roasting time, the vegetables various separate stages of blanching and grilling, the food processor to be pulled out for the basil oil dressing. The kitchen door stood open even as the fog had finally pushed past Tank Hill and begun to reach its chilling wispy fingers through our neighbourhood but the wine was warming and the salad everything I had hoped for: verdant and tangy, with the salty cheese sitting perfectly alongside the char of the vegetables. It was a nice evening.

When, several months later, I was finding some kind of blogging rhythm, that salad seemed to haunt me. I had some decent pictures of it and it felt like just the kind of food I wanted to represent on the site: simple and ingredient-driven but packed full of flavour. But there was one big problem: the salad is utterly reliant on the moment in the season where asparagus overlaps with basil and cherry tomatoes to be at its best and by this point that seasonal moment was far gone, asparagus but a hazy memory blocked out by corn and early apples and gnarled heirloom tomatoes. But there I found myself, last week, with all the components once again to hand and I gleefully set to making the salad: roasting the tomatoes, char-grilling the vegetables, blitzing up the dressing. It was a much cooler evening and much wine had been taken the previous night so this time we sipped sparkling water, mine perfumed with a lemongrass simple syrup, and the music was a touch quieter. The salad was still pretty perfect.


Asparagus and Halloumi Salad with Oven-Dried Tomatoes and Basil Oil
Adapted from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

Serves 2 (with leftover tomatoes and basil oil, or just double the quantities of the asparagus, zucchini and cheese for 4 servings)

Although there is quite a bit of preparation to be done here, once you have the tomatoes and basil oil on hand the rest of the salad comes together pretty quickly. You could make both of those components in advance if you wanted to, or reserve the leftovers either to make the dish again or for other uses: I like the tomatoes and oil tossed through some cous-cous or pasta with a few chopped olives added or some feta crumbled on top for instance.

The original recipe calls for manouri cheese. Halloumi is more readily available but if you can find manouri, by all means try it.

350g/12oz (about one 1 pint tub) cherry tomatoes (this will make about double the amount you need for this salad for 2)
plenty of olive oil
12 asparagus spears
1 zucchini (courgette)
100g halloumi cheese
15g arugula (rocket)
sea salt and black pepper

for the basil oil (this makes about double the amount you need for this salad for 2):
75ml olive oil
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
25g basil leaves
pinch of salt
1/4 tsp black pepper

1. Begin by making the tomatoes. Preheat the oven to 170C/340F and line a baking tray with parchment paper. Halve the cherry tomatoes and toss in a bowl with 3 tablespoons of olive oil and some salt and pepper. Spread the tomatoes on the lined baking tray, skin side down, and roast in the oven for about 50 minutes to an hour or until they are semi-dried. You can leave them a bit longer if you want them especially wrinkled or a bit less if you want them softer: either way works fine. Remove from the oven and leave to one side to cool. If you are making the tomatoes in advance or will have leftovers, once they are cooled you can transfer them to a small jar and store them in the fridge for up to a week. If you are keeping them for more than a day or two, add extra oil to the jar to cover the tomatoes.

2. Next, make the basil oil. Blitz all the ingredients in a blender or food processor until smooth. Transfer to a jar if you are making the oil in advance. You should keep it in the fridge but remove to return to room temperature before using.

3. Trim the tough bases of the asparagus (one way to do this is just to bend them and they should snap at the dividing point between the woody part and the more tender stem). If your asparagus is especially thick and chunky you might need to peel any remaining stringy skin from the bottom inch or two of the stems but the more slender stalks can just stay as they are. Bring a large pan of water to the boil and blanch the asparagus for about 4 minutes. Drain and refresh under cold water or in an ice bath to stop the asparagus from cooking further: make sure it is completely cold. Drain again then transfer to a bowl and mix with about 1 tablespoon of olive oil and salt and pepper.

4. Prepare the zucchini by slicing it very thinly lengthwise. I use a simple vegetable peeler for this but if you have a mandolin, this would be a good time to pull it out. Mix the ribbons with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and salt and pepper.

5. Place a ridged griddle pan on high heat and leave it there for a few minutes (while the pan is heating you might want to take the chance to turn on your extractor fan and open the windows as the next part can get smoky if your pan is truly hot). Grill the zucchini and asparagus, leaving for about a minute before turning to get nice char marks on them from the pan. You will probably need to do this stage in batches to prevent overcrowding and to allow the vegetables room to char. Remove to a bowl or plate and keep to one side for the moment.

6. Slice the halloumi in pieces of about 1cm thickness. Put a frying pan or skillet over medium high heat and place the halloumi slices into the dry pan. They will take about 1-2 minutes per side – you want to find the balance between leaving them alone to brown and taking care that they don’t burn, as they go from brown to burnt quickly.

7. Serve the salad by arranging pieces of asparagus, zucchini, tomatoes, cheese and arugula either on one large serving platter or on individual plates, so that all the components are on show. Drizzle with the basil oil to your preference and serve.

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