“Lettuce is like conversation: it must be fresh and crisp, and so sparkling that you scarcely notice the bitter in it.” – Charles Dudley Warner (1871)
I spend a fair amount of time, particularly during the British winter, daydreaming about how my life would be if I lived in California. Conclusion? It’d be 52 kinds of awesome. I’d go everywhere in my gym kit, carrying my eco-friendly glass water bottle and a yoga mat under my arm, flashing my amazing veneers at everybody and never actually going to the gym. I would get my kale & beetroot juice next to Julianne Moore every day and marvel at her hair close up.
I’d alternate my weekends between Palm Springs, sipping cocktails under a vintage yellow striped sunshade by the pool, and cycling (erratically) through Napa Valley. And this healthy eating thing would be blissfully easy as I’d survive on all that amazing Californian grown pro-doose (as they say) and their plentiful, cheap but always excellent sushi. (Just to clarify – there would be absolutely no rollerblading whatsoever. Why ARE those California tourist board ads so obsessed with it?) Naturally, in my daydreams no thought whatsoever is applied to matters such as childcare, having fewer than 3 friends, no income and certain death by mercury poisoning – because these are just inconvenient and tiresome details.
And so it was during one of these daytime reveries last week that I remembered that I needed to find something in the fridge to eat with some prawns I had bought from the fishmonger (I’d gone to get squid for a Nigel Slater recipe. They had none. I panicked, brought prawns but thus had no PLAN for them). “I’ll make one of those Californian chopped salads you see on restaurant menus all the time!” I thought to myself. And then realised I had absolutely no idea what a “California salad” actually was.
The internet proved unhelpful as to what made a salad specifically Californian, as did my books. Not even Gwyneth, poster girl for the Southern Californian dream, could help me with a definitive version (but then Gwyneth probably has other things on her mind right now). As it turns out, IT’S JUST A SALAD. With things in! Chopped things! Who knew? (Was the practice of chopping things into a salad (as opposed to, what, eating a cucumber whole?) invented in California? If somebody can enlighten me as to the history of this salad genre, please do).
Many versions seemed to grill the lettuce, but this by no means seems to be a requirement and I didn’t do it because grilled lettuce didn’t sound that delightful to me. Sweetcorn is popular too. As are avocado and courgette. I found a least two versions online that justified my using the mango that was languishing at the back of the fridge and as they were in season (and I had some in my fruit bowl) I used some blood oranges and grapefruits too. I know many people – with some justification – deeply fear the inclusion of fruit in savoury food, but I feel that salad is, like tagine, an exception that we can make and still feel good about ourselves. (Hawaiian pizza? Less so.)
I don’t need to tell you about why and how these things are healthy. They are fruit and vegetables and, in any event, you may use something different for your salad so it would be a waste of time of all of our time. But we can talk briefly about prawns can’t we? Prawns are a fantastic low fat protein source, and contain a carotenoids called astaxanthin, which is supposed to be anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant. Now, the only problem with tiger prawns (which is really what you want here rather than the small cold water ones) is that they are hideously overfished in the wild and industrial warm-water prawn farming, particularly in the Far East, is destroying the environment and has a high degree of ‘by-catch’ that is depleting other species. That is not very cool or Californian at all. MSC guidance is to buy only those that are certified as organically or sustainably farmed (most of which in the UK come from Ecuador – Waitrose stock them – or Madagascar) and avoid avoid avoid wild tiger prawns and other non-certified farmed ones. As prawns are the star of the show here, it really is worth seeking out some good ones. Or, if in doubt (or you don’t like prawns) some simply grilled chicken would be equally good.
I cooked my prawns with lots of garlic and parsley and with their shells still on (but heads off) because that’s what Alice Waters says you should do as the shells impart so much flavour. And she pretty much IS California when it comes to matters of gastronomy so do as you are told.
The dressing really had to be the one from Gywneth Paltrow’s Notes from My Kitchen Table (and her addition of a little maple syrup is great here).
GARLIC PRAWNS WITH “CALIFORNIAN” CHOPPED SALAD (for 2)
Crazy Ingredient Rating: Low
- 225g prawns (or really as many as you want to eat) – shell on but heads removed (or peeled if you must)
- 2 garlic cloves
- 3/4 parsley sprigs – leaves picked
- olive oil
- salt & pepper
- lettuce plus your other salad ingredients (see below)
For the dressing (or use whatever your favourite vinaigrette is):
- 1 tablespoon rapeseed or vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon maple syrup
- 30ml red wine vinegar
- 65ml extra virgin olive oil
- salt and pepper
It is difficult to give ‘ingredients’ or quantities for the salad as you can use pretty much whatever you want/have. I think some sort of crunchy lettuce (cos, little gem) is essential here, as is avocado but otherwise go for whatever you like that will give a variety of colour and texture. For some reason I didn’t feel that tomatoes really worked here, but you may well disagree. I think some grilled bits and pieces are nice too. I used: cos lettuce, slices of blood orange and grapefruit, cucumber, courgette (cut into strips with a peeler and griddled very briefly), avocado and mango (also griddled briefly but that was mainly because it was quite firm and not that sweet). I stuck the lettuce onto a platter and then just built up the other ingredients from there and added the dressing to our individual servings once on the plate.
To make the dressing, whisk everything except the olive oil together and then add the olive oil slowing whisking it in. Season to taste.
To cook the prawns:
- Put the prawns in a bowl and season WELL with salt and pepper. If you are leaving the shells on remember that the seasoning has to penetrate the shell so really do go for it.
- Chop your garlic very finely and chop the parsley leaves (you should have about 1.5 tablespoons).
- Heat a heavy bottomed frying pan and a tablespoon of olive oil. When the pan is hot, add the prawns and cook (tossing regularly) for around 3 minutes until they have just turned pink. Take off the heat and stir through the garlic and parsley until the prawns are well coated. Serve immediately.
Oh, and if you are looking for an eco-friendly glass water bottle to carry round while avoiding the gym, check out these gorgeous creations (they ship to the UK!): http://www.mybkr.com/bottle.asp
Kitchen Song of the Day: Going Back to Cali’ – LL Cool J (All World)