This wonderfully enticing salad is an example of my favourite kind of recipe – that which one discovers first in a restaurant, and then improves through subtle but vital modifications. Such a satisfying thing to do.

Earlier this year, I met and old friend, Jo, for lunch. Though we’d known each other since the late nineties after meeting at work, we had some years earlier gone our separate ways after both moving on to other jobs and responsibilities. The wonders of modern communications brought us back together and although we don’t see a lot of one another, I can honestly say I am truly happy to have her back in my life.

In the old days, our ‘thing’ used to be to go for lunch. I’ve always thought the French have it right – proper lunch and conversation in the middle of the day. So civilised! At the time, worked just north of Soho – just near Charlotte Street – and as you’ll know if you are familiar with the area, there has never been a shortage of options for sitting down to eat, with everywhere open pretty much all day. My generic favourite was – and is – Italian, even though nowadays I can’t cope with the carb load of pasta or pizza. Happily, there are still many other options that are easier on the most sensitive of constitutions – an example of which is this very recipe. Often we’d be joined by Grahame and sometimes Zoe too. I miss those days.

So, it was with the nostalgia of 1999/2000 misting our eyes that we agreed to meet in a new Italian, only half a mile or so from our old haunts. Such places tend to be reliably OK – if not excellent – and it’s reasonable to expect that the dishes sound better than they’ll actually taste. The issue tends to be one of seasoning, or indeed lack thereof. It’s an absence of refinement somehow: vegetables that would taste better cooked are raw. Where a little acidity would balance things beautifully, there is none. Where a little salt would enhance flavour it’s missing. Happily, these little imperfections are what provide the opportunity to pick up the culinary baton and run with it.

On this particular occasion, the lunch item in question was a warm salad, based on quinoa, with a number of other ingredients colluding to offer a pleasing variety of flavours and textures. It may not be surprise to learn that this seasonal dish includes the lovely orangeness of butternut squash – seriously, I can’t get enough of the stuff – as well as myriad other delicious things. In the restaurant where Jo and I had our reunion lunch, the version they gave me was good enough, but clearly had the potential to be so much more. That very day, I went home and set to work on putting together my own take. The overall experience is sweet, salty, nutty, crunchy, creamy and technicolour. What could be better?

 

Preparation

  • Preheat the oven to around 180C
  • Add some vegetable bouillon or good quality stock cube to a smallish pan of water and set on a low heat

Ingredients (serves 2)

  • About I/3 of a butternut squash
  • 100g (dry weight) quinoa
  • 50g bag of wild rocket
  • 4-5 small sweet red/yellow/orange peppers
  • 50-100g Roquefort or Gorgonzola
  • Pine nuts and pumpkin seeds
  • Balsamic glaze
  • A few drops of lemon juice
  • Olive oil

 

Method

  1. Dice the butternut squash and slice the peppers. Make sure neither are too small
  2. Toss the squash in a little olive oil and place in a metal roasting dish
  3. When the oven is hot, put the squash in and set the timer for ten minutes
  4. When the time goes, check the squash and loosen in the pan. Add the peppers and return to the oven. Set the timer for a further 7-10 minutes
  5. Add the quinoa to the stock and bring to the boil. Cook for ten minutes. It should be ready about when the squash and peppers are done
  6. Check the squash and peppers and remove from oven if ready. The squash should be starting to smell sweet and will have gone slightly darker. Be careful not to let it burn.
  7. When your quinoa is done (it should still have a little bite, not be porridgey), drain in a sieve and run it under cold water. This stops it from continuing to cook.
  8. Heat a small frying pan and add the pine nuts and pumpkin seeds. Watch them like a hawk. As soon as the pine nuts change colour, remove from the heat and transfer to a cold bowl. The fats will continue to cook and if you leave it too long, the nuts will burn.
  9. You should now be ready to assemble the salad. Boil a kettle and run the hot water over the quinoa to infuse it with heat.
  10. Drain thoroughly and mix the quinoa with the rocket leaves and  few drops of lemon juice, distributing evenly in two shallow bowls.
  11. Add the squash and peppers
  12. Add the cheese in chunks, combining all the ingredients but not over-mixing. (note: the cheese is best added straight from the fridge as it will warm through from the heat of the quinoa and veg)
  13. Liberally scatter the pine nuts and pumpkin seeds
  14. Finish with a good zigzag of balsamic glaze and serve.
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