Saturday, September 23, 2006

The return of salad season

Early in the week I journeyed home from the Shaky Isles to a glorious 30c Melbourne day. For some of the urbanites it meant a sneak preview of skimpy summer clothes and strappy sandals. For those in the country it brought a very early start to the fire season, with over 250 flare ups across the state. As far as I was concerned, it heralded the blessed return of leafy salads.

I’m always a little amused to read salad recipes. To me it is the most improvised dish on the planet – some vegetables, occasionally a bit of fruit, maybe some protein and a dressing - who needs to be prescriptive about it? The choice of ingredients depends of what is fresh and vibrant. Winter salads tend to have more root vegetables, perhaps some grains and fewer greens, but the return of the sun welcomes back rocket, my favourite edible leaf. Spring also brings a fleeting visit of asparagus. Still early in the season, I can find little organic bundles of delightfully thin green spears. The season's first mouthful of asparagus, blanched for a minute in boiling water, then refreshed in an icy bath tells me it's September in Australia. With 2 old friends back in town, how could I not make a salad?

The vegetables are the easy part, but turning a side dish into a full meal, and a vegan one at that, needs a little ingenuity. Enter the most misunderstood member of the soy family – tempeh.

I’ve often referred to tempeh as ‘the blue cheese of soy products’, the milk, beans and tofu being so bland. But tempeh is fermented, it has attitude as well as a strong, nutty flavour that can take a little getting used to. Unlike tofu, it can’t be eaten raw. What brings it to life is being fried – particularly deep fried (if you can face it). The result is crispy and flavoursome in the same way that well cooked bacon adds a tangy edge to a spinach salad. Perhaps the easiest way to introduce tempeh to your palate is to splash it with tamari or soy sauce and fry it. The salty accompaniment balances out the strong taste acquired through the fermentation process. But for me I enjoy the flavour unadorned, fried in an uncrowded pan, as part of a salad, stir fry or grain dish.

Spring salad with Tempeh

(feel free to improvise)
Asparagus, blanched

Toasted pumpkin or sunflower seeds (optional)

Thin slices of tempeh (tamari optional), cut into 2-3cm lengths, shallow or deep fried in vegetable oil, well drained.


1 part: lemon juice
2 parts: vegetable oil eg walnut or olive
1/2 tsp honey
a few drops of tamari/shoyu/soy sauce

Assemble the salad with rocket on the bottom and the tempeh on top. Combine the dressing ingredients well and sprinkle on top, or toss through.

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