Salad was not a food that took much precedence in our house when I was growing up. It was usually served on a warm sunny evening – some iceberg lettuce, tomatoes and onion thrown into a bowl and served alongside sliced meats, cold baked beans, potato salad and coleslaw. This was one of my favourite summer meals, though the actual salad bowl was always avoided.
Having left home as a young adult for travels anywhere but Ireland, the grass was always greener and the salad was always better on the other side. In Israel, the first course of any gathering begins with salatim which translates as salad or mezze. In my mother-in-law’s home this can include at least eight different dishes. The result is a feast for the senses, with the smells and textures of pickles, olives, a sweet and spicy carrot salad, crunchy raw-cabbage salad, cherry-tomato salad, charred-vegetable salad as well dips and, of course, some fresh bread.
The container with our worldly belongings was still somewhere in transit when we set up our Middle Eastern food business, Mezze, on our return to Ireland eight years ago. We wanted to make what our Irish friends and family enjoyed most when visiting us in Israel – salads. These were the brightly coloured dishes my husband Dvir had grown up with and I had adopted as my own.
We set about finding the best produce for our dishes. My mother, a keen gardener, grew us kohlrabi, which grows well in Ireland but is difficult to find. Tom Cleary, a Wexford grower, provided us with the best cabbages, the most beautiful leafy coriander I’ve ever seen and carrots that, as Mick Kelly from Grow HQ would say, taste carroty. Grantstown Nurseries, a few kilometres away from home, helped me forget the floury tomatoes of my youth; their cherry tomatoes are like a flavour bomb in your mouth.
It took my return to Ireland, after many years abroad, to discover that we do in fact have the most amazing produce and can make delicious and diverse salads with a little Middle Eastern inspiration.
Fattoush salad platter is a great centrepiece for gatherings, with a variety of colours and textures. Great as an appetiser or side, it could also replace a cheese board for a drinks party.
The inspiration for the Tunisian salad is from the sandwich of the same name, sold from Israeli food stalls that specialise in that sandwich alone: fried bread is filled with tuna, egg, potato, gherkins and a spicy sauce. For the salad version, I’ve omitted the bread and added some green leaves and aubergine. If you have any leftovers, put them in a baguette with some tahini sauce for lunch the next day.
Bulgur wheat salad is something we have all the time, changing the vegetables with the season. They can be raw, roasted or chargrilled, as in this recipe. A simple treatment of good oil, lemon juice, seasoning and a sprinkling of za’atar is all that’s needed for the cherry tomato and za’atar salad with halloumi. Chargrilled aubergine with tahini sauce, a deconstructed baba ganoush, is a great accompaniment to any Middle Eastern fare.