Salads are generally considered either uninteresting, unappetising or perfunctory as garnish: consumed in search of good health, rather than prized for exciting flavour. Sure, many salads are beyond terrible (particularly the pre-packaged options) but salad can and should be great – so much more than a cursory side dish or healthy/vegetarian option. Like most of the best salads, this bitter leaf salad with pickled walnut dressing uses just a few ingredients yet is so much more than the sum of its fundamental parts.
A classic British delicacy, pickled walnuts have been enjoyed since at least the early 18th century, referenced in works by authors such as Charles Dickens and Evelyn Waugh. Although various brands produce pickled walnuts, Opies in Kent is the country’s only large-scale producer. Founded by Bennett Opie in 1880, the business began selling eggs before producing Britain’s first non-imported glacé cherries in 1920. Quickly moving on to cocktail cherries and other cocktail pickles, such as onions, olives, and gherkins, Opies began to make pickled walnuts during the 1970s. To make the delicacy, walnuts are handpicked while still green, before a hard shell forms, then steamed in a large steel drum before being soaked in vinegar and sugar. The walnuts are then packed into jars containing a secret-recipe bottling vinegar. While pickled walnuts can be made at home, the production is particularly laborious.
Popular at Christmas, pickled walnuts have a sweet-sour flavour and are most commonly served with cold meats or cheeses (especially Stilton). They’re also particularly suited to being used in beef recipes, such as pies. St JOHN in Clerkenwell, for instance, occasionally serves an exceptional ox cheek and pickled walnut pie, while also favouring pickled walnuts elsewhere on their menus. In some ways, this bitter leaf salad recipe pays tribute to the simplicity of St JOHN, celebrating the restaurant’s clear love of often unfashionable ingredients. Here, pickled walnuts are blended with an equal amount of vinegar, plus good-quality olive oil, and a few cloves of roasted garlic to produce a dressing for sliced endive and chicory leaves, capped with garlicky croutons.
- Blender or pestle and mortar
- 1-2 endive
- 1 red chicory
- 1 shallot
- 1-2 slices bread dependent on preference
For the pickled walnut dressing
- 100 g pickled walnuts
- 50 ml liquor from the pickled walnut jar
- 50 ml red wine vinegar
- 100 ml good quality extra virgin olive oil plus an extra drizzle
- 4 cloves garlic
- Freshly ground black pepper
- To start, preheat the oven to 180c/Gas 4.
- Cut the bread into cubes and add to a small roasting pan with the garlic cloves, with the outer paper/skin still intact. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper, then place in the oven for 20-25 minutes until the bread is crispy and the garlic cloves are soft. Turn once during cooking.
- While the garlic and croutons are cooking, slice the shallot into thin rings. Cut the endive and chicory into strips dependent on preference. Keep the leaves whole, if you prefer. Add the sliced shallot and leaves to a large mixing bowl and set aside.
- If using a pestle and mortar instead of a blender, roughly chop the pickled walnuts.
- Remove the garlic and croutons from the oven. Place the croutons in the salad bowl. Squeeze the garlic cloves from their skins and place in a blender or pestle and mortar with the other ingredients for the dressing. Pulse or grind until smooth.
- Drizzle some of the dressing onto the lettuce and shallots, toss to incorporate, and season to taste. Add more dressing if necessary.
- This recipe should provide more than enough dressing. Store any leftover dressing in a jar in the fridge for around a week.
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