This month How to Eat is going vegetarian and sorting out the goat's cheese salad. Do you grill it or bake it? Eat the rind or daintily peel it off? Drizzle it in honey and balsamic? Or pair it with its brethren, beetroot and red onion?
Cranks! Pedants! Dinnertime dictators! Please, lend me your eyes. How to Eat is as intent as ever on settling (as if), the best way to eat the nation's favourite dishes. This month, we are going vegetarian and tackling a dish loved by millions and in particular lazy, unimaginative pub chefs: the goat's cheese salad.
You know the grill - sorry, drill. Below the line, you can happily kid around, but no excessive butting or repeated ramming. And gruff trolling is most unwelcome - it gets my goat.
Defining goat's cheese salad
Goat's cheese is, of course, a very varied product. You can get fresh, unpasteurised cheeses that are light, lemony and as soft as snow, which taste lovely tossed together with broad beans, peas and mint. There are goat's milk blue cheeses, camemberts and goudas. Some crumble like feta, others are as hard as mature cheddar. There are even (although, as an intelligent individual, I am sure you never buy them), goat's cheeses pre-mixed with herbs and chillies that are soft, spreadable and as anodyne as cream cheese.
I won't, however, be discussing any of those. Instead, I am going to restrict myself - for the sake of clarity, brevity and sanity - to what I'd call goat's cheese classique: the old French chèvre blanc, preferably in a log that you can cut into handy, rind-on roundels. Presuming you can actually find any at a time when, apparently, the global goat teat has all but dried up.
You require a slice of about 2.5-3cm thickness, rind-on*, cut from a log that has been allowed to mature properly. At its outer edges it should be just turning to a ripe goo of distinctly farmyard-y character, which progresses through rich, creamy outer rings to a centre that is white, virginal, slightly chalky and as tart (it's the fatty capric acid, apparently) as a late-night conversation between Noël Coward and Gore Vidal.
These rounds should be placed on marginally smaller discs of thick, rustic toast and - rather than oven-baking, which creates a sloppy cowpat of cheese - flashed under a very hot grill to create a sweet, caramelised surface on top. Please note: you do not need to sprinkle the goat's cheese with balsamic or - yes, I have actually been served this - sugar, to heighten the effect. It is fine on its own. Do not worry about overdoing the grilling, either. If you scorch the rind, that's preferable. The resulting crunchy bits will add a further dimension of flavour to the musty, "off" notes that the rind adds (what do you mean, you don't eat the rind?).
*Pub chefs: if you serve me the end piece of a log that is more rind than cheese, then that is getting sent back. It is a total rip-off.
So, we've settled on what we're doing with the goat's cheese, but what of the complementary salad it will sit on? In essence, in this cold salad (I like the contrast between warm cheese, toast and cool vegetables), you need to elaborate and expand on the chief characteristics of the goat's cheese (acidity primarily, but also sweetness and more metallic, mineral flavours), in way that offsets its claggy texture, richness and, at times, overwhelmingly "goaty" flavour.
A base bed of watercress and rocket, or even sizeable chunks of super-fresh, salted little gem, and a few ribbons of grilled courgette - or plain cucumber if you prefer - add a very necessary "clean" edge to the plate. Collectively, those are all better options than a bag of wilting mixed salad, big, boring flaps of cos lettuce or the unnecessary bitter excesses of endive and chicory. You then want to build in sweetness, but not in the literal form of sugar (see, Dressing). Instead, use vegetables: baked beetroot or red onions, or silky, roasted and peeled red peppers. A few capers, halved green olives or fine slivers of preserved lemon rind will add a nice little acid flourish. Finally, if you crave more textural variety, throw in a handful of al dente pearl barley.
You see fruit recommended in a lot of goat's cheese salad recipes, but I am agnostic. The good "fruit salad" may exist, but I haven't eaten it. For me, everything from pears to grilled peaches puts this is on a bizarre dessert trajectory. I am similarly baffled by the idea of pairing goat's cheese with something as distinct as fresh asparagus. They are big, unique flavours that are bound to butt heads. There are certainly much better ways of serving those spears. Aubergine meanwhile has no use, other than as a door-stop. While, in 2014, surely no one is still using (see also, sweetcorn, grated carrot, iceberg lettuce), sundried tomatoes in their salads? They are the Frankie Dettori of preserved food items: small, loud and liable to drown out everything else.
Ordinarily, as followers of this blog will know, I like carbs. However I would say that, while it makes reasonable culinary sense, adding new potatoes to a goat's cheese salad - unless it is done sparingly (and it won't be) - makes it a heavy dish. It should be a light summery livener.
Dressing and toppings
For all it is tart, goat's cheese is still cheese. It is still rich and creamy. The idea, therefore, of scattering oily walnuts, pine nuts or pecans across the salad is cloying lunacy. As is coating the salad (or glazing the cheese) with some sort of sweet honey concoction or, worse still, making like it's 1995 and zigzagging across the plate with a syrupy balsamic reduction. What are you going to do next, vote for New Labour? It is too much, too sickly. There is a reason why dishes with pointed, contrasting sweet and savoury components are rare, and that is because a happy reconciliation between the two is highly unlikely.
Lightly dress your salad items with a sharp emulsion of olive oil, lemon juice and dijon mustard, then scatter a few pumpkin seeds across the top. That is all you need to do.
Well, not a plate, but a wide shallow bowl with a sizeable rim.
When to eat
Summer evenings, before the real sweltering heat kicks in, but when, at 7pm, you (not me; I would rather stick pins in my eyes), are convinced that it is still warm enough to eat outside.
Dry, zesty white wines of such vivacious acidity that they put your saliva glands into overdrive (eg sauvignon blanc). Pale ales or similarly citrusy craft brewed lagers. Iced water for the designated driver.
So, goat's cheese salad, how do you eat yours?
Follow Tony Naylor on Twitter: @naylor_tony
Photo: Goat's cheese salad: like this, but with the rind on, please. Photograph: Hall/photocuisine/Corbis