Summer salads based on pearled spelt or couscous can be brought to life with vibrant flavours of oil, citrus and a handful of herbs. All you need is a little imagination...
A grain salad, or perhaps one of couscous or even pasta is calm, sustaining and frugal. The list is long: basmati, spelt, cracked wheat and rice are all contenders. Each one is a blank canvas that allows us, almost impels us, to get a little imaginative.
A salad with starch at its heart needs careful dressing if it isn't to be soggy. I toss my drained couscous or spelt, rice or long flowing noodles only at the last minute. No cream or mayonnaise, but a light olive oil and juice-based dressing, lively lemon, ripe yellowing limes or pomegranate. A dressing can be simple but it must be vibrant and fresh.
Herbs are, I think, essential in a salad that is brought together with a mild-tasting principal ingredient such as wheat or rice. More herbs than you could imagine. I work on the ratio of two handfuls of grain to one of chopped herbs. It sounds a lot, but think of how good a generously parsley-flecked Middle Eastern tabbouleh is compared to one that is predominantly brown wheat.
Though not strictly a grain, the fat pearls of the giant couscous called mograbia are fast becoming one of my favourite salad ingredients. Boil them in deep, salted water, as you would pasta, then toss with olive oil, lemon and roasted, caramelised shallots or slices of slow-cooked onion, then make the couscous feel at home with green olives and mint. I sometimes use them with preserved lemon too, the pulp removed and the skin chopped finely. We need bright, piquant flavours in a salad such as this.
Water is a perfectly sound medium for cooking any grain destined to be served cold, but I prefer to use stock if I have it. The carbs sponge up the flavour of the aromatic liquid as they cook, making your salad a whole lot more interesting. This method is particularly suited to pearled spelt or barley and is useful for plumping up fine couscous and cracked wheat, too. I pour hot chicken stock and lemon juice over my couscous, cover it tightly with a lid and let the magic happen.
I'm not sure you have to dress grains when they are warm, as you might potatoes. This means they can be prepared in advance, and make great additions to a packed lunch. You can include the dressing separately if you wish in a tiny tightly lidded pot and stir it at your desk. The only salad I like to dress while it is warm is one I make with pearled spelt and hot bacon fat, the fat being mixed with red wine vinegar or lemon juice and folded through the wheat shortly after it has been drained.
We shouldn't underestimate the usefulness of a salad made from wheat or rice. It doesn't wilt in the heat, is as cheap as chips and is satisfying enough that the rest of the meal can be as light and summery as you like. Quiet and calming yes, but also a springboard for our imagination.
Pearled spelt and bacon
Cherries and bacon go rather well together, just as ham and apricots or pork and apples do. Here, they are folded into a warm and nutty salad of spelt.
red onion 1
sherry vinegar 2 tbsp
lemon juice of 1
chicken stock 500ml
pearled spelt 200g
bacon 8 rashers, smoked streaky
olive oil 2 tbsp
parsley a handful
Peel the onion, thinly slice into rounds and place in a shallow bowl. Mix the sherry vinegar and lemon juice then pour over the onion rings and set aside for an hour. Turn the onion occasionally until it is soft and pink.
Bring the chicken stock to the boil, add the pearled spelt and leave to simmer for about 15-20 minutes till just tender, then drain and tip into a large mixing bowl.
Cut the bacon into postage stamp- sized squares then fry in the olive oil a non-stick pan till crisp. Drain on kitchen paper, keeping the bacon fat and oil in the pan.
Halve and stone the cherries and add to the spelt. Pick the leaves from the parsley stalks. Drain the onions and add to the spelt together with the bacon and the parsley leaves. Add the lemon juice and 2 tablespoons of the liquid from the onions to the bacon fat and mix well then add to the spelt and toss gently.
Mograbia, roast shallots and lemon
Mograbia is the plump, pearl-sized couscous that deserves to be more accessible. It is not a grain, but is treated like one. I pick it up, in large bags, from Middle Eastern grocers whenever I see it. The fat beads of ground, rolled and steamed semolina keep well in a stoppered storage jar.
olive oil 3 tbsp
shallots 6, small, cut in half
mint a large handful, shredded
lemon zest and juice of 1
Cook the mograbia in deep, salted boiling water for about 20 minutes, till tender. It should retain a little bite. Drain and refresh in cold water then tip into a mixing bowl and toss gently a tablespoon of olive oil.
Peel the shallots and halve them. Pour a thin film of olive oil into a shallow pan and cook the shallots till golden and sweetly caramelised, turning them regularly, so they colour evenly. When they are soft and glossy, add them to the mograbia.
Halve the cornichons lengthways then add them to the mograbia. Shred the mint leaves finely. Mix the olive oil left in the shallot pan with the lemon juice and zest and the shredded mint and olives.
Gently toss all the ingredients together.
Pearls of wisdom: Nigel Slater's pearled spelt and bacon recipe. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer