My salad days

If this past week is anything to go by, we're in for a long, hot summer. Take a step back from the oven and start getting raw.

If there's one thing Israel doesn't lack, its fresh vegetables. As a native-born Israeli, I only really understood how integral salad is in the Israeli culture when I went traveling around the world for long periods and experienced salad deprivation first hand. I actually got a physical craving that could only be fixed by a few cool and crunchy vegetables tossed together simply with lots of lemon juice and olive oil. This is why I would be the last person to play down the importance of simple, everyday salads. Nevertheless, there is a fascinating culinary realm of more sophisticated salads that I enjoy exploring every once in a while. To a chef, the most fascinating aspect of salads is the sharp flavor, texture and color contrasts that can be achieved. Since the ingredients are usually raw, they keep their unique properties perfectly. When mixed together, a multi-layered melange is created, both preserving each nugget's unique natural characteristics and having the ingredients play a team game at the same time. The bottom line is that salads are a perfect way of experimenting with bold combinations. I'd like to challenge you to seek out interesting and unusual salad recipes and incorporate them into special meals and when entertaining. More often than not, you might find the most enthusiastic responses might originate from a simple yet genius salad. BALSAMIC SYRUP, STRAWBERRY AND WATERCRESS SALAD One can find strawberry and salad greens being paired in many recipes, and for a very good reason: The combination is surprising and refreshing and the herby aromas work wonderfully with the fruity-sour strawberry taste. I feel this version elevates the virtues of the duo even higher than most recipes do. The addition of wonderfully aged balsamic vinegar works wonders to harmonize and give depth to the flavors, and the cheese and almonds contribute richness and textural contrast. In concert, they make this salad sing like few salads can.Ê 250 gr. young watercress, washed well and trimmed into individual leaves 700 gr. (or about 3 cups) strawberries, washed well, stemmed and sliced into 0.5 cm. thick slices 1 cup mascarpone cheese or creme fraiche 1/2 cup sliced almonds balsamic syrup 1 cup good quality balsamic vinegar (if possible aged 10 years or more) 1/2 minced shallots or purple onions BALSAMIC VINAIGRETTE 2 Tbsp. balsamic syrup (see instructions for preparation below) 1/4 cup good quality balsamic vinegar 1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard 2 tsp. sea salt 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper 2/3 cup olive oil 1. Make the syrup: Place the vinegar and shallots in a small saucepan over low heat and simmer until the liquids have reduced to about 1/3 cup. Towards the end, just before you reach the right reduction level, increase the heat to medium and stir constantly to avoid scorching. The higher heat will help caramelize the syrup and maximize its flavor potential. When at the right level, strain the syrup while pressing down on the shallots to release their liquids. 2. Make the Vinaigrette: Place the syrup, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper in the blender (or in a medium mixing bowl, if making by hand). Blend or whisk vigorously while gradually pouring in the oil to thicken and emulsify the dressing. Taste, season and adjust by adding more oil if too sharp and more vinegar if too mellow. 3. Toast the almonds in a skillet over medium heat. They go from pale brown to bitter-black very quickly, so make sure you stay on top of things. 4. Assembling the salad: Place the watercress in a medium mixing bowl and toss it with the vinaigrette, making sure it coats the leaves evenly in a very thin layer. Season to taste with salt and pepper and add extra dressing if it needs it. Divide the watercress among six serving plates, creating a little airy heap in each plate. 5. Place the strawberries in the mixing bowl you used for the watercress and dress with some more vinaigrette, taste and season again. Top the watercress with the strawberries, almonds, and generously dot with the mascarpone. Garnish each plate with a tiny drizzle of balsamic syrup and serve immediately.Ê PARMESAN, ORGANIC DATE AND CELERY SALAD This is classic 'fancy restaurant' fare - a handful of creative ingredients creating contrasting flavor and texture combinations that surprise and delight. Best of all, making this presentation is guaranteed to make you feel like an acclaimed chef (or at least an overworked line cook). This salad is so simple that the quality of each of its ingredients is crucial. Everything needs to be top-notch if you want to experience it the way you would in the best of restaurants. Serves 4 2 celery stalks 2/3 bunch parsley, washed and leaves picked 2 tbsp wonderful olive oil 2 tsp. high-quality aged balsamic vinegar Sea salt and black pepper 100 gr. premium Parmesan cheese 16 organic dates (preferably Medjool), pitted and quartered lengthwise 1. Wash the celery well and peel gently with a vegetable peeler. The tough fibers are right at the surface, so don't take off a thick layer. Slice thinly on the diagonal with a chef's knife. 2. Place the celery and parsley leaves in a mixing bowl. In another bowl, whisk together the oil and vinegar until the dressing turns to a lighter color and thickens somewhat. Add about 1/2 of the dressing to the celery-parsley mixture, and toss to coat. Taste and season with salt and pepper and extra dressing, if needed. 3. Use a cheese slicer or vegetable peeler to make thin slivers from of the Parmesan. To assemble: arrange 1/4 of the dates so that they are huddled together in the center of the plate. Cover with parmesan slivers and gently top with a mound of celery salad. Drizzle artfully with balsamic syrup*, if you have it. If not, use a little balsamic vinegar. Serve right away. * From the strawberry watercress recipe.