taste: Leon-inspired beetroot-mackerel salad

a plate of summer color

This sweet-salty summer salad was inspired by lunch at Leon in the Blue Fin building on Southwark Street, near Tate Modern. Although the building is new, the restaurant interior looks like a converted warehouse space – cavernous but comfortable, industrial but softened up by couches and bright Mediterranean-inspired decoration (lots of design elements lifted from vintage food packaging). Leon’s aim is to become a fast-food chain that uses local and sustainable ingredients, and although its pricing makes that claim seem a little unrealistic outside the wealthier business areas of London where it’s mostly located right now, the menu is innovative and the food is fresh and distinctive.

Detailed recipes for salad seem at odds with the toss-it-all-together-because-it’s-too-hot-to-cook ethos of the meal, so what follows is more of a sketch than a blueprint for an assemblage of ingredients that you can easily tweak to your liking. I added potatoes to make this a more substantial meal, and these quantities should serve four as a main course.

1. In a saucepan of salted water, bring to the boil 2-3lb scrubbed new potatoes (6-8 per person, depending on size – of the potato, not the person) and simmer until tender but retaining some bite.

2. While the potatoes are cooking, wash four to six large handfuls of baby spinach, picking off any thick stems. Dry thoroughly and place in a large mixing bowl.

3. Thinly slice one or two radishes per person and toss those in with the spinach.

4. Drain and rinse a can of canellini or borlotti beans and add to the salad bowl.

5. Throw a handful per person of fresh or frozen peas and/or broad beans in with the potatoes as they near the end of cooking. They will only need a couple of minutes to cook, so taste to make sure they don’t get mushy (this is one place you don’t want mushy peas). Drain the potatoes and the peas/beans, and let cool a little.

6. In a bowl, jug, or screw-top jar, mix up a mild vinaigrette of olive oil, dijon mustard, red wine vinegar and sea salt, and toss the spinach leaves, potatoes, peas, beans and radishes together in the dressing. (If you do this when the potatoes are still warm, they will start to wilt the spinach leaves a bit – a good thing in my book.) Test for seasoning and set aside.

7. In a blender, purée two small cooked or pickled beets and about 5tbsp crème fraîche or soured cream until they make a brilliantly lurid pink paste. Adjust the quantities and blend well until you have a smooth, but not runny, dressing. I used sliced, pickled beetroot from a jar (I’m classy like that) but if you have fresh beets, two or three small ones boiled or roasted would make an even better basis for this dressing.

8. When you’re ready to serve the salad, pile a generous quantity of the leaves, potatoes and beans on each plate, and top with flaked smoked mackerel – one small fillet per person should be enough. Drizzle with the pink sauce in something resembling an elegant pattern, or as elegant as anything this pink can be. Tear over a small handful of fresh dill, and serve with a crisp cold wine and the extra pink sauce on the side. This fantastic combination of flavors, that I would never have thought of alone, is tempting me to buy the gorgeous Leon cookbook.

(NB – in the photo, and the original salad, there were some diced tomatoes, which I don’t think added anything to the flavor, and clashed with the pink sauce, so I omitted them from this recipe.)

seriously, look at those colors!
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