There is a moment, in deepest summer, when I wonder if I couldn’t just live on melon. Wedges of cantaloupe tucked under folds of San Daniele ham; a slice of the now unfashionable green-fleshed honeydew for breakfast; plate after plate of ice-cold watermelon with feta. Melon makes a cooling summer gazpacho with tomatoes and basil, and I sometimes serve it as dessert in a chilled syrup made with elderflower cordial and lemon verbena.
The salad I have served twice this week is the classic version with watermelon and feta, but with pumpkin seeds and whole leaves of high-summer basil. The warm pepperiness of the basil is good with the chilled melon, the pumpkin seeds a pleasing crunch with the salty feta.
It’s all well and good as a side dish with squid from the grill, but if I am making salad for lunch, then there must be a substantial offering, too. This time a chicken version with white-tipped radishes, sprouting seeds, watercress, couscous and harissa. You could make it with leftover roast chicken, but I poached the bird from scratch in with herbs and vegetables and then used the resulting stock to plump up the grains of couscous. A tiny detail, but one that makes the couscous much more interesting.
Chicken couscous salad
My rule with any couscous salad is that there must, absolutely must, be twice the volume of herbs, fruit and vegetables as couscous. The more parsley, tomatoes, sprouted seeds, radishes etc the better. And I do use the instant variety of couscous, not merely to wind up the purists, but because life is too short not to.
For the chicken:
chicken breasts 2 on the bone
chicken leg 1, large, whole
chicken wings 6
carrots 2, medium
leeks 2, small
onions 1, large
thyme 6 sprigs
parsley 8 stalks
celery 1 stick
water 2 litres
For the couscous:
boiling stock 200ml from cooking the chicken
fine couscous 100g
cherry tomatoes 15
harissa paste 1 tsp
runny honey 1 tsp
sprouting chickpeas 75g
sprouting mung beans 75g
parsley 30g (weight with stalks)
lettuce leaves a few large ones, to finish
For the dressing:
olive oil 4 tbsp
sherry vinegar 1 tbsp
runny honey 1 tsp
Put the chicken breasts, legs and wings in a large, deep saucepan. Scrub then roughly chop the carrot, wash the leeks thoroughly, making sure no grit is trapped between its layers, then add to the pan together with the carrots. Peel the onions, cut in half and add to the chicken with the thyme, parsley stalks and the stick of celery. Add the tomatoes, whole, then pour the water over and bring to the boil.
When the water is boiling, lower the heat so the liquid bubbles only gently, then leave it to simmer for an hour. Remove the pan from the heat, let the chicken cool in its stock, then remove the meat from the legs and breasts. (The wings have done their work.) You can slide most of the meat from the bones with your fingers. Cut or tear the meat into large pieces and set aside in a cool place.
Bring 200ml of the chicken stock to the boil. Put the couscous in a bowl and pour over the hot stock. Cover with a plate while you make the salad.
Cut the cherry tomatoes in half, put them in a small bowl and toss them with the harissa paste and the honey. Put the sprouted chickpeas and mung beans in a colander and rinse thoroughly in cold water, then shake them dry and put them in a large mixing bowl. Wash the watercress thoroughly and shake dry and remove tough stems. Roughly chop the leaves from the parsley. Toss the watercress and parsley with the sprouted chickpeas and mung beans, then the reserved chicken and the tomatoes and their dressing. Thinly slice the radishes.
Run a fork through the couscous to separate the grains and add, together with the radishes, to the other ingredients. Mix together all the ingredients for the dressing with a little salt. Pour the dressing over the salad and gently toss everything together. Pile on to a serving plate – if you wish, lined with salad leaves.
Watermelon, peach, feta and toasted seeds
Chill the watermelon thoroughly. I cannot emphasise this enough. I used white peaches here, but it is just as good with any variety, as long as whatever you use is ripe and sweet – a contrast to the crispness of the chilled watermelon and the salty feta. Serves 4
watermelon 1.2kg, chilled
sesame seeds 2 tsp
pumpkin seeds 30g
feta cheese 200g
basil leaves 15
olive oil 2 tbsp
red wine vinegar 1 tbsp
white peaches 4, small
Remove the rind from the watermelon. Cut the flesh into thick slices (about 5mm). Using the point of a knife, pick out as many of the seeds as you can, taking care not to crush the watermelon. Return the melon to the fridge.
In a dry, shallow pan over a moderate heat, toast the sesame seeds until golden. (They burn in a heartbeat, so keep an eye on them.) Tip them into a bowl and add the pumpkin seeds. You can chop these if you like, as they are fairly large, but I like them whole. Crumble the feta cheese among the seeds, then add the basil leaves. Pour in the olive oil and the red wine vinegar and a grinding of black pepper (no salt).
Cut the peaches in half, remove their stones, then slice each half into 3 or 4 pieces. Add to the dressing. Arrange the pieces of chilled watermelon on a serving dish, then spoon over the feta, peaches and herbs.
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