Walnuts are commonly included in French salads, their gentle butter-sweet taste marrying well with equally sweet, slightly acidic tastes, such as blue cheese, fresh cabécou [goat’s cheese], pear, figs and beetroot, and able to hold their own against robust bitter and peppery salad leaves [chicory, rocket, watercress and endive]. For the best flavour, they should always be roasted or fried to intensify the flavour [and improve texture]. They should be roasted at low temperatures, 140-160C. to avoid scorching. Walnut halves are best for presentation in salads, but coarsely chopped nuts can also be used, as well as walnut oil in the dressing to further enhance the walnut flavour.
WALNUT, CHESTNUT AND PANCETTA SALAD
400 gm fresh chestnuts
½ ficelle, cut into 5mm thick slices
1 clove of garlic, bruised
40 gm butter, melted
150 gm pancetta, finely chopped
½ tsp fennel seeds
100 gm walnut halves
1 celery heart, thinly sliced width ways
2 red or yellow witlof, trimmed and leaves separated
2 heads of baby endive, trimmed, washed, dried and torn
¼ cup walnut oil
1/2 tbsp aged red wine vinegar
1. Cut a cross into the top of each chestnut, then place in a hot char-grill pan and cook, turning, for 10-15 minutes over medium heat or until skins are burst and charred, and flesh soft. Cool slightly, but while still hot, peel away shells, then skin.
2. Rub bread slices on one side with garlic, brush lightly on both sides with butter, then toast both sides under a hot grill until golden.
3. Heat a heavy-based frying pan until hot, add pancetta and cook, tossing over high heat for 5 minutes or until golden. Add fennel seeds, walnuts and chestnuts and cook, tossing until lightly toasted.
4. Place celery heart, witlof and endive in a large bowl, then scatter with chestnuts and walnut mixture. In another bowl, whisk together oil and vinegar, season to taste with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, drizzle with dressing and toss gently to combine. Serve salad immediately divided among bowls with croutons.
* For a walnut, spinach, bacon and pear salad, cook 3 rashers of coarsely chopped bacon without fat in a non-stick frying pan until golden, then add 1 tbsp walnut oil, 1 finely chopped shallot and 100gm walnut halves and toss over medium heat until walnuts are toasted. Whisk together 1 tsp Dijon mustard, ¼ cup walnut oil and 1½ tbsp aged white wine vinegar. Place 150gm baby spinach leaves, 50gm baby rocket leaves and 2 cored and thinly sliced packham pears in a bowl, drizzle with dressing and toss gently to combine. Serve salad topped with thin slivers of shaved pecorino.
* For a Thai-style pork and walnut salad, toss 100gm walnuts in icing sugar, then shallow-fry with 1 clove of garlic, in vegetable oil, until walnuts are golden and caramelised. Marinate pork fillet in vegetable oil, soy sauce, finely chopped lemongrass, garlic, fish sauce, a little sugar and finely chopped fresh, small, red chillies. Char-grill pork, turning for 10 minutes or until tender, then cool and thinly slice on the diagonal. Toss pork slices with thinly shredded Chinese cabbage, finely chopped green onion, torn mint and coriander leaves and caramelised walnuts. Dress salad with a dressing made with finely chopped red chilli, lime juice, fish sauce and peanut oil.