We’ve recently been inundated with bread (more on that in Wednesday’s waste post) and as a result it’s been an imperative that I devise meals incorporating it in ways other than a conventional ol sarnie. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing at fault with a good sandwich, but there are only so many days in a row you can have one for dinner without going a little insane. Last night’s venture involved transforming a few innocent slices of bread into herby, garlicky, crispy croutons. Paired with creamy avocado, cubes of smoked cheese, peppery rocket, sweet, luscious tomatoes, chunks of roasted pumpkin and crunchy pepitas, they evolved into a salad highly suited to a scorching hot evening. I’m all about balancing healthiness (the whole salad thing covers that base pretty well) with indulgence, and the balsamic-maple dressing gave this salad the finishing touch – sweet, tangy and rich, yet not in-your-face over the top.
It goes without saying that quality of your salad heavily depends on that of each individual ingredient (and a little lovin’ of course). I’d taken a trip to the local farmers market earlier in the day, where amongst other things I picked up cherry tomatoes the size of golf balls, a Japanese pumpkin with insanely orange flesh and perfectly ripe avocados. It was a no brainer to make a salad out of such fresh, and funky looking, ingredients. If you can’t find Japanese pumpkin (I simply used it because it looked to be in better nick than the other varieties), Butternut Squash would work just as well. Oh, and for optimum flavour leave your tomatoes and avocado out of the fridge – they’ll be far more tasty if served at room temperature. Trust me.
I’d never actually made croutons before and after some extensive research it appeared that sourdough bread was the way to go (I currently have a million different types of bread in the freezer, so wasn’t lacking in choices). However, I decided to try a mixture of that and some standard, well that’s not entirely accurate – it was the thick variety, sandwich bread, just for curiosities sake. And it’s a good thing I did, as everyone was far more impartial to the latter. The sourdough produced quite rough and verging on too dry croutons, and I don’t know about you but I’m far more likely to have bog standard bread floating around, as compared to fancier (and more expensive) sourdough!
The quantities of pumpkin and bread below will make a tad more than necessary for four serves of salad, however I can guarantee you’ll find a way to use up the left overs! On a parting note, you’re at liberty to add thinly sliced red onion if you so wish. I’m one of those people who always end up picking it out (I was coerced into including it) – does anyone else find that it gives you stinky onion breath for hours afterwards? But hey, if you like that sort of thing, feel free to go all out with it. I won’t hold it against you. Well, not for long anyway.
Crunchy Tomato, Pumpkin, Smoked Cheese & Avocado Salad
650g Japanese Pumpkin, peeled, deseeded and cut into bite sized pieces
3 tbsp olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
200g white bread (sourdough, ciabatta or thick toast), cut into 3cm cubes
1 sprig rosemary, leaves removed and finely chopped
¼ tsp garlic powder
2 tbsp pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
500g cherry tomatoes, halved (or if golf ball sized, quartered)
1 avocado, pitted, peeled and thinly sliced lengthways
150g smoked cheese, cut into 1.5cm cubes
½ red onion, thinly sliced (optional)
120g baby spinach and rocket
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp maple syrup
Freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 200C. Smear a large baking tray with one tablespoon of the olive oil. Tip in the pumpkin pieces and toss to coat in oil. Give a good grind of salt and pepper. Bake for 15minutes or until just tender when tested with a skewer. Set the baking tray on a wire rack and leave to cool.
While the pumpkin is cooking, throw the pepitas into a small dry frying pan and cook over a medium to high heat for 2 minutes or until they begin to pop. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside – they will carry on cooking if you leave them in the pan.
Reduce the temperature of the oven to 175C. In a large bowl whisk together the remaining 2 tbsp olive oil, the rosemary and the garlic powder, with a little extra salt. Chuck in the cubed bread and use your hands to mix well. You won’t be able to coat every cube of bread – just give it a really good mix around and that will be sufficient! Spread the bread cubes out on a baking sheet and bake for approximately 15 minutes or until crispy. Check every five minutes or so to ensure the croutons aren’t browning too quickly – toss if necessary. Remove and set on a wire rack to cool.
Meanwhile, divide the spinach & rocket between four bowls. Top each pile of greens with ¼ of the sliced avocado, cherry tomatoes and smoked cheese. Sprinkle with a ¼ of the pepitas and the sliced onion if you wish.
Prepare the dressing by placing all ingredients in a small screw top jar and shaking well to emulsify.
Once the pumpkin and croutons have cooled to room temperature (takes about 15 – 20 minutes), divide between the four bowls. Drizzle with the maple-balsamic dressing and serve!
Source: Adapted from Sam Stern’s Get Cooking