Salad days in Istanbul

Andrew McConnell is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc.

I’m often asked where I look for inspiration for my cooking. To fuel development I turn to books and am constantly researching. In the kitchen, bizarre experiments also keep me motivated. 

Sometimes, though, dishes and inspiration arise out of necessity without the usual planning.

This trout salad came about on Melbourne Cup day this year, one hour before friends were due to lunch. I’d earlier discovered that my local trusty food emporium was closed for the public holiday. The only place I found open was a small, old-school deli with limited stock. But with other contributing ingredients found hiding in the back of the fridge at home, and relying on tried flavour combinations, this salad came together as a last-minute highlight.

Travel is also a great source of inspiration. Travel influences not only the way I cook but what I choose to cook and how I cook it.

A few years back I spent some time in Istanbul, which is now a frequent reference for my cooking. It was in this Turkish city I ate a salad of boiled samphire dressed in olive oil, a little garlic and lemon. Left to marinate for most of the afternoon on the kitchen counter, this was one of the best things I have ever eaten. The spectacular view of the Bosphorus may have contributed to the moment also.

My time in Istanbul opened my eyes as a chef to the idea of flavour development through the long and slow maceration of food to bring out the best flavours. The temperature of the food was also a revelation. Serving these dishes at room temperature was an important lesson. Food – particularly cooked vegetables and seafood – served straight from the fridge is often a disappointment. 

The mussel and fennel salad recipe has developed from a marinade into a wonderful salad to share. The vegetables marinating along with the mussel juice and harissa improve as the salad sits. The flavours mingle and get to know each other.

Vegetables in Turkey are either grilled, braised, roasted, fried or boiled. They have been seasoned and dressed simply with olive oil, vinegar or lemon and left to marinate, usually at room temperature.

A most memorable meal was at a restaurant called Karaköy Lokantasi. It’s a beautiful restaurant built around an arrangement of no fewer than 30 different vegetables and fish preparations left to macerate for the afternoon in anticipation of the evening’s crush. 

To be able to casually eat a procession of tasty vegetables, many paired with seafood, left me feeling content and at the same time unusually light and healthy. In summer, this is my favourite way to eat.

1 . Cos lettuce and smoked trout salad

Serves 6-10

– 4-5 baby cos lettuces

– 2 spring onions, green tops only

– 2 smoked trout fillets

– about 4 tsp salmon roe

– pinch freshly ground black pepper

Horseradish cream

– 1 tbsp prepared horseradish

– 1 tbsp Dijon mustard

– 2 tbsp crème fraîche

– 2 tbsp thickened cream

– pinch salt

Snap off the outer leaves of the baby cos and trim the stalks. Cut them in half, or quarters if they seem a little large. Slice the onion tops into rings. Gently pull the trout apart into large flakes, removing the bones as you find them.

To make the horseradish cream, stir together all the ingredients and check the seasoning, adding a little more salt if necessary.

Place the lettuces, cut side up, down the centre of a platter and spoon some horseradish cream over the top.

Build up the salad with pieces of trout, spring onion rings, salmon roe and a little extra horseradish cream.

Sprinkle the salad with freshly ground black pepper.

2 . Fennel and mussel salad with harissa dressing

Serves 4-6

This “salad” is more consistent with a marinade. Leave the salad at room temperature for an hour before serving, tossing from time to time. A loaf of bread is useful for mopping up the remaining juices.

– 1kg mussels, cleaned

– 1 small fennel bulb

– 4 breakfast or red radishes

 Harissa dressing

– 3 tbsp mussel cooking liquid

– 1 tbsp harissa paste

– 2 tbsp olive oil

– 1 tbsp white wine vinegar

– pinch salt

Heat a saucepan over high heat, add the mussels and a splash of white wine and cover with a tight-fitting lid. After a minute, check the mussels. Take out any that have opened, give the pot a stir, replace the lid and leave for another minute. Repeat until all the mussels are open and drain them immediately, straining and reserving three tablespoons of the cooking liquid.

Remove the mussels from their shells and pinch out any wiry “beards” that remain.

Cut the fennel bulb in half lengthways and then into wedges about one-centimetre wide. Pull the wedges apart into “fingers” and set aside. Thinly slice the breakfast radishes on a diagonal.

To make the dressing, whisk together all the ingredients and season with a little more salt if necessary.

Arrange the fennel, mussels and radish slices on a plate, then spoon the dressing over the top.

Wine pairings:

2013 S. C. Pannell Aromatico, Adelaide Hills ($25) – Liam O’Brien, sommelier, Cutler & Co.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 6, 2014 as "Salad days in Istanbul".

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Andrew McConnell is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc.