Thursday, 9 September 2010

Egg and Fennel Salad with Nasturtium-Leaf Mayonnaise

This delicious salad of boiled eggs and shaved fennel, dressed with a caper & anchovy vinaigrette and a nasturtium-leaf mayonnaise, is surprisingly light and delicate, considering how much oil and egg it contains.

Bowl by David Walters
Egg salads aren't very popular these days, no doubt because of the bad rap eggs have received in the past two cholesterol- and fat-conscious decades.

Whether the cholesterol in eggs is damaging to your health is still a matter of heated debate, and frankly I couldn't give a flying feather.

Boiled eggs are very dear to my heart because they evoke many comforting memories of childhood meals: softly cooked to golden runniness, and served with crispy toast soldiers, or hard-boiled, halved and stuffed, Fifties-style, with mashed yolk, butter, mayo and cayenne pepper.

But what about the nasturtiums, I hear you cry.  I came up with the idea for this recipe when I noticed, while pootling around Hout Bay this week, that the sidewalks are brimming with nasturtiums: green banks of tender little leaves, dotted here and there with brilliant orange and yellow flowers.  These are all garden escapees (nasturtiums are indigenous to central and South America) and although they have no business rioting all over the Cape Peninsula's sensitive floral region, I couldn't help screeching to a halt and picking several big bunches. (This, in the high-falutin' world of foodie correctness, is known as 'foraging').

I love nasturtium leaves because, like eggs, they remind me of my childhood. As a kid, I picked them, ate them, grew them from seed and - most important of all - spent happy hours marvelling at how water, when splashed on a leaf, formed a perfect silver sphere and skipped around like a bead of liquid mercury.  Apparently, nasturtium leaves repel water because they are covered with tiny nano-crystal bundles, with each bundle being about a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair.

Tiny these bundles may be, but they're not nano enough for my tender tastebuds. Nasturtium leaves may have a lovely fresh, peppery taste, but they feel unpleasantly hairy on the adult tongue. This I learned when I made the first version of this salad, which combined small whole nasturtium leaves with wedges of hard-boiled egg. So I abandoned the idea of using the whole leaves, and instead chopped them finely into a thick mayonnaise. To add crunch to the salad, I added fine shavings of fresh fennel bulbs, and a scattering of spring onions.

Some important points about this salad.  The dressing and the mayonnaise must be made at least an hour in advance, to allow the flavours to infuse.  Boil the eggs 20 to 30 minutes before you serve the salad, so that they are still tender and retain a trace of warmth. Add the spring onions (or chives) at the very last minute, or their pungency will overwhelm the other flavours.  Use eggs that are 3-4 days old, or they will not peel well.

I strained the dressing over the salad to prevent bits of anchovy and caper from flecking the eggs, but you can use it unstrained if you like. Last, this salad doesn't keep: after two or three hours in the fridge, it tastes of nothing but onion.

If you can't find nasturtium leaves, use finely chopped rocket.

Egg and Fennel Salad with Nasturtium-Leaf Mayonnaise
12 eggs
3 small bulbs of fresh fennel
2 spring onions, very finely chopped, or a handful of snipped chives
a few sprigs from the top of the fennel
a few fresh nasturtium leaves and flowers, to garnish

For the dressing:
1 very small clove of garlic (or a third of a big clove)
2 small anchovy fillets, from a tin or bottle
2 tsp (10 ml) capers
a pinch of Hot English Mustard Powder
a pinch of white sugar
freshly milled pepper
3 T (45 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
5 T (60 ml) extra virgin olive oil, or a mixture of olive oil and light vegetable oil

For the nasturtium mayonnaise:
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1 tsp t (5 ml) flaky sea salt
200 ml light vegetable oil (such as sunflower or canola oil, or any other flavourless oil)
100 ml good olive oil
1 cup (250 ml, loosely packed) fresh nasturtium leaves
the juice of a large lemon (about 2 T/30 ml)
freshly milled black pepper

First make the dressing. Put the garlic, anchovies, capers, mustard powder and sugar into a mortar and grind to a rough paste. Stir in the lemon juice, and then whisk in the oils.  Season with pepper (but no salt, as the anchovy fillets are salty enough). Set aside and allow to stand for an hour.  

Now make the mayonnaise. Put the two egg yolks into a small bowl and add the salt. Mix the vegetable oil and olive oil in a small jug, or put them in a plastic squeezy bottle with a nozzle. Using a rotary beater or whisk, beat the egg yolks and salt for a minute.  Now, as you whisk the egg yolks with one hand, dribble a little splash of oil onto the yolks with the other hand.  Keep whisking and dribbling, a few drops at a time, until the mixture begins to thicken rather dramatically. Now add the rest of the oil in a steady stream, beating all the time until the mayonnaise is thick and creamy. (Detailed instructions here).  

Finely chop the nasturtium leaves and stir them into the mayonnaise along with the lemon juice. Season with pepper and more salt, if necessary.  Cover, set aside and allow to stand for an hour. 

Half an hour before serving the salad, hard-boil the eggs. It doesn't matter how you do this (every cook has their own theory about how to make and peel a perfect hard-boiled egg; if you don't, please refer to Delia Smith's careful instructions).  What does matter is that the white is firm, and that the yolks are just cooked through, with not a sign of glassiness.  Drain off the boiling water and run cold tap water over the eggs until they are just warm to the touch.  Set them aside for ten minutes.

In the meantime, prepare the fennel. Trim the stalks and leaves off the bulbs, and cut each one into quarters. Chip out the hard pulpy core at the centre of each quarter.  Using a mandolin or a very sharp knife, cut each quarter vertically into fine slices. 

Peel the eggs and cut them length-ways  into quarters or eighths. Arrange the egg quarters and fennel slices on a flat salad platter.  Strain the dressing through a sieve or tea-strainer into a bowl, pressing down well with the back of a spoon to extract all the anchovy and caper flavours.  Drizzle just enough of the dressing over the salad to lightly coat the eggs and fennel.  Scatter with the spring onions or chives. Finely chop a few of the fine, feathery fennel tops and sprinkle them over the salad.  Decorate the platter with fresh nasturtium leaves and flowers. Serve immediately, with the nasturtium mayonnaise on the side. 

Serves 6
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Steve said...

Wow. That's inspired. Time for a nasturtium cull.

(And one of the best-ever pics on your blog)

OT: your 'short, nasty and brutish' tweet was hysterical. Who better to quote Hobbes?

Nina Timm said...

I could gobble that salad up in no time at all, never mond the cholesterol!! Love the whole idea or the peppery nasturtiums qith the creamy egg and mayo. Brilliant!

Marisa said...

Lovely photo and a very creative salad. This looks like just the thing to serve at a ladies lunch and everyone would think you were super fancy. Love the flower-y touch. said...

thank you for the tip about the age of eggs to make peeling easier - I did not know that. I have recently planted some nasturtiums, so will have to wait out for this recipe.

Maryon said...

What a scrummy lunch this would make!I will have to wait until next summer for nasturtiums-ours are beyond all hope now that autumn is upon us.
This is one of your best pics you have done.

The Chef-ette said...


This looks delicious! I must have it! Agree with Marisa, would work beautifully at a ladies lunch

Nicola said...

I recently bought a little nasturtium plant in the hopes the it will grow big and strong so I can do all sorts of fun culinary things with it's flowers and leaves. Going to add this salad to my to-make list.

Oxana said...

Che bella foto e bella insalata! Brava!
Un bacione

gaby866 said...

Just love the combination of the flavours of egg, anchovy and capers ! such a classic !and adding nasturtiums.. brilliant idea !

Asha @ FSK said...

oh! such a beautifl plate!! I don't even like boiled eggs but that photo wants me to clean it out!

Anonymous said...

I have just discovered this totally delightful site. What an inspiration! I grow a bed of nasturtiums every year for the sake of nostalgia and food! Every week I pick the green seeds and blanch them in some boiling water and use leftover peppadew vinegar to keep them. Yum Of course the leaves and flowers are a nutritious and decorative addition to any salad

Juno said...

Thank you very much Anonymous (all all the earlier commenters). I am so glad that someone else feels nostalgic about nasturtiums! I haven't tried pickling green nasturtium seeds but I'm keen to try because I luurrrve capers