Friday 30 March 2012

Champ with Chives and Garlic

I always watch MasterChef from the comfort of my own squashy couch, safe from the scrutiny of scary judges or ogling cameras, and yet I can’t help feeling a moment of slight panic whenever I consider what I’d make with a particular ingredient. It’s difficult to imagine how nerve-racking it must feel to be an actual contestant, to have to make a choice within minutes, and then to have to cook the dish in a ridiculously short period of time.

[This is the second in a series of recipes I've developed for Woolworths' revamped cookery-inspiration platform The Pantry, which has just been launched to tie in with their food sponsorship of the much-anticipated first series of MasterChef South Africa.]

I felt the same sense of mild alarm when presented with this week’s Woolies Pantry ingredient: potatoes. My first impulse was to come up with a complex dish that would wow the judges of an imaginary tasting panel with its cheeky flavour combinations. This is certainly the path I would have taken when I was an inexperienced cook and eager to impress my friends and family with what I thought was clever, edgy cooking. But then I sat back on my heels, metaphorically speaking, and considered the potato.  Potatoes, to my mind, are the ultimate comfort food.  They are dearly beloved by millions of people the world over, and mostly in their simplest forms: baked, mashed, fried and slow-cooked to fall-aparty goodness in stews, soups and curries. After some thought, I decided that if my imaginary judges really appreciated good ingredients, they’d surely like potatoes plainly presented in all their humble glory. So here, I give you potatoes in the honest form I love the most, and one that has been my favourite comfort food since I was a small girl: smoothly mashed with a scandalous amount of butter and cream, piping hot, and topped with a cold block of salty butter.

This is my version of the classic Irish dish champ (similar to colcannon, but with some refinement), which I’ve given a kick in the pants with garlic and chives.This recipe epitomises how I feel about good, fresh ingredients: do as little at you can to them, and let their essential character sparkle on the plate. Or in the bowl, in this case.

Champ with Chives and Garlic 
6 large floury potatoes
water to cover
a bunch of spring onions [scallions]
200 g salted butter
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
2/3 cup (160 ml) cream
a little hot milk
salt and white pepper
4 T (60 ml) finely snipped French chives
a few extra cubes of cold butter, for topping

Cut the potatoes in half crossways and cook them, in their skins, in plenty of boiling salted water for 25-30 minutes, or until very tender, but not yet falling apart. In the meantime, finely slice the white and pale green parts of the spring onions. Heat the butter in a frying pan, add the spring onions and cook very gently, over a medium-low heat, for 3-4 minutes, or until the onions are just soft. Stir in the garlic and cook for another minute or so, without letting the garlic or onions brown.

Drain the potatoes in a colander and leave them to dry out for 3 minutes. Put the potatoes back into the still-hot pot and set over a low heat. Now, using a potato ricer (see Cook’s Notes) or masher, mash them with the cream until very smooth. Add the buttery spring onion mixture and just enough hot milk to form a creamy, fluffy mash.  Season with plenty of salt and a few pinches of white pepper.  Pile the hot mash into a serving dish (or into individual bowls) and scatter over the chopped chives.  Make a few indentations in the mash, add a cube of butter to each, and take to the table piping hot.

Serves 4 as a main dish, 6 as a side serving.

Cook's Notes

  • You can get away with preparing a dish of such simplicity as a main course, but it needs to be perfect: absolutely smooth mash, not a speck of burned onion or garlic, and brought to the table fresh and hot.
  • The secret to very creamy, fluffy mash is to use the right sort of potato (buy spuds that are specifically labelled as good for mashing) and to use a potato ricer. These are affordable (look for them in kitchen shops) and they remove every little lurking lump from the mash. Alternatively, you can use an old-fashioned mouli, or push the mash (before you add the onions) through a metal sieve, using the back of a spoon.
  • Don’t overheat the mash in the pan, or beat it too furiously, or put it in a blender or food processor, as it might become gluey.
  • The amount of milk you add to the potatoes will depend on their age and variety. Add the milk a little at a time, until you are satisfied with the consistency of the mash.
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Tuesday 27 March 2012

Rainbow Trout en Papillote with Lemon and Herbs

I always have several rolls of baking paper in my kitchen drawer, and use it with great abandon because it's so versatile and convenient.

I use it to line cake tins and roasting dishes, to make little piping bags, to cover chopping boards, and to cut out cartouches for covering the surface of gravies, sauces and slow-seething onions.

I always carve up roasts on a piece of folded-up-at-the-edges baking paper (so I can gather the juices and any gooey bits and scrape them into the gravy), and I often use it in place of tin foil to cover a dish that is to be slow-cooked (I wet the paper first, then tie it in place with string).

My favourite use for parchment paper, however, is for making paper parcels in which to cook vegetables, chicken and fish (and sometimes even fruit and chocolate).  I love the crackling promise of a baked parcel, and the fragrant cloud that billows upwards as you gingerly tear open the paper to reveal the steamy treasures within.

Ingredients that cook in a fairly short space of time are ideally suited to being baked en papillote: tiny potatoes, baby or julienned vegetables, whole fish and fish fillets, boneless chicken breasts and all sorts of shellfish. A few judiciously chosen flavours are really all that is needed to bring out the best in ingredients so simply steamed with their own juices: a dab of butter, a lick of olive oil, some wine or stock or lemon juice, a few herbs, and salt and pepper. Here, I've used a single slice of lemon to infuse a fillet of beautiful fresh rainbow trout with its citrussy perfume, plus a little olive oil and a tablespoon of chopped fresh herbs.

The only really important thing when baking food en papillote is to make sure you create a tight seal at the edges of the parcel. Although you can cut out any shape you desire, it's easiest to cut the paper into a large circle or oval, then to fold it in half over the filling to make a half-moon. Starting at one edge of the semi-circle, make a series of small overlapping pleats to the halfway mark. Do the same on the other side, then fold up the flap of paper where the two seams join and secure it with a paper clip (see photograph, below).  

Once the parcels are baked, take them to the table immediately, while they are all puffy (warm your plates first in the oven, and make sure you have any accompaniments -  such as sauces, bread or spuds - all ready to go).

Rainbow Trout en Papillote with Lemon and Herbs
4 fillets fresh rainbow trout, skin on or off, as you please
1 Tbsp (15 ml) finely chopped dill
2 Tbsp (30 ml) finely snipped French chives
2 Tbps (30 ml) finely chopped curly parsley
salt and milled black pepper
a little extra-virgin olive oil
2 thin slices lemon, each cut in half to form 4 half-moons

Heat the oven to 180 ºC and place a baking sheet in it to heat for at least 10 minutes. Cut out four large circles of greaseproof baking paper. Place a fillet of trout, skin-side down, on each one. Mix the herbs together, divide into four equal portions and scatter over the top of the fillets. Top each fillet with a lemon half-circle, season well with salt and pepper and sprinkle with a teaspoon or two of olive oil. Seal the edges of the paper parcels as described above, and secure with a paper clip. Slide the parcels onto the hot baking sheet. Bake for 10-15 minutes, depending on the size of your fillets (the small one in the picture above took exactly 12 minutes).  Serve immediately, with boiled new potatoes and a green salad.

Serves 4.  Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Gin-Cured Gravadlax with Crisped Capers

Here's the first in a series of recipes I've developed for Woolworths' revamped cookery-inspiration platform The Pantrywhich has just been launched to tie in with their food sponsorship of the much-anticipated first series of Master Chef South Africa.

Gin-Cured Gravadlax with Crisped Capers
I'm excited to have been asked to be one of four official Woolies food bloggers for this reality TV series, and I hope you'll enjoy the recipes I'll be presenting once a fortnight over the next few months. (Note: I have been paid by Woolworths for these recipes: see footnote.)

This is a different version of my Gravadlax Tartare, using chives in the curing mix in place of the ubiquitous dill.

The chives give the salmon a delicate oniony note, but you of course can use dill, or any other herb you fancy.

It’s my guess that many of the cooks who didn’t make it through the first round of MasterChef auditions were marked down by the judges because their recipes lacked the interesting flavours so essential in a dish that is to be presented chilled. Putting together a cold dish with sensational tastes and textures is not as effortless as it may seem: with a hot dish, you at least have belly-comforting warmth on your side, so you can get away with less-than-thrilling flavours. Cold dishes, on the other hand, tend to numb the tastebuds slightly, so their flavours (and especially their seasoning) need to be a little more assertive.

This clean-tasting Scandinavian dish of cured fresh salmon is very easy to make at home in your fridge over the course of a day or so. Serve it plainly sliced with brown bread, butter and lemon wedges, or add a few interesting accompaniments, as I have done in the recipe below. You can slice this into thin leaves, or chop it finely as you would a salmon tartare, and serve it in a mound. Top-grade fresh salmon is expensive, granted, but there’s no need to buy whole fillets: this works just as well with two small salmon steaks if you’re serving four people.

Gravadlax is usually made with fresh dill, and sometimes vodka, but I use French chives because my family don’t like the aniseed character of dill, and gin because I love its distinctive juniper-berry taste (and, okay, because there’s always a bottle of it in my cupboard, and not always a full one, I might add).

Gin-Cured Salmon Gravadlax with Crisped Capers

2 fillets fresh salmon, skin on, weighing about 700 g
4 t (20 ml) coarse or flaky sea salt
1 T (15 ml) black peppercorns
4 t (20 ml) white granulated sugar
a large bunch of French chives (or fresh dill)
1 t (5 ml) finely grated fresh lemon zest
4 T (60 ml) dry gin

To serve:
3 T (45 ml) small capers, rinsed and drained
sunflower oil for frying the capers
fresh herb sprigs
8 bottled caperberries (optional)
a little olive oil
milled black pepper
½ cup (125 ml) home-made mayonnaise or crème fraîche
lemon wedges

Remove the pin bones from the salmon and cut away the dark blood-line. Place a fillet, skin-side down, on a large sheet of clingfilm. Using a mortar and pestle, grind the salt, peppercorns and sugar to a coarse powder and sprinkle it all over the salmon fillet. Finely chop half the bunch of chives (or dill, if you’re using it) and spread over the fillet. Sprinkle with the lemon zest and 2 tablespoons of gin. Place the other salmon piece flesh-side down on top.

Wrap the parcel tightly in clingfilm and weigh down.
Wrap the parcel tightly in clingfilm and, using a toothpick, prick the packet in a few places, top and bottom, so the liquid can drain away.  Place in a shallow dish and put a weight (a brick is ideal, or use tins from the cupboard) on top.

Refrigerate for 12 hours, then turn the parcel over, weigh it down again, and cure for a further 12 hours. Unwrap the parcel, remove the chives and wipe off the curing spices. Sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons of gin over the lower fillet, cover the remaining chopped fresh chives, replace the top fillet, wrap in new clingfilm and refrigerate, under a weight, for another 12 hours (up to 36).

To serve, remove the chives and curing spices and pat the fish dry with kitchen paper. Using a very sharp knife held parallel to the fish, cut delicate leaves. (Alternatively, you can strip away the skin and finely chop the flesh to serve it tartare-style, in a mound).  Don't add any lemon juice, as this will 'cook' the fish. Arrange the gravadlax slices on a platter and cover with clingfilm.

Pat the capers quite dry on kitchen paper and heat the oil in a frying pan. When the oil is very hot, drop them, a few at a time, into the hot oil and fry until they open up like the petals of a flower and are very crisp. Drain on kitchen paper and cool completely.

Scatter the fried capers over the salmon slices and add the herb sprigs and drained caperberries. Sprinkle with a little olive oil and grind over plenty of black pepper.  Serve the crème fraiche or mayonnaise in a separate bowl, or dollop it over the top.  Pass around a dish of lemon wedges and a basket of fresh, soft brown bread.

Serves 6-8 as a starter. 

Cook's Notes
  • You can prepare your gravadlax up to 3 days in advance, but slice it no more than an hour before you serve it, and keep the slices covered with clingfilm. 
  • For best results, buy the best-quality salmon you can afford. Second-rate or less-than-fresh salmon has an inferior texture that won’t hold up to the curing process. 
  • Ring the changes by adding some interesting flavours to the curing mix: crushed juniper berries, pink peppercorns, coriander seeds, rum, whisky, grated raw beetroot, and so on. 
  • How about a Thai-spiced gravadlax? Add lemongrass, ginger, lime zest, fresh coriander and a few drops of fish sauce to the curing paste (but don’t add any garlic, which will trample all over the delicate flavour of the salmon). 


When Woolies invited me to be one of their official bloggers on their new My Pantry platform, I had to wring my hands while I considered the implications. I've never allowed any branding or advertising on this site (and the little banner on the top right of this page marks my first departure from this policy).  On the other hand, this was an opportunity I could not resist: the chance to hook on to what I believe will become one of the most successful reality TV series ever aired in South Africa.  My hand-wringing went on for hours about a minute and half, and then I said yes, because I'm proud to associate this blog with both Woolworths and the MasterChef franchise.

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Tuesday 13 March 2012

Low-Carb Pea and Pea Shoot Salad with Bacon & Eggs

Pea shoots, with their delicate tendrils and beautiful leaves, are often used by chefs to dolly up plates of food (often to no avail, I'm afraid) but they have a wonderful fresh-pea taste and deserve to be eaten on their own as a salad leaf.

Low-Carb Pea and Pea Shoot Salad with Bacon & Eggs. Plate by David Walters

They're now available in South Africa, in season, at better supermarkets,  and you can also occasionally find them at farmers' markets.

This double-pea salad uses frozen peas thawed in boiling water; use fresh peas by all means, but they never taste as sweet and delicious as top-quality frozen ones.

Some very crisp thick-cut bacon cubes, a wobbly poached egg and a plain dressing of lemon juice and olive oil all add up to a most satisfying dish.  If you can't find thick-cut bacon, use smoked pork rashers. This is also good with frizzled Parma ham.

Please don't be put off the idea of poaching eggs: it's really very easy. The most important thing, in my opinion, is that you use very fresh eggs.  Elderly eggs have thin whites that don't hold their shape. To test whether your egg is fresh enough to poach well, break one onto a plate. The white should be viscous, and the yolk must perch proudly on top, at a slight height. If the yolk is flat and the white spreads out on the plate, buy fresher eggs.

Keep the water at a gentle simmer (that means a slow burble, with some busy little bubbles) and make a gentle whirlpool in the water with a spoon before you slip in the egg. Break it into a teacup first so you can pour it easily into the centre of the vortex. If you're not confident this will work, poach your eggs in clingfilm purses.  If you can't find pea shoots, use any dark green leaf.

This needs to be made at the very last minute, as pea shoots bruise quickly and wilt fast under a dressing.

Pea and Pea Shoot Salad with Bacon & Eggs

2 cups (500 ml) frozen peas
boiling water
2 tsp (10 ml) white vinegar
1 Tbsp sunflower oil
6 thick-cut bacon rashers, cubed
4 fresh extra-large free range eggs
2 punnets fresh pea shoots (or enough for 4 people)

For the dressing:
3 Tbsp (45 ml) fresh lemon juice
1 tsp (5 ml) Dijon mustard
a pinch of white sugar
flaky sea salt and milled black pepper
80 ml extra-virgin olive oil

First make the dressing. Put the lemon juice, mustard, sugar and a pinch of salt into a small bowl. Stir until the salt and sugar have dissolved, then whisk in the olive oil to form a smooth emulsion. Season with more salt if necessary, and some milled black pepper. Reserve.

Cover the peas with boiling water from the kettle, let them stand for a minute or two, or until thawed, then drain and reserve.

Now get the pot ready for poaching the eggs. Half-fill a deep saucepan with boiling water and set it on the stove at a slow simmer. Add the vinegar.

Heat the oil in a pan and fry the bacon cubes until crisp. While the bacon is frying, poach the eggs. It's easiest to do this one at a time. Break each egg into a teacup, make a whirlpool (see above) and slip it gently into the middle of the pan. Poach for 3 minutes, depending on the size of your egg, or until the white is cooked and the yolk is still quite runny. Don't poke the eggs or stir the water, and don't worry if the water looks cloudy. If your egg is fresh, it will form a good shape. Remove with a slotted spoon, place on a warm plate and cover while you poach the remaining eggs.

Drain the bacon on kitchen paper. Arrange the pea shoots on four plates, sprinkle over the peas and bacon, and top each one with a warm poached egg. Pass the dressing round in a separate jug.

If you like, you can add the lemon juice to the hot fat left in the bacon pan, let it bubble for 30 seconds, then continue making the dressing.

Serves 4.

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Friday 9 March 2012

Ten top tips for making memorable soup, and MasterChefSA blogging

My Roast Ratatouille Soup with Basil Mayonnaise
There's an agreeable crispness in the air in the mornings here in Cape Town, a sure sign that autumn's on its way. Never mind Keats's season of mists and mellow fruitfulness; all I'm really looking forward to is making and eating more soup. The older I get, the more I enjoy soup, and during winter often have a bowl of it for breakfast - I think of it as a sort of hot smoothie. But making a really good, well-textured, flavour-packed soup does require some effort, and I hope you'll find my top tips for memorable soup (below) useful.

Before we get to them, though, some news. It's been a very busy six or seven months here at Scrumptious HQ, and with so much freelance work on my plate I've not had the time to compile my usual newsletters (each one takes me up to a week to put together, and I haven't had a single one of those to spare!). I hope to resume sending you them as soon as the dust settles.

I recently joined hopping Cape Town digital agency Liquorice as a social media strategist. In another exciting development, I've been appointed one of four official bloggers for Woolworths, who are a main sponsor of MasterChef South Africa. This action-packed reality show starts in South Africa on 20 March, and I am certain that it's going to cause a sensation when it airs: there's already much talk and speculation in social media circles. You can follow MasterChef on Twitter at @MasterChefSA  (and the hashtag #MasterChefSA), and Woolies at @WOOLWORTHS_SA A link to my Twitter profile is on the top right of this page.

Now to the important business of making soup.

It’s an old-fashioned notion that soups need to be boiled for hours. Good stocks certainly require slow simmering, but many soups need less than 25 minutes’ bubbling after the initial softening of aromatics such as onions, leeks, carrots, celery, garlic, and so on. A speedy cooking time helps to preserve the colour and vibrancy of fresh ingredients.

Soups should never cook at a furious boil. A gentle, rolling, burbling boil – a notch above a simmer – is ideal. Take time to skim the foam off soups as it rises.

Cream of Watercress Soup with Wobbly Eggs
Cream of Watercress Soup with Wobbly Eggs
Some of the heartier soups (as with many stews, casseroles and curries) improve enormously on standing: their flavours mellow and mature as the ingredients have time to mingle. Meaty soups, spicy soups and soups made with pulses are often tastier the next day, so feel confident making them in advance if you're cooking for a crowd. Lively vegetable soups that don't require long simmering should be served on the same day they're made.

Invest in a good-quality stick blender. Stick blenders have a huge advantage over liquidisers and food processors in that you don’t need to remove the soup from the pot when the time comes to purée it, so there are fewer things to wash up and a lot less mess. A powerful modern stick blender can quickly produce a very fine purée – finer, in fact, than one produced by liquidisers and food processors, which can be reluctant and often need stirring or scraping down during the blending process.

A soup – or a stock – is only as good as its component parts. Avoid the temptation to use supermarket ‘soup packs’ or ready-chopped bags of vegetables. Soup packs often contain unimpressive specimens of vegetables left over from the supermarket packaging process, while ready-chopped vegetable cubes have such an enormous combined surface area that they quickly turn slimy in the fridge. Take the time to hand-pick the best, freshest, snappiest ingredients.  When it comes to deep flavours, there is nothing quite like a good home-made stock.  Although not every fine soup requires a stock, they do add body and complexity, and it really is worth taking the time to make them -  even a quick stock made with six chicken wings and a few well-chosen aromatics is better than no stock at all (or, worse, a salty stock cube).  Here's my recipe for a chicken stock that's partly made in the oven.

When seasoning a soup with salt and pepper, always do so judiciously, adding a pinch at a time. You or your guests can always add more seasoning to a soup, but an over-salted soup cannot be rescued. Not even with slices of raw potato, as many older cookbooks advise.

Many soups are improved by a squeeze of lemon juice added just before serving; this little spritz of acid can really lift a soup that’s punching below its weight. The same applies to cream - even a few tablespoons can magically mellow and bring together the flavours of a soup.

Chakalaka Soup with Little Boerewors Balls
My Chakalaka Soup with Little Boerewors Balls
If your soup seems too thick, thin it down with a little hot water, stock or (in the case of creamy white soups) milk. If it’s too watery, put a tablespoon or two of cornflour or flour or arrowroot in a jar, add double the amount of water and shake vigorously until the mixture is smooth. Add this, a dribble at a time, to the simmering soup, stirring constantly, until it reaches the desired thickness.

Soup must be served either piping hot or ice cold – there really are no half-measures. Heat the bowls in the oven before you ladle hot soup into them or, if you’re making a cold soup, chill the bowls in a freezer an hour before you dish up. When you're serving guests, don't overfill their bowls: soup is very filling and not everyone fancies downing litres of it at a time.

Beetroot and Gin Shots
My Iced Beetroot and Gin Shots
A lovely way of serving soup at a feast is to treat it as a snack course. Halve the quantities given in the recipe, and pour the soup into small, sturdy glasses (or even teacups) that you’ve heated in a gentle oven. Add the toppings specified in the recipe and serve immediately. I often serve vegetable soups as snacks with toasted-cheese fingers: grate some Cheddar or Gruyère over a few slices of toasted bread, cook under a hot grill until bubbling, then dust with paprika or cayenne pepper and slice into strips. Balance a cheese finger across the top of each glass, and provide a few extra for hungry guests.

For more soup recipes from my blog archive, click here.

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Friday 2 March 2012

Low-carb veggies: Marinated Mushrooms, Beans & Feta

This blimmin' low-carb regime, as espoused by the man whose name is on everyone's lips in South Africa right now, Professor Tim Noakes, has recently presented some severe catering challenges. It's annoying enough to have to cook a rib-sticker of a meal for my family of five every night, but to have to make one that excludes potatoes, pasta, bread, pulses and rice (and which includes some of the aforementioned carbohydrates for the two Skinnies in my house) has become intolerable. The only consolation is that, after two weeks or so, there are looser waistbands all round. (My waistband is, I admit, perhaps less loose than the rest, but that's only because I refuse to give up fruit pastilles and wine.) Anyhow, here's a dish I've made several times, that vanishes in a jiffy, and that is as satisfying as any salad lacking potatoes can be.

Bowl by David Walters 
This is based on a recipe for marinated mushrooms that I first made when I was 10 or so, and became interested in cooking. My mum quite often made marinated mushrooms - a quintessential dish of the Seventies -  for special occasions, and over the past few decades I've altered and tweaked the recipe to my liking; you of course can do the same by adding your choice of flavourings to the mix. For low-carb-meal purposes, I've added some just-cooked, squeaky green beans and generous blocks of creamy feta cheese. If you're pressed for time, buy ready-sliced green beans, and cook them in your microwave oven.

Low-Carb Marinated Mushrooms, Beans & Feta

For the marinated mushrooms:
500 g portabellini mushrooms, or similar small button mushrooms
2 cloves garlic, halved lengthways, and skin left on
1 bay leaf
2 big sprigs fresh thyme
3 Tbsp (45 ml) white wine vinegar
4 Tbsp (60 ml) dry white wine
2 Tbsp (30 ml) olive oil
2 tsp (10 ml) Kikkoman soy sauce (optional)
1 tsp (5 ml) white sugar
salt and milled black pepper

For the salad:
500 g fresh green beans, topped and tailed
2 'wheels' (about 160 g) creamy, firm feta cheese
the juice of a small lemon
4 Tbsp (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil

Put all the ingredients for the marinated mushrooms in a big saucepan and bring slowly to the boil, stirring occasionally. Cover with a lid, turn down the heat and and simmer for 10-15 minutes, or until the mushrooms  are tender. Take the pan off the heat and set aside to cool for at least two hours. If you're not going to make the salad immediately, place the pot in the fridge for up to 24 hours.

Cut the beans into thirds crossways and set aside. Bring a large pot of salted water to a vigorous boil. Throw in the beans and cook them for 7-8 minutes, or until they are just tender but retain a slight bite. While the beans are cooking, fill a big bowl with cold water and add a few handfuls of ice cubes. Drain the beans and plunge them into the iced water. Leave them for 5 minutes, then drain them again, pat them dry and place in a large bowl.  Add the lemon juice and olive oil and toss well. Now fish the mushrooms from their marinade with a slotted spoon and add them to the bowl, along with about 8 tablespoons of the marinade, or more, to taste. Stir in the feta cubes and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Set aside to soak for 20 minutes before serving (but don't leave the salad to stand for too long, or the beans will turn muddy).

Serves 4. 

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