Potato, pancetta and goat's cheese salad with tomato tartare
06 September 2018
This is a delicious and tasty salad, particularly for a dinner party where you want to eat extraordinarily good food, but you don’t want your guests to be leaving the evening completely stuffed and needing to go onto a diet the very next day as penance. It has an intensely flavourful base of tomato tartare, topped with a mix of green beans, new potatoes, crispy fried pancetta and goat’s cheese. The trick in making it special is in the tomato tartare, where the flavours are intensified through long slow drying and getting the cooking of the other ingredients just right. It’s a dish that can be a sublime starter for a meal, but only with a bit of attention to detail.
My attention to detail has a mixed track record. Having made this tomato tartare a number of times in the past, I managed this time to make the rookie mistake of forgetting to skin the tomatoes before putting them in the oven. It’s the sort of blooper that happens when you stop following a recipe and begin to do it yourself, partially by memory and partially by instinct. That dangerous area between conscious incompetence and unconscious competence. I can attest that it’s a lot more fuss and bother to rectify that particular problem after the event than it is to get it right first time. Hey ho.
The tomato tartare base of this salad owes everything to Thomas Keller’s recipe in The French Laundry cookbook. I tried it some years ago in recreating his salad of green beans in a red wine vinegar cream. I decided to adapt the principle of that salad here. It needed to be free of cows milk, but goats cheese was okay. So I tried this mix, and it worked a treat.
To create the tomato tartare, you first skin the tomatoes. If you’ve never done this before, it’s easy (provided you actually remember). Cut a lightly scored cross in the base of your tomatoes and then pour boiling water over them. Leave them for between one to two minutes, and then refresh them in cold water. At this point, it should be relatively easy to slip the skins off.
Cut them into quarters and remove the seeds. Place the remaining tomato ‘petals’ on a tin foil-lined tray that has been drizzled with good quality olive oil, salt and pepper. Drizzle a little more oil over them, and place a small sprig of either thyme or - in this case I used - rosemary. Place in the oven at a very low temperature - mine was at 100ºC fan oven - for about an hour and a half. The tomatoes will have decreased to about half the size but should not be burnt. The dehydrated tomatoes will have intensified in flavour. Chop them up, mix with some shallot, good quality balsamic vinegar, chives and seasoning. Suddenly you have a fantastic mix that you can use to pack a potent punch as the base of your salad.
It was intended to be a starter, and a light one at that, so the top element had precisely one and a half new (Norfolk Peer) potatoes per person, a few green beans, and then a dressing of chopped pancetta and grated hard goat’s cheese. It was just about the right quantity.
To be perfectly cooked, the new potatoes should be boiled or steamed until they are soft - there should be no resistance when you slide in a sharp knife. Nothing is more disappointing than ‘al dente’ potatoes.
On the other hand, the green beans need to be blanched in a large pan of salted boiling water for just 3 minutes. The water needs to be at a vigorous boil before you put them in - and the point of having a large pan is that you don’t want the introduction of the beans to cool the pot down enough to stop it from boiling. You want it to be cooking correctly from the first moment.
The beans are then removed after 2 to 3 minutes and plunged immediately into cold water to stop them from cooking. That way you will get perfectly cooked but still vibrant green beans. Both potatoes and beans are served cold in this salad, but there’s an advantage to getting the dressing onto the potatoes while they’re still hot, as in that state they very effectively soak up the flavours.
I made a mint oil to go with this salad. You can use a different herb oil if you prefer. It’s not a dominant flavour, but it’s a nice additional touch.
Potato, pancetta and goat's cheese salad with tomato tartare
Unlike most salads, a significant amount of this one can be done the day before. Indeed, you should do the mint oil the day before.
20 good-sized vine-ripened tomatoes
1 banana shallot
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon chives, chopped
Extra virgin olive oil
Sprigs of thyme or rosemary
6 new potatoes
A handful green beans
100g hard goat's cheese
White wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon honey
Extra chives for garnish
1 large bunch of mint, leaves picked
1 cup sunflower or other neutral oil
Blend the mint leaves with the sunflower oil and leave for a couple of hours to infuse. Then put the mix onto muslin cloth, and hang the cloth over a clean bowl so that the oil can gradually drip through. Ideally, this should go into the fridge and be left to continue dripping overnight. Once you have the mint oil, discard the pulp and reserve the oil in the fridge.
Preheat the oven to 120ºC / 100ºC fan oven.
Slice crosses into the base of your tomatoes and pour boiling water over them - enough to completely cover them. Leave in the hot water for 1-2 minutes, then remove them and place in cold water. At this point, it should be easy to remove the skins. Once the skins have been removed, cut them into quarters and remove the seeds and pulp, leaving only tomato ‘petals’ of the flesh.
Put tin foil onto a baking tray and drizzle with good quality olive oil. Place the petals on the tray, leaving a little distance between them and drizzle with more oil, and some freshly ground salt and pepper. Place a little strip of rosemary or thyme on each of the leaves.
Place the tomatoes in the oven for about an hour and a half, so that they are significantly dehydrated but not burnt. Once they’re done, remove them from the pan. Remove the crispy herbs and set aside in the fridge.
On the day of the meal, finely chop the shallot and the tomato confit and mix together along with chopped chives, balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. This is your tomato tartare.
Cut the potatoes in half and boil or steam them until soft. Grill the pancetta on both sides until it has gone golden brown and crispy. At that point, allow to cool for five minutes, then finely chop the toasted pancetta and set aside. Top and tail the green beans, and then blanch them in a large pan of salted boiling water for 2-3 minutes, and refresh them in cold water to stop them from cooking.
While the potatoes are still warm, make a vinaigrette. 100ml good quality olive oil, a tablespoon of white wine vinegar, a teaspoon of honey, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, salt and pepper. Whisk it together and taste, adjusting any of the elements that seem to be out of balance. Pour the vinaigrette over the potatoes, and mix so that they are completely covered. Then add the green beans, and the pancetta. Set to one side
When ready to serve, finely grate the goats’ cheese into the potato / bean salad, and mix them together. Get a 4-inch round food ring and use it to make a perfect circle thin layer of the tomato tartare. Carefully make a small mound of the potato / bean mix on top of this. Aim for one and a half potatoes per person, and try to arrange it so that when you remove the ring, the whole thing doesn’t keel over or drop outside the circle of the tomato tartare. Remove the ring, and garnish with a couple of whole chive stalks. Drizzle the mint oil around the plate and serve.
You’ll have some green beans left over probably. These are really easy to add to other meals - they go with so many things. So keep them in a container or in a plastic bag in the fridge and they’ll keep for about 7 days, giving you plenty of time if you need it. If you don’t think you’ll use them in that time, then blanch them for a minute or so in hot, boiling water and put them in the freezer.
If you have chives left over, you can freeze these by chopping them and pushing them into ice cube trays, perhaps with a little water. You can then use them whenever you want to add flavour to a soup or other dish.