Salad Baby: Cool Salads to Tame a Summer's Sizzle

Oh, let me sing the praises of cool and crisp leafy greens on a hot and sultry summer’s day in the Central Valley. When the temperature soars–as it surely will–the thought of cranking up the oven and warming the kitchen can feel cruel and unusual. The perfect solution lays in building a fabulous salad as the backbone of your meal. The combinations and creativity are endless. The payback is a bowl of color and healthy goodness to tame that summer sizzle.

I am a salad kind of gal. In fact, a dinner without a bowl of chilled, crisp leafy greens, studded with a few salad fixin’s, all pulled together with a vinaigrette just isn’t my idea of a meal. Salad shines at my dinner table nearly 365 days a year, and most times it’s on the menu at lunch, as well.

It’s a good time to be a salad lover. Once upon a time–and not all that long ago–a salad started with a shrink-wrapped globe of iceberg lettuce, which was the popular green choice in the produce aisle. It was destined for a dousing of pickle- dominated Thousand Island dressing, a nubbin of a canned beet, some sprinkles from a can of good, old-fashioned Bacon Bits, and garnished with a smattering of packaged croutons.

Salad lovers rejoice! Today’s produce aisle or farmer’s market is a virtual cornucopia of greens, vegetables, fruits and nuts, all must-haves in building nutritious, delicious salads. You will always find the old standards like romaine, butter and iceberg lettuces, but the array of available greens is ever-expanding. The once humdrum “lettuce” selection now stars nutrient–laden, and even organic, varieties of escarole, watercress, arugula, chicory, kale, chard, mache, purslane, beet greens, to name just a few.

Resolve to turn over a new leaf, and resist the rut.
— Wendy Carroll

There isn’t much sacred territory when it comes to add-ins for a salad, so my advice is to be as fearless as you dare. Tomatoes and cukes are obvious additions to any leafy greens (yawn!). Resolve to turn over a new leaf, and resist the rut.

Some of my finest salad moments have come from scouring my produce bin and then making good use of some leftover steak cooked to medium-rare perfection, or spontaneously adding a strip of cold, delicately-poached pink salmon. First think inside your produce drawer. Experiment with fresh raspberries, diced jicama, ruby red grapefruit sections, shaved fennel, sliced pear, halved grapes of any hue or some roasted beets.

Part of rethinking salads as meals is to begin thinking outside your produce drawer. Try crumbled (real!) bacon, artichoke hearts, toasted or sliced almonds, raisins, black beans, salty pepitas, diced hard-boiled eggs, toasting yesterday’s baguette into crispy croutons, flaky Italian tuna or (one of my favorites) grated frozen Gorgonzola cheese. This is a chance to be creative, use what you have, and learn what you most enjoy.

Begin with fresh and fabulous greens, add some creative additions, and your salad is halfway to the table. That said, dressing a salad can be the danger zone. There is nothing worse than soggy greens swimming in a pool of viscous and artificially-flavored salad dressing.

No pretense here; I am a dressing snob. Homemade is the way to go, and preparing your own dressing is inexpensive and much healthier. My everyday go-to is a formula, not a recipe. I use a ratio of 3 parts oil to 1 part acidic-based ingredient, such as cider vinegar or citrus juice. A classic start to vinaigrette is some finely minced shallot, a couple of teaspoons of Dijon mustard, a pinch of salt and a grind of the pepper mill. Then add the acidic-based ingredient of your choice.

Let the vinaigrette “starter” and the acid rest for a moment. This will mellow the shallot and dissolve the salt. Then slowly add in the oil–using a fork or a whisk to mix–gently coaxing the acid and oil to mix. With a light hand, pour the dressing around the outside of the salad bowl. Use a pair of tongs and gently toss.

Just as in life–it is better to underdress! Beware the pool of dressing at the bottom of the salad bowl, and keep in mind that properly-dressed greens should just glisten. You can always add more vinaigrette after you season with kosher salt and freshly- ground pepper.

Preparing a show-stopping salad isn’t at all difficult, but there are a few overall guidelines that will guarantee your mastery of the art of salad.

SHOP WITH CARE

Keep in mind that most greens have a short shelf life, so choosing this building block of your salad should be done carefully. Pick healthy greens with stems and roots if you can. They will stay fresher longer. Skip over any that show signs of decay, as it tends to spreads quickly. Pre-washed greens in convenience packaging have the shortest life of all. If you see any decay when you get your greens home, pick out the offenders immediately. If you wait until you make a salad, the rot may well have spread throughout the head.

WASH AND WASH AGAIN, DRY AND DRY AGAIN

Dirty and gritty greens are huge salad spoilers. Wet greens will ruin a salad, as well. Your carefully-made dressing will slip right off the wet leaves and taste diluted. A salad spinner is the best kitchen tool you can use in preparing the ideal salad.

To store the greens for up to a week, roll them in paper towels and place them in a large, zippered plastic bag in the refrigerator. Greens should be stored in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator, where the humidity is highest.

LAST-MINUTE IS GOOD

Washing and drying lettuce in advance is a great idea. Tearing lettuce in advance is not. Tearing the leaves too far ahead leads to oxidation and browning in delicate greens. Bite-sized pieces are best; salad should not be a fork and knife challenge.

Gather all the wonderful elements for your salad and put them on the countertop. Pull your greens from the refrigerator right before you intend to serve them. I like to use a very large bowl to toss my salad, insuring all of the elements are “well-dressed.” The best salad “tossers” ever invented are a pair of clean hands, but a big pair of tongs is a close second. Lightly dress your salad and toss. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper and toss again.

A few of my favorite “go-to” summer salads, and directions for some of my favorite toppings, should help you get started, but feel free to substitute other ingredients. Taste and fine-tune to taste... remember, your perfect salad awaits.

STEAK SALAD WITH ARUGULA AND BLUE CHEESE (for 6-8)

A sophisticated-tasting, but simple salad, delicious when paired with your favorite wine
1 flank steak, trimmed (room temperature) Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper 16 oz baby arugula
1 pint (2 cups) cherry tomatoes, halved Pickled red onions (recipe follows)
Mustard Vinaigrette (recipe follows) 4 oz blue cheese, crumbled
Liberally salt and pepper flank steak. Fire up your BBQ and grill for 3-4 minutes per side. Another option is to slip steak under the broiler on a foil-lined half sheet pan, broiling 3-4 minutes per side and turning steak at the halfway point. Let rest for 10 minutes and then thinly slice against the grain. Set aside in the refrigerator.

When ready to serve, toss arugula and tomatoes with 1-2 tbsp. of the vinaigrette, and salt and pepper to taste. Arrange dressed greens on each plate, top with steak and drizzle with dressing. Top with a few pickled red onions and crumbled blue cheese. Serve with additional dressing, if desired.

Mustard Vinaigrette
1 tbsp. coarse ground Dijon mustard 2 tbsp. red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. honey
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Whisk ingredients together in a small bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Pickled Red Onions
4 tbsp. red wine vinegar 2 tbsp. honey
1 1⁄2 cups water
1 tsp. kosher salt
1⁄2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 medium red onion, halved and thinly sliced
Bring vinegar, honey, water, salt and pepper to boil in a small saucepan. Remove from heat and add onion. Let cool, cover and refrigerate 3-4 hours. Drain before serving.

 

HEIRLOOM TOMATOES WITH GREEN OLIVE TAPENADE (for 4)

Go wild with the fabulous colors and tastes of summer’s toma- toes. This vibrant salad is about eye candy and flavor.

Tapenade
1⁄2 cup green olives with pimentos
1 clove garlic
1⁄4 cup Italian parsley
1 tbsp. each of fresh thyme and fresh oregano 1⁄2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 tbsp. white balsamic vinegar Juice of one lemon
Process olives, garlic and herbs in the bowl of a food processor. Add olive oil, vinegar and lemon and blend until smooth. Can be made ahead and refrigerated.
Salad
3-4 ripe heirloom tomatoes
15-18 yellow pear tomatoes
1 English cucumber, seeded and cut in small batons
1⁄2 red onion, thinly sliced, soaked in icy water and drained 1 tbsp. good extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1⁄2 cup basil leaves, chiffonade
1 cup cubed feta
Arrange tomatoes on salad plate along with cucumber and onion. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Lightly sprinkle with olive tapenade. Scatter feta and basil leaves over the tomatoes.

 

SPICY CHICKEN, AVOCADO AND MANGO SALAD (for 6-8)

A salad rich with zesty flavors and textures: perfect for a light summer meal
2 tbsp. brown sugar
1⁄4 cup fresh lime juice
1 - 2 tbsp. chili-garlic sauce
1⁄4 cup vegetable oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tbsp. mayonnaise
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
3 large skinless, boneless chicken breasts*
1 ripe mango, peeled and cut into 1⁄2 inch chunks 1 ripe avocado, peeled and cut into 1⁄2 inch chunks 3 green onions
Spring Mix or Baby Spinach

With a whisk combine brown sugar and lime juice. Whisk in chili sauce, oil, salt and pepper.
Heat a gas grill to medium high. In a mixing bowl, combine the mayonnaise, mustard, 1/2 tsp. salt, and 1/4 tsp. pepper. Add the chicken and toss to coat. Over indirect heat, grill until well- marked and cooked through, 4 to 6 minutes per side. Let cool and shred.
In a large salad bowl, mix the chicken, mango, avocado and green onions. Add greens and toss gently. Add dressing (you will have some leftover), adjust seasonings to taste and serve.
*Really hot outside? No need to raise the temperature. Pick up a whole roast chicken at the grocery store. Remove the skin and bones and shred.