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Published: Tuesday, 4/24/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Salad days

Warmer weather gives us a chance to lighten up at the dinner table

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR
Spring is a good time to crave salads. Spring is a good time to crave salads.
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Friends invited us over for a recent dinner of grilled lamb. "Great," said my wife. "I'll make two salads."

Granted, my wife is the salad queen. She could eat salads every night for dinner and every day for lunch. Often, she does.

Now that spring is in full swing, even normal people who are not my wife start craving the occasional salad. It is a way of lightening up with the season, of putting aside the rib-sticking food that helped us through the surprisingly mild winter. It is even a way of shedding an accumulated pound or two that came about as a result of all that wintertime rib-sticking food.

As fresh greens begin to poke their way out of the fertile earth, we instinctively reach out for them. Spring is a time of rejuvenation, and nothing speaks of rebirth as the first tender leaves of lettuce and the season's crunchy new vegetables.

Anyone can make a salad just by taking some leaves of lettuce and throwing on a splash of bottled dressing. More than a few restaurants do this, to their shame. But those aren't real salads, those are the salads of someone who is not trying. Those are salads of obligation, served more as a reluctant recognition that balanced meals are good for you than as a genuine culinary endeavor.

A real salad stands on its own as a satisfying meal, recognizing the need for delicacy and balance between the ingredients -- there should be a ballet between acid and fat, between sweetness and spice. A real salad is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, and then you eat it.

Avocado Grapefruit Salad with Sour Cream-Honey Dressing. Avocado Grapefruit Salad with Sour Cream-Honey Dressing.
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Some saladmeisters believe in complexity, creating a symphonic masterpiece requiring the interplay of dozens of intricately prepared ingredients. To which we say: Get over yourselves. In making a springtime salad, our guiding principle is to keep it light.

Which is precisely what we did for our first salad, a summertime favorite we updated to springtime simply by eliminating the not-yet-ready tomatoes from the recipe. Watermelon-Basil Salad is a wonderfully refreshing respite that successfully marries the unlikely ingredients of the sweet watermelon with the peppery, minty basil. Crumbles of feta cheese add a creamy, tangy counterpoint, as well as enormous visual appeal, with a scattering of sweet onion pieces for a welcome, though mild bite, and a bit of crunch. Olive oil ties it all together, and, as with most salads, don't forget the salt and pepper.

A vaguely similar salad comes from Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken (food-lovers of a certain age still think of them as the Too Hot Tamales), in their cookbook City Cuisine. This time around, the fruit is grapefruit, which is always a good, tart choice for salads, and the fat comes from sliced avocados instead of cheese.

The third part of this Avocado Grapefruit Salad is the dressing that pairs exceptionally well with it or any fruit salad. Made from sour cream, fresh lime juice, and honey, the deliciously creamy dressing has the additional advantage of contributing a visual punch when drizzled in stripes over the alternately arranged slices of avocado and grapefruit. No lettuce is needed for this handsome dish that is every bit as elegant as it is simple to make.

In Ketcham, Idaho, a hot spot for the rustically wealthy, a woodsy place called the Vintage Restaurant makes a signature salad out of Bibb lettuce, pears, and Gorgonzola cheese, topped with an orange-pecan dressing. Here, too, we see a balance of savory and sweet, of acid and fat. The combination of fruit and cheese, which has been a European dessert for centuries, is once again used with a light hand as the crowning touch.

The sweet dressing keeps for two or three weeks in the refrigerator and can be used for any number of other salads. And the salad takes just minutes to throw together; you could make the whole thing in the time it takes you to toast the pecans for the dressing.

Our Arugula Eggplant salad is the result of the best kind of recipe creation. My wife wanted to make a salad so she went to the refrigerator to see what we had, and she grabbed some things she thought would taste good together. They did.

In this particular case, we happened to have some frozen slices of breaded eggplant. Don't ask me how they got there, but it turned out to be fortuitous they were there, because they made a perfect, unexpected foil for the creamy goat cheese, the almost sweet bite of the balsamic vinegar, and the peppery richness of the arugula.

Breaded eggplant slices are available in the freezer sections of at least some grocery stores. And because they are fried, you don't even have to add any oil to the salad.

The easiest recipe of all comes from a Natural Health magazine from back in 1999. Called a Tricolor Italian Salad, it consciously uses the colors of the Italian flag: green from arugula, white from canned cannelloni beans, and red (or actually reddish) from shredded leaves of radicchio. But these ingredients are more than a gimmick; when put together with olive oil they make a filling, balanced, and complexly flavored dish.

And finally, we couldn't make all of these salads without at least a nod to one of the most famous salads of all, salad Niçoise. This salad of canned tuna fish, lettuce, haricots verts (or green beans), hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, and potatoes briefly fell out of favor. But it became popular again when chefs began using seared rare sliced tuna steaks in place of the canned tuna. Hipsters swooned, but the truth of the matter is that in this particular application, the canned tuna tastes better. But use the fresh if you like; after all, the original versions of the salad did not even include potatoes.

So go ahead and make a salad any way you want, with any ingredients you like. After all, that's how innovations are born.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.

Tricolor Italian Salad

4 cups arugula leaves

1 large head radicchio, shredded

1 (15-ounce) can cannelloni beans, drained and rinsed

3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt

Divide arugula leaves among plates. Place radicchio and beans in large bowl. Drizzle oil over and toss gently. Season with salt and toss again. Spoon mixture over arugula and serve with crusty bread, and sliced tomatoes.

Yield: 4 servings

Source: Natural Health

Bibb-Pears-Gorgonzola Salad

Generous squeeze of half a lemon

3 fresh pears, cored and thinly sliced

6 handfuls torn Bibb lettuce, rinsed and dried

6 ounces Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled

8-10 tablespoons Orange-Pecan Dressing, below

Squeeze lemon juice over pear slices. Place lettuce in a salad bowl with Gorgonzola and dressing, and toss lightly. Pile the salad onto 6 chilled plates. Fan one half of each sliced pear over each salad and drizzle a little more dressing over the top before serving.

Yield: 6 servings

Source: New West Cuisine, by Chase Reynolds Ewald and Amy Jo Sheppard

Orange-Pecan Dressing

3 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar

⅓ cup honey

1 tablespoon freshly grated orange zest

3tablespoons fresh orange juice

1/2 cup olive oil or vegetable oil

1/4 cup pecans, toasted and chopped

Put rice vinegar, honey, zest, juice, and oil in a mixing bowl and whip with a wire whisk until honey has dissolved and blended with other ingredients. Add pecans. This dressing will keep for 2-3 weeks in a refrigerator.

Yield: 1 1/4 cups dressing

Source: New West Cuisine, by Chase Reynolds Ewald and Amy Jo Sheppard

Avocado Grapefruit Salad with Sour Cream-Honey Dressing

3 pink grapefruits, chilled

3 ripe medium avocados, halved, seeded, and peeled

3/4 cup sour cream

Juice of 2 large limes

3 tablespoons honey

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

Mint leaves for garnish

Slice ends off grapefruits and stand upright on a counter. Cut away skin and membrane, exposing fruit. Working over a bowl to catch the juice, separate sections by slicing with a serrated knife between membranes. Remove and discard seeds. Slice avocado halves lengthwise in 1/2-inch slices. Arrange alternating grapefruit sections and avocado slices on 6 salad plates.

Whisk together sour cream, lime juice, honey, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Just before serving, spoon about 2 tablespoons dressing in a stripe over each salad. Garnish with mint leaves and serve.

Yield: 6 servings

Source: City Cuisine, by Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken

Arugula Eggplant Salad

1-2 tablespoons olive oil

4-6 round slices of breaded eggplant, 1/4- 1/2-inch thick (you can use frozen eggplant slices).

1 (5-ounce) bag baby arugula, pre-washed

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, or to taste

1/2 cup crumbled goat cheese, optional

Place oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, and fry eggplant until browned on each side. Drain well on paper towels. Cut each round into 6 pizza-type wedges.

Place arugula in medium bowl and toss with balsamic vinegar. Arrange eggplant wedges on top. Add optional crumbled goat cheese.

Yield: 8 servings

Source: Mary Anne Pikrone

Watermelon Basil Salad

2 cups seedless watermelon, sliced in 2-3 inch squares, 1/4-inch thick

1/2 cup blueberries (see cook's note)

1/4 cup sweet onion, chopped

1-2 tablespoons vinaigrette, recipe below

Pepper to taste

1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled

⅓ cup fresh basil leaves, torn or thinly sliced

Cook's note: Use blueberries when tomatoes are not in season. When tomatoes are in season, substitute 2 cups sliced tomatoes for blueberries and use 2-3 tablespoons vinaigrette and a little more chopped onion.

In medium bowl, combine and toss gently watermelon, blueberries, onion, and vinaigrette. Add fresh ground pepper to taste. Sprinkle cheese crumbles on top, then spread basil leaves on top of the cheese.

Yield: 8 servings

Source: Mary Anne Pikrone

Mary Anne's Perfect Vinaigrette

8 tablespoons olive oil

4 tablespoons vinegar, any type

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon salt, optional

Combine all ingredients in a small jar with a tight lid (a jam jar or a mustard jar works well). Shake vigorously. If not using within a few hours, store in a refrigerator, return to room temperature, and shake or whisk vigorously before serving.

Yield: 3/4 cup dressing

Source: Mary Anne Pikrone

Salad Niçoise

1/2 pound haricots verts OR green beans

2 small waxy potatoes, such as red bliss or round white potatoes

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

Salt and pepper

1 (5-ounce) can tuna

1/2 head Romaine lettuce (or more if using a small head)

1/2 pound tomatoes (use cherry tomatoes if not in season)

3 slices red onion, chopped

1/4 green bell pepper, chopped

1/4 red bell pepper, chopped

⅓ cup small black Niçoise or Gaetta olives, pitted if possible

4 anchovy fillets, optional

1/2 tablespoon capers, optional

2-3 hard boiled eggs, sliced in half or quartered

Cook the green beans in salted, boiling water, until tender; remove from heat and drain. Cook the potatoes in salted, boiling water until they are done, 20-30 minutes. Remove from heat and drain. Cut in slices 1/4-inch thick. While potatoes are still warm, mix together oil and vinegar, sprinkle in salt and pepper to taste, pour over potatoes, and toss gently. The potatoes will absorb most of the dressing. Set aside until ready to assemble the salad.

Gently mix together all of the ingredients, and toss with a modest amount of vinaigrette, above.

Yield: 4 servings

Source: Adapted from The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, by Nancy Harmon Jenkins



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