Danville Express

Living - August 3, 2007

Epicure: Summer Days are Salad Days

by Jacqui Love Marshall

In the hot-weather season, we're all looking for ways to keep the kitchen cool - grilling outdoors, picnics in the park, eating out, etc. And there's a proven method to our practices. According to Wikipedia: "During the Middle Ages, after eating mostly salted meats and pickled vegetables all winter, people would be 'salt-sick' and looked forward to spring greens. Popular history asserts that peasants ate more salads than lords, and were the healthier for it." We may not be salt-sick these days, but summer seems like the perfect time to "lighten up" our cooking and eating patterns, while eating healthy foods.

A refreshing salad is the ideal dish for a hot summer day and the good news is there are no fixed rules for salad-making - whatever you like in combination is OK - and there is plenty of room for your culinary imagination to play. In the U.S., salads are mainly eaten as palate-teasers before the entree. In European countries, salads are often served after the entree as palate-refreshers. In other countries, they are eaten alongside the entree. And, increasingly, salads are eaten as the main meal. When you mix a great combination of leafy greens, other ingredients and dressings, you can create a hearty, healthy meal that satisfies everyone's hunger.

Salad Greens

When I was growing up, iceberg lettuce was practically the only greens used in salads. Today, you can find fresh greens of every kind at your local grocer or farmers market. Mild greens include Spinach, Boston, Iceberg, Butter, Leaf, Bibb, Cabbage and Romaine. Spicier greens include Arugula, Radicchio, Broccoli Rabe, Dandelion Greens, Belgian and Curly Endive, Watercress, Mache and Escarole. I suggest building your salad on a base of mild greens, then adding in other greens and herbs for variety and flavor. My favorite combinations are Arugula, Romaine and Cilantro; Boston, Mache and Radicchio.

Select the freshest, crispest greens available. Place greens in a plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper until ready to use. Just before preparing a salad, wash the greens in water until clean; use a salad spinner to dry the leaves, avoiding overcrowding the spinner so leaves don't bruise. Serving your salad in a chilled bowl or plate will help keep greens cool and crisp.

Salad Additions & Toppings

Here, the possibilities are endless, and when making a hearty salad as the main dish, the possibilities only increase. Experiment with your family to determine their favorite combinations. Here's a list to get you started:

Protein: Chicken, Beef, Lamb, Fish, Seafood, Soy, Egg, Bacon

Veggies: Avocado, Beans, Beets, Broccoli, Carrot, Cauliflower, Corn, Cucumber, Fennel, Jicama, Mushrooms, Onions, Peppers, Potatoes, Radishes, Scallions, Sprouts, Squash, Tomatoes

Fruits: Apples, Cranberries, Grapefruit, Grapes, Mango, Peaches, Pears,

Cheeses: Blue, Goat, Gorgonzola, Gruyere, Parmigiano-Reggiano

Herbs: Basil, Chives, Cilantro, Dill, Parsley

Other: Almonds, Capers, Croutons, Olives, Raisins, Walnuts, Seeds (sesame, sunflower, etc.)

Hint: Place soft cheeses (e.g. goat, feta) in the center of salads; harder cheeses on the edge of the salad. Add porous ingredients (e.g. nuts, croutons) just before serving to avoid them absorbing too much water from other ingredients.

Salad Dressings

Add salad dressings just before serving, unless required for a specific recipe. Otherwise, the dressing could cause your lettuce to wilt or become soggy.

Serve your salad in a bowl about twice the size of your salad. Pour a small amount of dressing and toss thoroughly to coat each piece. Starting with a modest amount prevents the salad from getting drowned in dressing; individuals can add more as desired. For best seasoning, always grind fresh salt and pepper over the salad just prior to eating.

Here's a classic, perpetually-tasty vinaigrette, which can be varied in many ways by changing the vinegar or adding herbs, lemon juice, ginger, mustard, etc.: 2 cloves garlic, 1/2 cup vinegar (white, balsamic, cider, champagne, sherry, port, etc.), 1-1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard, 1-1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup chopped red onion or shallots, 3/4 tsp. salt, 3/4 tsp freshly ground pepper. Mince garlic in food processor. Add all other ingredients except the olive oil and process. With processor going, slowly add oil until emulsified, season to taste with salt and pepper. Yields 2-1/2 cups which lasts, refrigerated, up to 1 week.

So, if you haven't been taking advantage of salad meals for summer days, there's still time to enjoy them.

Jacqui lives in Danville with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at jlovemarshall@yahoo.com.

Salad tips:

Always keep several kinds of fresh greens on hand but use them while crisp!

If some ingredients require cooking, cook them earlier in the day and refrigerate until needed.

Keep supplies of your family's favorite salad ingredients on hand. As appropriate, divide certain ingredients into salad portions and freeze in baggies.

Try foods that your children don't generally like in a salad to cultivate a taste for them. Those pieces can always be picked out.

If family members prefer different dressings, keep small containers of everyone's favorites with their names on them. Empty bottled water containers are perfect.

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