So you just got home from work, you’re hot and tired. And now it’s time to cook dinner, heating up your kitchen. If you’re like me, with no air-conditioning, this can turn a pleasant daily task into a grim one. If the beginning of July has given us record-breaking heat, imagine what the rest of the summer may be like. Solution? Salads for supper! Cool, refreshing, balanced, healthy salads.
Everything you need for a perfectly balanced meal can go into a salad. Greens, all manner of other vegetables (raw or cooked), whole grains, meat or fish, nuts, and cheese. If prepping and chopping is a bore or a chore for you, feel free to pick up everything you need from a supermarket or gourmet store’s salad bar. Just be aware of the prices — those green beans you just purchased that have already been cleaned for you also cost four times more than if you’d cleaned them yourself.
The dressing is almost as important as the salad itself. They need to be compatible. For instance, don’t dress a delicate green with a heavy creamy dressing, save that for your kitschy retro iceberg wedge. Use common sense. If you’re using mustard greens or chicory, you can make the dressing gutsy with garlic and mustard. For a dainty Bibb salad, a light sherry vinaigrette is more appropriate. For those who believe that most salad dressings ruin a good wine, I suggest using a milder verjus or high quality sherry or wine vinegar. At home I don’t have a wide array of oils and vinegars. I keep one good olive oil, one neutral oil, and a few nut oils in the refrigerator. Although the fad for balsamic vinegar has turned some against it, I still love it. I either use this or lemon juice. Beyond that, shallots and Dijon mustard are my favorite dressing ingredients. A dab of honey and plenty of freshly ground black pepper round out the flavor.
Salads were enjoyed by ancient Romans and Greeks. They were basically salted or pickled greens and other vegetables. The word “salad” derives from the Latin “sal” meaning salt, then became “salata” meaning salted things. Hippocrates believed that raw vegetables slipped easily through the system and did not create obstruction for what followed, and therefore should be served at the beginning of the meal. Toward the end of the 19th century tossed salads were considered messy and disorganized. This began the craze for composed salads and eventually gelatin molds, suspending the vegetables in a tidy and attractive manner.
A truly disgusting sounding salad called Candle Salad became popular in the 1920s. The basic ingredient list was “six pieces lettuce, six slices pineapple, three bananas, six red cherries, six strips green pepper, one half cup mayonnaise.” It is believed that the folks behind Dole canned pineapple came up with this.
We all know it is healthier to eat more vegetables and whole grains. So rather than follow the traditional meat and three vegetables routine, why not make the salad the foundation of the meal. How does kale with lemon, Parmesan, and almonds sound? Indonesian chicken salad with pineapple slaw? Salmon with quinoa, sorrel, and yogurt? And you don’t have to always be so virtuous; try a duck confit with fingerling potatoes on frisée lettuce or Korean barbecued beef salad.
My friend Coco came over the other night for a potluck supper. She is the salad master, er, I mean, mistress. She arrived with all of her ingredients prepped and individually sealed in Ziploc bags. She had three different kinds of lettuce, some delicate mesclun mix, radicchio, butter, and Bibb lettuces. Some sautéed vegetables, shiitake mushrooms with peppers and zucchini, toasted pine nuts, and feta cheese rounded out the balance of contrasts: color, flavor, and texture.
Her Mason jar of dressing consisted of oil and balsamic vinegar, lemon, garlic, and lots of fresh herbs. In this case, chives, parsley, and basil. Tossed in a big beautiful wooden bowl and served with grilled Iacono Farm chicken, it was the perfect hot summer evening meal.
A lot of restaurants seem to be in a salad rut. They offer mixed greens with house vinaigrette or the sad combination of romaine, cucumber, and cherry tomatoes. Snore.
Here are some salad ideas from the kooky Green Goddess restaurant in New Orleans: cold smoked freekeh (roasted green wheat) mixed with fresh herbs, preserved lemon, currants, and dried berries, served over arugula with pickled turnips, roasted almonds, and romesco sauce. How about arugula with citrusy grilled shrimp, goat cheese, and crunchy fried onions? Or caramelized heirloom tomatoes, slices of tomato topped with Manchego cheese, bruléed with various salts, spices, and sugar, toasted spiced almonds, garlic aioli, and roasted green onions? All imaginative, original, and mouthwatering combinations.
You can explore different nationalities with a Thai chicken larb salad or Vietnamese bahn mi meatballs. Use leftover chicken and beef, bits of cheese, and dried fruit. I like to keep a roasted nut mixture on hand to toss into salads and rice dishes. Make enough salad dressing to last a week; it only takes a few minutes! Here are some recipes to inspire you and give you relief on those hot summer nights.