As the mercury rises to it’s August peak, appetites seek lighter fare that doesn’t require firing up the oven or wiling away hours on a sunny day laboring over a five-course repast. The one-pot meals of fall and winter are cast aside in favor of one-bowl meals, salad bowl, that is. Main dish salads inspire creation as we select unique ingredient combinations and whisk together that amazing dressing. Salads are also easily portable for contributing to group picnics and backyard grilling events.
Salads are incredibly versatile. They may be served as an opener to the meal, the most popular choice of presentation all year long. They can stand in as a side dish to accompany a main entrée; this is especially welcome in the hot summer months when a crisp, cool salad pairs perfectly with grilled chicken or fish. Salads are an excellent option for sensational, summertime entrée, little else needed in the way of accompaniment besides some bread from the bakery and a refreshing libation. Also coveted during the summer months when a variety of fruits are abundant is the colorful fruit salad.
The variation does not stop at course alternatives. When it comes to versatility of ingredients, the options are boundless. Originally, a salad was the composition of raw vegetables drizzled with a dressing that typically consisted of oil and an acid, such as lemon juice or vinegar. Today’s salads have welcomed every combination of ingredients into the bowl. They do not discriminate. The more in the bowl, the merrier. Chilled, cooked vegetables have joined the ranks. Croutons, nuts, wasabi peas and sunflower seeds provide crunch. Berries and sliced peaches or oranges provide a pop of color and sweetness. Cheeses such as goat cheese, feta, blue cheeses, Parmesan, fresh mozzarella or shredded cheddar-jack add yet another layer of flavor and protein in addition to the incorporation of chicken, beef, seafood, beans or eggs. For healthy oils, toss a sliced avocado into your southwestern salad or some olives into your Italian dish. Bottom line, if it’s in your pantry, it will work in your salad. There are no rules whatsoever when it comes to putting a salad together.
When it comes to main dish salads, the key is to incorporate an entire meal into the bowl: a protein source, a carb and plenty of vegetables. If you can sneak a complimenting fruit into the combination, even better. The salad should also seek to satisfy as many facets of dining pleasure, from varying textures to multiple taste sensations. Ladies, if your guy has proclaimed ‘Men don’t eat salads for dinner!’ that’s because those particular men haven’t been served a salad that met all of the aforementioned criteria. If I were served a plate of leafy greens with a dressing and the server declared that as dinner, my reaction would be less than enthusiastic. The rabbit may accept that graciously, if you have one; it is not a complete and balanced meal for a human being, man or woman.
So what would constitute a complete and balanced meal in a salad bowl? A combination of rotini pasta, celery, red onion and cooked shrimp, crab or lobster tossed in a Louis-style dressing (basically a cocktail sauce-flavored mayonnaise), served on a bed of red leaf lettuce and rimmed by cherry tomatoes would fit the bill. A palette of cubed chicken, strawberries, mesclun greens, blue cheese, cashews and cucumber would also fit the bill when accompanied by some whole wheat dinner roles. Try cooked chicken tossed with mesclun greens, sliced peaches, cherry tomatoes, blue cheese and pecans, served with a crusty bread from the bakery.
Salads can be artfully arranged on platters. One example of this would be the French Nicoise salad, which typically includes grilled tuna, hard boiled eggs, leafy greens, tomatoes, green beans, Nicoise olives and potatoes, drizzled with a light vinaigrette. For a southwestern option, arrange grilled chicken over leafy greens and surround with mounds of black beans tossed with olive oil and cumin, corn mixed with colorful bell peppers, cherry tomatoes and slices of avocado, and drizzle some salsa over the chicken.
If you’re looking to go meatless, try this southwestern combination: green chilies, diced jicama, tomatoes, wagon wheel pasta, pinto beans, cubed cheddar and Monterey jack, avocados and a creamy salsa dressing. An Italian choice would be cheese-filled small ravioli tossed with wilted spinach, pecorino Romano cheese and a creamy pesto dressing. Add a touch of Capri to that combination with some cherry tomatoes and little balls of fresh mozzarella, if you want a little more oomph.
A heartier side dish salad is the perfect accompaniment with a grilled salmon filet or a steak. Try an Italian panzanella, which is tossed homemade croutons (traditionally made by Italian peasants to use up the previous day’s bread) with tomatoes, colorful bell peppers, olives, cucumber, basil, red onion and olive oil vinaigrette. A southwestern side salad would consist of avocados, red and yellow bell peppers, red onion, black beans and grape tomatoes tossed with a lime vinaigrette. Amp up potato salads by adding more ingredients to the mix, such as nuts, green beans or blue cheese. Turn a macaroni salad into a main dish sensation with the inclusion of cubed ham, cheddar, peas and halved grape tomatoes.
Now that you have read about way too many dinner possibilities to ponder and your keyboard or mobile device becomes a flood zone as you salivate, I leave you with a couple of actual recipes for main dish salads that embrace the season’s shellfish.
Lobster Potato Salad Aioli
1 cup mayonnaise
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 large garlic cloves, pressed
½ tablespoon lemon zest, finely grated
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 pound lobster meat, cut into chunks
1 ½ pounds red new potatoes, quartered, boiled until tender, drained, cooled
2 large ripe tomatoes, diced
1 cup fresh sugar snap peas, strings removed
4 celery ribs, sliced crosswise into ½ inch slices
1 bunch scallions, sliced crosswise into ¼ inch slices (green part only)
For the aioli dressing, whisk first six ingredients together in a bowl and set aside.
Toss remaining ingredients together in a large serving bowl. Add the dressing and toss again to coat evenly. Serves 2-3.
Asian Shrimp and Noodle Salad
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon chili-garlic sauce
4 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons peanut oil
1 pound jumbo shrimp, peeled, tailed removed, boiled until pink, drained,
4 ounces spaghetti, boiled until tender, drained, cooled
½ cup carrots, julienned
1 cup cucumber, diced
½ cup snow peas, strings removed
½ cup red bell pepper, julienned
1 cup bean sprouts
3 scallions, sliced crosswise into ¼ inch slices
For the dressing, whisk first six ingredients together in a bowl and set aside.
In a large serving bowl, toss the remaining ingredients in combined. Whisk the dressing again and add to the salad, toss well to coat. Serves 2.
No, it’s not deja-vu. The instructions for these recipes are indeed just about identical, even though the ingredients vary. Salads are just that easy. Best of all, many of them can be made ahead since they’re consumed chilled. Note, however, that when making pasta salads, as the Asian one above, keep the dressing separate from the salad until serving time if you plan to make the salad ahead. Pasta has a nasty habit of consuming all dressings and sauces as it sits.
Food for Thought
Tomatoes are at their peak this month, as will be evidenced when you cut into one just purchased from your local farm stand or farmers market. Unlike the anemic supermarket versions that lack flavor altogether, fresh tomatoes are stunning when you cut one in half, crimson through and through. The flavor is amazing and addicting. Take advantage of these delights while the getting is good. For the simplest side salad, cut a tomato into wedges, eighths works best. Use one tomato per person. Sprinkle the cut tomatoes with chopped fresh oregano, salt and pepper, then drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and a high quality balsamic vinegar.
For a perfect lunch, combine small balls of fresh mozzarella with whole grape or cherry tomatoes, go with a fifty-fifty ratio. Add some chopped fresh basil, salt, pepper, olive oil and balsamic vinegar and serve over mixed salad greens. Accompany with some crusty Italian bread and a glass of pinot grigio, lunch couldn’t be better.