The mercury and humidity is climbing, and so it is time to swap out the soup bowls for the salad plates. One of the commonalities to cross over all manner of summer dining experience from backyard barbecues to picnics in the park to dinner on the patio is the salad. Salads are humble no more, having evolved from the pathetic plate of flavorless iceberg, anemic supermarket tomatoes and thick bottled dressings poured over as a blanket trying to smother the lack of appeal. Even the ubiquitous potato salad, Cole slaw and macaroni salad have all been downgraded to costars of the summertime spread. While certainly still enjoyed by most, one can expect to find an exciting new creation in the salad bowl situated next to the potato salad.
Just today I conjured up two of my go-to summer salads. One is a three-bean salad consisting of green beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, sliced olives, herbs, onions, garlic and a simple vinaigrette. The other is a succotash salad of corn, lima beans, red peppers, scallions and a creamy dressing with a touch of hot sauce. These two salads together took less than an hour to prepare. The latter has been relegated to the refrigerator to enjoy tomorrow evening, leaving the daytime free for other summery pursuits such as a trek to the beach.
Side dish salads are usually quick to make because some of the ingredients may need little or no preparation. These salads can also be fabricated with some items from the pantry and whatever odds and ends are left in the crisper drawer. The succotash salad used frozen corn and lima beans. I had a red pepper and I had some leftover scallions. Ingredients can be tailored to suit the ethnicity of the meal. Combine black beans, corn, scallions, red pepper, jicama and a simple chili vinaigrette for a southwestern or Mexican repast. Arrange tomatoes of varying sizes, shapes and colors on a plate, drizzle with some olive oil and a quality balsamic vinegar and sprinkle with chopped fresh basil or oregano or some crumbled gorgonzola for a taste of Italy. The two aforementioned salads that I made will be perfect with grilled meats, fish or poultry with an American flare. For an Asian dinner, take advantage of the bags of broccoli slaw or bean sprouts and add some red pepper, scallions, peanuts or cashews and whisk together an Asian vinaigrette. These salads can all be made ahead, freeing up your time to bask in the sun and surf, and the leftovers make a perfect light lunch for the following day.
When it comes to the trinity of potato, macaroni and Cole slaw salads, their classic presentations are always a comfort that we all crave at least once during the season. They are not, however, immune to a creative boost on occasion. Todays Cole slaws tend to contain all sorts of additional ingredients from apples to sunflower seeds and everything in between, and they have been lightened up with flavorful vinaigrettes in lieu of the heavy gloppy mayonnaise. Potato salads have welcomed such additions as blue cheese, bacon, peas, corn and other colorful points of flavor and texture.
Main dish salads can be the star of the show, requiring only a nice, crusty loaf of bread as an accompaniment. Even a classic Caesar salad becomes an entree when cooked shrimp is added into the mix, or when the salad is topped with a grilled tuna steak or a fried egg. Embrace the coastal theme of summer by incorporating seafood into your salad bowl. Add some bacon and scallops to a bowl of lettuces, endives, radicchio, grape tomatoes and green beans. Try some cooked lobster meat in a salad of potatoes, green beans, celery, tomatoes and a creamy garlic dressing. For the ultimate one-dish meal, create a classic French Niçoise salad platter with grilled tuna steaks, potatoes, olives, green beans, tomatoes, watercress and hard-boiled eggs. Accompanied by a baguette and a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, even ravenous hubbies won't walk away from the table unsatiated. When grilling chicken or beef for dinner, always grill extra to utilize in a salad later in the week.
For a summer green side salad that’s packed with crunch, try serving up my summer green salad. For some coastal main dish refreshers, try lobster potato salad aioli or Asian shrimp and noodle salad. Present an impressive arrangement of spectacular color to your table with my heirloom tomato salad platter. A main dish variation of an Italian panzanella salad needs nothing more than a glass of pinot grigio and a light dessert for a satisfying summer sunset dinner on the patio.
Here is my twist of east meets west, as the shellfish of northeastern U.S. join with a tapestry of Asian ingredients. My rendition contains peanuts, but for those with nut allergies I would recommend wasabi peas as a crunchy and flavorful substitute and swap out the peanut oil for a vegetable oil instead.
Asian Seafood Salad
1/2 pound thin rice noodles
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 pound bay scallops
2 dozen littleneck clams
2 pounds mussels
1 bag broccoli slaw
2 red bell peppers, cut into matchstick strips
1 cup roasted, unsalted peanuts
6 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons peanut oil
3 tablespoons sesame oil
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon Thai fish sauce (nam pla)
1 teaspoon Asian chili-garlic sauce
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 limes, quartered
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook the rice noodles for four to five minutes. Drain the noodles and rinse them well. Set aside to cool.
In the same pot, heat 2 tablespoons peanut oil over medium heat. Add the 2 cloves of minced garlic, the shrimp and the scallops. Sauté until the scallops are opaque and the shrimp are pink. Transfer the shrimp and scallops to a large bowl from the pot and set aside to cool. Add 1/2 cup water to the same pot and bring to a boil. Once boiling, add the clams and then the mussels on top. Cover the pot and allow the clams and mussels to steam. After five minutes, check and remove any that have opened, adding them to the bowl with the shrimp and scallops. Replace the cover and check again in two minutes, removing opened shellfish. Repeat this until all of the shellfish have been opened and been removed. Discard any shellfish that fails to open after fifteen minutes.
While the shellfish cools, combine the broccoli slaw, red peppers and peanuts in a mixing bowl. Place the next seven ingredients in a glass measuring cup with a pour spout and whisk them together until combined. Drizzle one third of the dressing over the slaw mixture and toss to coat.
Divide and arrange the rice noodle on four individual plates. Divide and arrange the broccoli slaw mixture over each, leaving a visible border of the noodles. Divide and arrange the shellfish over each and then drizzle with the remaining dressing. Serve each salad with two wedges of lime on top. Serves four.
Whether you enjoy the cool simplicity of a main dish salad that's fully loaded with fresh ingredients or an imaginative combination of delectable edibles for a spectacular meal opener or a perfect accompanying side, there is no limit to what you can toss together in a salad bowl. Take ethnic cues from your menu, suggestions from your pantry shelves, use up a left over stray article or produce or two and fill out the rest with fresh seasonal gems from your garden or local farm stand.
Food for Thought
Local farmers and artisans are getting into full swing as the farm stands sell off the gardening plants and replace them with colorful piles of the freshest produce you can buy. Tomatoes, lettuces, peppers, string beans, eggplant and summer squashes and all about to make their grand entrance. Leave the supermarket fare behind and support your local growers. You’ll taste the difference. Many farm stands also offer locally produced cheeses, jams and baked goods. Pick up some local fresh mozzarella or goat cheese, some tomatoes, some fresh basil and a fresh, crisp loaf of bread and you have a perfect lunch. If you are lucky enough to live in a wine region, pour a glass of local wine with that salad or bruschetta and appreciate the local flavors of the season.