Let market's fresh foods work to your advantage to create unusual meals

August 09, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

n a lather over summer entertaining? Don't be. It's a snap. Call up four or five friends, invite them over for "a simple salad" -- with nice crusty bread, good wine, and, for dessert, berries over ice cream.

Sounds just too simple? Wait till they taste the salad. It will knock their socks off -- if they're wearing any.

Fresh ingredients, some exotic, some simply unexpected, and carefully blended flavors are the key to these sumptuous salads that are easy to prepare and inspiring to eat.

"Look for ingredients that are slightly unusual or slightly out of the norm," says Michael Gettier, the Baltimore chef who most recently was executive chef at the Peabody Court Court Hotel, where his restaurant, the Conservatory, won numerous awards. "It's always more delightful for you and your guests if you serve something a little unfamiliar, or at least something they're not tired of yet."

Baltimore markets -- the city's municipal markets, local groceries and supermarkets, and specialty shops -- are treasure troves of special ingredients for sensational salads. Mr. Gettier and I spent a recent afternoon exploring some city food purveyors -- Cross Street market, Lexington market, and Trinacria, on North Paca Street, for Italian specialties.

We found exciting ingredients everywhere -- tiny champagne grapes and baby eggplant, tuna steaks and "humongous" shrimp, pretty pasta and American goat cheese among them.

We had started out with a list that was no more than the names of four different salads we thought might be good: a pasta salad, a lettuce salad, a seafood salad and a grilled salad. Then we let the markets be our guide in selecting ingredients.

"You have to let the impression of what it would be like guide you toward your purchases," Mr. Gettier explains. "If you see something that makes you go, 'Mmmmmmmm, that looks good,' it probably will be good on the plate."

A nice piece of fresh tuna caught our eye at a market stand. Mr. Gettier immediately thought of how good it would be rolled in cracked peppercorns and pan-seared, then sliced thin over a base of pasta and vegetables. We also spotted, at the same stand, some smoked trout and some beautiful little bay scallops, which we thought would go well with shrimp in a seafood salad. At the other end of the market we found huge red peppers, and later we found orzo, tiny oval Greek-style pasta, and the seafood salad was largely set. Then we found prosciutto -- Italian ham -- and decided its slightly salty, slightly sweet taste would be even better in the salad than smoked trout. And when we found tiny eggplant and huge leeks, we had the beginnings of the grilled salad.

It was an adventure shopping this way, pouncing on the things that attracted our eyes -- or our noses -- and figuring out how to use them. It helps, of course, to do your shopping with a professional chef, but choosing ingredients isn't all that hard, if you follow a few simple principles.

First, think fresh, fresh, fresh. "Everything has to look and smell good when you're buying it," Mr. Gettier says. If there's a farmer's market you frequent, shop in the morning for the ingredients for that evening's salad. Wherever you shop, choose the freshest and best-looking ingredients. "It's better to change ingredients than to use something -- say, an old, brown, wrinkled eggplant -- that's just not good," Mr. Gettier says.

Which brings us to principle No. 2: Be flexible. "The ability to improvise and to create" is the hallmark of a great chef -- and a great home cook as well, Mr. Gettier says.

And finally, consider taste, texture and "strength" when you're putting together ingredients.

If you're not sure whether two flavors would go together, experiment. Sample them. If you find a produce person or butcher who seems knowledgeable about food, ask questions. Think of combinations you know you like and imagine what would happen if you changed one of them -- if you like potatoes with onions, for example, think about potatoes with leeks. Or, instead of chicken with rice, how about chicken with pasta?

"Sometimes," Mr. Gettier says, "you go for tastes that mesh, and sometimes you go for tastes that contrast." That's also true for texture: Crisp croutons are wonderful in salads because the texture is such a contrast, Mr. Gettier points out. Shrimp and pasta go together well because the textures are similar.

"Watch grouping strong flavors with lighter flavors," Mr. Gettier cautions. "If you're doing something on the grill, that's the time to bring out the strong olive oil, or the Dijon mustard" because the hearty taste of grilled food takes well to strongly flavored condiments. But for the seafood salad we planned, Mr. Gettier notes, the tastes had to be lighter, because the flavors were more delicate.

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