Salads: the greening of summer Lettuce: Made with fancy greens or sturdy iceberg, these dishes should help refresh you.

July 15, 1998|By Kathy Casey | Kathy Casey,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

Summer days call for cool salads. You can almost hear the salad tongs clanging against a large bowl generously heaped with refreshing greens.

Because I like my greens as fresh as I can get them, a couple of years ago I put in a small raised bed on the hot, sunny, southern side of my house, not really too big, but ample for providing lots of fresh garden goodies. I started out with red oakleaf lettuce and exotic red romaine, then I sowed a few seeds of red chard and feathery mizuna from the mustard family. For a little spice I planted arugula, sometimes called rocket, and for a bit of bitter, curly baby frisee, which is one of the chicories, and brilliant purple radicchio.

If you don't have a green thumb, farmers' markets are wonderful sources to pick up salad fixings. Many upscale grocers even carry exotic green mixes.

Now let's consider iceberg lettuce. Who can forget the wedges of pale iceberg perched upon a plate with the lone tomato wedge and three choices of dressing in the middle of the table, Catalina French, Italian or blue cheese?

So, is iceberg obsolete? No way! I'm no lettuce snob. It has a definite place in the greens category. It's a very crispy lettuce that doesn't easily get wimpy, soggy or limp. For many years, it has been placed underneath, alongside and on top of many dishes: hamburgers, almond fried chicken, tuna sandwiches, tostadas, to name a few. Who would consider shredding delicate red oakleaf for a taco?

But branch out a bit and try some new greens - be it a warm spinach salad with a few Asian red-veined spinach leaves tossed in, or a summer tomato and onion salad with nutty leaves of arugula.

It's important that you dry your greens after rinsing them. I like to use a salad spinner. This ensures that your dressing doesn't get watered down and that it clings nicely to the leaves.

If not laden with a rich dressing, salads are the perfect health food. Many contemporary vinaigrettes are given body and flavor with fruit juices and purees that dilute the sharp acidity and replace some of the oil. If you like creamy dressings, they can be lightened with low-fat mayonnaise or yogurt, replacing some or all of the heavy mayonnaise or sour cream.

Salad dressings can be as simple as a wonderful vinegar and oil combination. It's fun and easy to make different berry and herb vinegars. Purple basil-infused white wine vinegar makes a delicately flavored, pink-hued ingredient. And grocers now stock a large selection of specialty vinegars if you don't want to make your own. Mix flavored vinegar with a good fruity olive oil or salad oil blended with a dash of fragrant nut oil such as walnut or pecan. Season your dressing with a dash of kosher or sea salt and a few twists of freshly ground pepper.

Salad additions can add texture and color. Crisp, herbed focaccia croutons, toasted nuts, citrus segments, diced tropical fruits, berries, pickled red onion rings, grilled veggies, bright strips of red and yellow sweet peppers, crumbles of blue cheese or pieces of leftover roasted chicken - any of these goodies tossed with your favorite mixture of greens can make a meal when paired with a hearty, crusty loaf of bread.

Let your imagination go, and try some of these recipes. I hope I'll hear your salad tongs tossing to a new beat soon.

Warm Spinach Salad With Smoked Chicken

Makes 4 entree servings or 8 starters

2 bunches fresh spinach

2 tablespoons oil

2 teaspoons minced garlic

3/4 pound smoked chicken, thinly sliced (see note)

1 cup thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms

1/3 cup thinly sliced red onion

1/2 cup thinly sliced red and yellow bell peppers

3/4 cup Spicy Orange-Honey Dressing

1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted

1 (3 1/2-ounce) package enoki mushrooms, for garnish, optional

This recipe is easy to assemble once you have all the elements prepared, which you can do up to 2 days in advance.

Wash and pick stems from spinach and drain well. Place spinach in large bowl.

Heat oil in saute pan over medium-high heat until hot. Add garlic, chicken, mushrooms, onion and peppers and saute 2 minutes. Add Spicy Orange-Honey Dressing to taste. Stir well to heat through. Pour over spinach. Add almonds and toss to coat spinach leaves well.

Divide salad onto 4 dinner plates. Garnish with enoki mushrooms. Serve immediately.

Note: Smoked chicken is available from most delis and $l well-stocked grocery stores.

Spicy Orange-Honey Dressing:

Makes about 3 1/2 cups

1/4 cup honey

2 tablespoons molasses

1/4 cup Dijon mustard

1/4 cup orange juice concentrate

1/4 cup cider vinegar

1/2 cup rice wine vinegar

2 cups oil

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 1/2 teaspoons sambal oelek (Asian chili paste, available in Asian grocery stores) or substitute 3/4 teaspoon red chile flakes

1 teaspoon salt

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