Tossing And Turning

Grill some vegetables, mix in some herbs and pour on a fresh, bold dressing. Summertime is salad time.

June 08, 2005|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN STAFF

Summertime, and the salads are easy.

Farmers' market bounty and too-hot-to-cook temperatures combine to push this modest first course to center stage this time of year.

Summer expands the appeal of salad - and its definition, too.

Cooked spinach cooled and dressed with olive oil and lemon. Radicchio or endive seared on the grill. Fresh herbs in place of lettuces. Grilled beef tossed with peppers, onions and chilled in a fajita-flavored vinaigrette.

Anything can be a salad in the summertime.

"And you get to feel good about it, too," said Lauren Groveman, author of The I Love to Cook Book.

"Salads are a way to work into your diet all the stuff that you know is good for you," said Groveman, who favors the savory flavors of grilled vegetables in summer salads.

"You end up feeling like you are taking better care of yourself."

The most exotic produce is available year-round, but there is something about summer that inspires the salad maker in us all.

"I love a great Nicoise. And I love a great Caesar," said Aliza Green, author of The Field Guide to Produce.

"But in the summer, I can go out my door and pick a warm tomato off the vine and some fresh basil. Cut up some red onion, dress it with a great olive oil and some balsamic vinegar, a little sea salt and black pepper," she said, deep in reverie.

"When I think of a salad, that's what I think of."

Clearly, the summer salad is in the bowl of the beholder. But there are some rules, if you can call them that, for giving fresh produce the tribute it deserves.

"Summer salads call for a clear dressing, not a heavy milky dressing," said Ann Taylor Pittman, associate food editor for Cooking Light.

But the dressing has to be able to stand up to the hearty flavors in grilled zucchini, eggplant or fresh green beans.

"For that, you need something really citrus-y or garlic-y," she said.

Pittman also recommends using the whole leaf of young herbs, such as dill fronds, basil, cilantro sprigs or flat-leaf parsley.

"The more you chop them, the stronger the flavor, but using the whole leaf gives you a more subtle flavor and a different texture," she said.

Summer is the time to experiment by pairing contrasting flavors, such as the bitterness of endive or arugula with the sweetness of fresh figs.

"People are getting really creative," she said. "They are going for different shapes and colors, in addition to different flavors."

Potato salads and pasta salads and heavy mayonnaise dressings are so-o-o-o Happy Days, said Susie Middleton, editor of Fine Cooking.

"Been there, done that," she said.

"Salads in summer don't even have to have lettuce. Vegetables hold up so much better and they can be dressed ahead of time and you can put them out on a buffet."

Middleton likes to grill romaine, charring the edges, and serve it with blue cheese. She slivers snap beans into salads and dresses them with an Asian vinaigrette.

"In the summer, you need a really vibrant dressing," she said. "Try mellowing the garlic by turning it into a paste with a little kosher salt. And even if you are using lemon juice, add a little vinegar. It gives it that extra bite it needs."

Heavy cheeses like parmesan or Gruyere, nuts, apples and pears are reserved for winter salads, these cooks agreed. But there is nothing like fresh mozzarella and warm tomatoes in a salade caprese.

Groveman loves to pan-fry goat cheese coated in bread crumbs in olive oil and slide the slices hot onto mescaline greens and red onion.

"It is a way to make your salad the main event," she said from her Larchmont, N.Y., kitchen, where she was roasting beets for that night's salad.

"You don't even need a grill," she said. "Take your vegetables, trim them, toss them with a little olive oil and minced garlic and maybe a little butter. Sprinkle with some salt and roast them at 450 degrees for about 20 minutes."

But if you do have a grill, take your wok outside and use it there to stir-fry ingredients for your summer salads like chef Ming Tsai does. He's the star of East Meets West on the Food Network.

"This is the time of year I love to be outside," he said. "I just put a pan or a wok on the grill and turn my salads into an entree with some shrimp."

Or corn.

"I grew up in Ohio and one of my favorite memories is of silver queen corn in the summer," he said. "Thirteen ears for $1."

Today, he removes the kernels and stir-fries them on the grill with shiitake mushrooms and serves them over frisee lettuce.

"Then I deglaze the pan with a soy-shallot vinaigrette."

Tasha DeSerio, who writes about summer salads in the July issue of Fine Cooking, favors arugula for her salads because of its powerful bite.

"Arugula is the new iceberg," she said. "You can find it anywhere."

She likes to add young, whole-leaf marjoram to arugula. "It is surprisingly good," she said. "And the combination of herbs and lettuces can be so beautiful."

Home cooks can be skittish about adding handfuls of herbs to their salads, but many grocery chains carry bags of herbs mixed for just that purpose.

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