Best Summer Salads:
From Greens to Grains
by Kate Heyhoe
Cool food, cool kitchen, cool cook. When the temperature sizzles, be smart: go for the greens— and the grains, and the beans. Salads, of course, don't have to be made mostly of lettuces and other leafy vegetables. Chickpeas, green beans, rice, pasta, barley and other hearty ingredients turn summer salads into easy, complete meals.
Whip up a large bowl of a hearty salad to keep in the fridge for no-sweat munching, or pack them in the ice chest for instant summer outings. Experiment with different grains by buying them in small amounts from the bulk bins of your local whole food stores.
Composing a Main Course Summer Salad
Salads are like collages: the best are assembled from multiple materials, with varying textures, colors, and weights. Vinaigrettes or salad dressings are the culinary "glues" that hold them all together.
Play around with ingredients to get the composition and balance that pleases you most. Try out the FoodWine's Salad Collection below, or make your own recipes by mixing and matching ingredients like these:
Greens: Lettuce is available all year round, but summertime yields seasonal greens with unique flavors. Use them on their own or mix them into a salad. For a peppery bite, pick up some arugula or watercess. Escarole, radicchio, frisee and endive— all members of the chicory family—taste slightly bitter; they make a great counterpoint to fruit and goat cheese, and vibrant additions when added in small amounts to any salad. Used sparingly, sorrel perks up salads with its intensely tart, lemony flavor, making it a perfect complement to fish. If you can't find unusual greens, don't fret: baby spinach is a perennial flavor booster and so are celery leaves.
Grains: Rice, pasta, bulghur, amaranth, quinoa—these all make excellent bases for building a hearty salad. Adding beans or lentils helps complete their nutritional value. Bulghur, or crushed wheat kernels, has a toothful, chewy texture and couldn't be easier to prepare: simply pour 2 cups boiling water over 1 cup bulghur wheat and let soak until tender. Then drain in a colander, pressing out excess water. Instant couscous, a granular pasta, also cooks by absorbing boiling water (follow the package instructions for the proper amount) and it too makes a quick and easy base for salad.
Herbs: Fresh basil (which comes in many varieties including lemon basil and cinnamon basil) is the queen of summer herbs. But don't discount the punch that even simple parsley can add to a dish. Other fresh favorites include dill, tarragon, and for a more exotic touch, mint.
Onions and Garlic: Crisp, tender green onions or scallions, chopped with both the white and green parts used, add both color and a light, fresh flavor to salads, as do red onions. Vidalia, Walla Walla, and Texas 1015's are varieties of sweet onions, which are prized for their mild flavor and crisp, moist texture. Garlic always adds a robust perk, but if you want a milder flavor, blanch the garlic in boiling water for 10 seconds. Shallots meld well in salads, adding a flavor that's somewhere between onion and garlic.
Vegetables: You want vegetables that will stay crisp in the salad, even after a day or two in the fridge— like carrots, celery, bell peppers, corn and such. Of course, some vegetables like asparagus and green beans can be too crisp when raw, and profit from a quick blanch in boiling water, followed by a plunge into an ice bath. Potatoes should be diced and fully cooked, and red potatoes are both tasty and colorful. Sliced or diced cucumbers hold up best if you salt them and let them drain, then squeeze out the excess moisture; the cucumbers will stay crisper longer. Mushrooms can be tricky, as they tend to release liquid and turn dark, so consider carefully if you plan to use them. Broccoli and cauliflower should also be blanched, and over time they may start to smell strong like cabbage, so they are best eaten right away.
Vinaigrettes: Whisk together a good quality oil with a vinegar or a fresh citrus juice to make a dressing. Be creative when setting up the flavors that will bond your ingredients together. Consider walnut, hazelnut and other nut oils, peppery olive oils, or a touch of toasted sesame oil as strong seasonings. Use canola, mild olive oil, or corn oil when you don't want the oil flavor to dominate. Vinegars range from low intensity rice vinegar to powerful sherry wine and balsamic vinegars, or try an apple cider or other fruit vinegar. Fresh lemon, lime, tangerine, and orange juice add sparkle. Don't feel compelled to use only one oil or one acid— sometimes the best dishes are ones that layer complementary flavors together, and in some cases, using all of one type of oil or acid can be too much of a good thing. Soy sauce, Dijon mustard, and anchovy paste also perk up the flavors. Taste the mixture until the right balance is achieved.
Legumes: of course it's easiest to open a can of beans, but your salad will taste so much better with home-cooked beans. If you do use canned beans, be sure to drain and rinse them well. But if you were smart in the winter, you cooked up a batch of beans and froze them, just so you'd have them ready for a summer salad. Beans taste best if they are fully cooked but retain some texture and aren't mushy. Lentils cook very quickly but if you're not careful, they can overcook and become too soft for salads. Keep them firmer by cooking just until tender, then drain and rinse under cold water to arrest the cooking. Other favorite legumes include chickpeas, black beans, red beans, black-eyed peas, green peas, string beans, and white beans. You can use beans by themselves as the main part of a salad, adding vegetables and seasonings, or stir a cupful or so of beans into a grain salad or a mixed green salad.
Meats, Fish, and Fowl: Just about any of these proteins, fully cooked, can be composed with the salad or mixed in. Tuna and salmon can be canned (drain first) or freshly grilled or cooked. Chicken, turkey or other poultry add a subtle flavor if poached, or a more assertive one if grilled or roasted. Sandwich meats from the deli make for instant additions. Quick tip: Buy a whole roasted chicken from the market—they're so easy and flavorful—and shred the meat into a salad. Or cruise into your local Chinatown for Chinese barbecued pork, known as char siu.
Cheese: Cheese can add a pleasantly sharp contrast to the other flavors in a salad. Consider cheddar, Parmesan, Gruyere and Gouda, and for a more robust salad, toss in chunks or thick gratings of smoked cheese. Keep feta and blue cheeses on hand—even a small amount perks up any salad.
Other additions to consider include dried or fresh fruits, Italian peperoncini or other pickled peppers, nuts, sesame seeds, honey, horseradish, capers, and spices like cumin, curry powder, fennel seed, and ground chiles. Even if you don't have fresh herbs, crumble in a touch of dried herbs— especially oregano, dill, parsley, chervil, basil, and mint.
One last thing: don't forget the salt and pepper. If you're cooking a grain or pasta, add plenty of salt in the cooking process— you'll need to add less later after it's cooked. Pepper, though, tastes best when added at the end, freshly cracked and mixed in. Experiment with different types of peppercorns— Tellicherry, Lampong, green, white, or pink. You'll be amazed at the variations of flavor each one produces.
FoodWine's Salad Collection
Fresh Herb, Rice and Bean Salad
Iceberg Lettuce with Creamy Blue Cheese Dressing
Southwest Salad with Black Beans and Corn
The Definitive Potato Salad
15-Minute Potato Salad
Paintbox Tuna-Mac Salad
Minty Raita-Style Cole Slaw
For more summer recipes, visit Hot Grills and Big Chills
Kate's Global Kitchen for August, 2000:
Copyright © 2000, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created August 2000
This page modified August 2007