Spectacular summer salads

From top: 1. Baby blue salad with red leaf and gem lettuces, blue cheese, fresh blueberries, pansies and a blueberry chutney vinaigrette; 2. Peaches, parmesan and arugula salad on a basil puree; 3. Mixed green salad with peaches, basil and chevre are perfect summertime salads. Bon Appetite! (Mark DuFrene/Contra Costa Times/MCT)

Ah, summer, the season of garden parties, backyard fetes and cozy picnics.

Whether it's a lavish spread under a froth of white canopies, or a simple meal served on a checkered cloth, a party is just the ticket to rouse us from the doldrums of a wretched recession and midsummer's lazy heat.

If only we had the energy to, you know, cook something.

The trick, say some Bay Area caterers, is to make do-ahead salads that showcase the season so spectacularly your main course can take a back seat. Fortunately, by committing to fresh, local produce you will be serving food so fabulous it needs no heavy dressings and sauces.

A favorite combination for Daniel Capra, executive chef for Paula LeDuc Fine Catering, is fresh peaches nestled atop a basil puree -- like a pesto, but without the garlic -- and garnished with arugula and shaved Parmesan. Capra compares it to that summer classic, melon and prosciutto.

"It's successful because of the saltiness of the ham against the sweetness of the melon," Capra says. "In this case, the salt from the cheese is an excellent balance for the sweetness of the peach. It's easy to prepare as long as you have outstanding produce, which isn't hard to come by here in the Bay Area."

The Emeryville company, which has catered thousands of events, including Hollywood premieres, a reception for British royalty and San Francisco's Black and White Ball, is known for dishes that play with sweet and savory whimsy.

A sense of surprise, says Capra, can be found in an herb-infused Tomato Kiss cocktail, paper cones filled with late night "nibbles," or a peach and basil still life.

"I always have fun with fruit," says Capra.

The peach-basil pairing is particularly popular this summer, says Barbara Llewellyn, another East Bay caterer whose events take her from Atherton to the wine country and Lake Tahoe.

The notion of local, sustainable, organic food has become a Bay Area standard at lavish parties, as well as at smaller events. And Llewellyn's clients have become increasingly conscious of what they're eating.

"More and more," she says, "they're going to farmers markets and understanding the value of things that have just come out of the ground."

Llewellyn loves creating themed salad bars where guests can build their own creations, such as an avocado salad bar where they can add fresh greens, herbs, tomatoes, chicken or crab salad to perfectly ripe avocado halves.

When you use fresh herbs and plump, juicy produce, the Orinda resident says, there's no need to drench things in dressing. Llewellyn's most popular salads this summer feature lettuces and basil, peach slices, pine nuts and chevre lightly tossed with a Champagne vinaigrette; or rosy watermelon, ripe blueberries, kalamata olives, feta and fresh mint.

"You walk up to a salad with mint in it, and you immediately know it's there," Llewellyn says. "There's just a minimal need for salad dressing when you have all those wonderful things you're putting in your salads."

That casual, carefree approach is the essence of summer, says Menlo Park's Vicki Vaughn, whose Perfect Taste Catering company does parties at Stanford University, as well as weddings and other events. Increasingly, Vaughn is getting requests not just for organic fare, but for food grown within the same 150-mile limit that Alice Waters so famously started and Google's cafes all boast. The emphasis, Vaughn says, is on "fresh, fun, local."

Vaughn brings that approach to a Blooming Garden Salad of edible marigolds, Johnny-jump-ups, nasturtiums, pansies and carnation petals. (If you want to replicate such a salad, make sure you use edible, organic flowers sold in the produce section at specialty markets. Blooms grown for the floral trade are not intended for eating.)

Her variation on a Caesar salad also forgoes the typical heavy dressing in favor of a light, lemony vinaigrette and homemade, garlicky croutons, and her current favorite -- a Baby Blue Salad -- is a showstopper. Vaughn uses a very dark, jewel-tone lettuce, such as the deep purple and almost blue-hued leaves found in a spring mix, and mixes it with crumbled Pt. Reyes blue cheese, fresh blueberries and blue pansies.

"We serve it with a blueberry chutney vinaigrette," says Vaughn. "It's a very blue, summery garden-looking thing. And if you want to make it extra naughty, we put spiced pecans in it."

With salads like these, one hardly needs an entree.

No, Vaughn says with a laugh, what you really need is a main course that goes with the salad, not the other way around. The blue salad, she says, is lovely with a simple grilled chicken breast. Serve it with some of that blueberry chutney. Then go have fun with your guests.

After all, it's summer.

Mixed green salad with fresh peaches, basil and chevre

Serves 4

Champagne vinaigrette

1 small shallot, sliced

1 garlic clove, sliced

3 tablespoons Champagne vinegar

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/2 teaspoon honey

Salt and pepper to taste

1/2 cup 50-50 olive oil/canola oil blend

Salad

8 cups of greens

3 peaches sliced

1/2 bunch whole basil sprigs

1/4 cup toasted pine nuts

1/2 cup chevre, crumbled

1. Place all the vinaigrette ingredients except the oil in a blender and puree. Drizzle in the oil to blend.

2. Place the salad ingredients into a large salad bowl and drizzle lightly with the vinaigrette.

-- Barbara Llewellyn Catering, Oakland, Calif.

Per serving of salad: 190 calories, 11 g total fat, 5 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 110 mg sodium, 17 g carbohydrates, 4 g fiber, 12 g sugars, 10 g protein. Calories from fat: 100.

Per tablespoon of dressing: 50 calories, 6 g total fat, 0.5 g saturated fat, 1 g carbohydrates.

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Peaches, parmesan and arugula

Serves 6

3 ripe peaches

1/2 cup basil puree (see below)

1 cup shaved Parmesan

2 handfuls wild arugula, washed

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt to taste

Basil puree

1 bunch basil

2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan

1/4 cup olive oil

1. To make the basil puree, first bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Remove stems from the basil, then plunge the leaves into the boiling salted water for 8 seconds, remove immediately and shock in ice water. (This helps set the color.) Squeeze excess water from basil and chop into smaller pieces.

2. Place the basil in a blender with the nuts and cheese. With the motor running, slowly drizzle in enough olive oil -- 1-2 ounces -- to get a smooth puree.

3. To assemble the salad, first quarter the peaches.

4. Pool a spoonful or two of the puree on a plate. Arrange 3 wedges of peach upright on the puree. Rest a few cheese shavings over the peaches.

5. Gently toss the arugula with olive oil and a pinch of salt, and arrange it decoratively over the Parmesan.

-- Daniel Capra, Paula LeDuc Fine Catering, Emeryville, Calif.

Per serving: 220 calories, 18 g total fat, 3.5 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 150 mg sodium, 11 g carbohydrates, 3 g fiber, 7 g sugars, 6 g protein. Calories from fat: 160.

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Summer baby blue salad

Serves 4

1 pound jewel-toned lettuce

1/4 lb. Pt. Reyes Blue Cheese, crumbled

1/2 cup fresh blueberries

Edible blue pansies

Blueberry vinaigrette and blueberry chutney

1. Place the salad greens in a large bowl and toss lightly with some of the vinaigrette.

2. Mound salad on serving platter. Top with fresh blueberries and crumbled Blue Cheese, and garnish with edible pansies.

Blueberry chutney

1 large Granny Smith Apple, chopped

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup orange juice

1 tablespoon finely grated orange rind

1 teaspoon ground ginger

4 cups fresh blueberries

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1. To make the blueberry chutney, place the apple, sugar, orange juice, orange rind and ground ginger in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes.

2. Stir in the blueberries and vinegar and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, stir occasionally and cook for 40 minutes. Yields 3 cups.

Blueberry vinaigrette

3/4 cup blueberry chutney (see recipe)

3/4 cup finely chopped white onion

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

2-3 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon pepper

2 cups canola oil

Stir together the first five ingredients. Gradually whisk in oil until mixed. This vinaigrette is very thick and you don't need much to dress a salad.

-- Vicki Vaughn, Perfect Taste Catering, Menlo Park, Calif.

Per serving of salad: 130 calories, 8 g total fat, 5 g saturated fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 410 mg sodium, 6 g carbohydrates, 2 g fiber, 3 g sugar, 8 g protein. Calories from fat: 80.

Per tablespoon of dressing: 90 calories, 9 g total fat, 0.5 g saturated fat, 100 mg sodium, 2 g carbohydrate, 2 g sugar.

Variation on the Caesar

Serves 6

NOTE: You can make your own croutons by tossing cubed bread with a generous amount of melted garlic butter. Bake them at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes.

Caesar Vinaigrette

1 teaspoon finely chopped Meyer lemon zest

5 tablespoons Meyer lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salad

4 heads romaine lettuce hearts

2/3 cup shaved Parmesan cheese

1 cup homemade or store-bought croutons, or more if desired

1. Combine the lemon zest, juice, salt and garlic in a small bowl. Whisk in the oil.

2. Wash lettuce and either spin dry or wrap in lint free towels. Refrigerate for 4 hours.

3. Tear lettuce into bite-sized pieces and place in large salad bowl. Toss with vinaigrette, croutons and cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Plate salad and top with a little more shaved cheese.

-- Vicki Vaughn, Perfect Taste Catering, Menlo Park

Per serving: 250 calories, 22 g total fat, 4.5 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 430 mg sodium, 7 g carbohydrates, 1 g fiber, 1 g sugar, 5 g protein. Calories from fat: 200.

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