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


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.

There are many advantages to a meal of this type. Besides being fun to shop for and easy to put together, special salads are economical to serve. Even the most expensive ingredients, such as the sirloin in the grilled salad, are used in small quantities -- a pound of steak, for instance, or a pound of shrimp, provide plenty for salad for six people. And, especially in hot weather, salad is simply a good idea, for guests or for family. "It's more refreshing to eat, much more desirable than some of the standard [party] dishes you could fix," Mr. Gettier says. And, he adds, "It doesn't generate much heat in your kitchen."

K? Here are Mr. Gettier's recipes for four sensational salads.

Grilled salad Serves six.

12 ounces olive oil

4 ounces red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1/4 tablespoon whole thyme

1 pound sirloin, trimmed

6 baby eggplants, halved

3 red peppers, quartered, seeded and ribbed

1 large onion, cut in 6 slices

3 leeks, white part only, trimmed, cut in half

salt and pepper to taste

1 head red leaf lettuce

1/2 of 1 head radicchio, sliced (as for slaw) (see note)

Whisk together the oil, vinegar, mustard and thyme, and set aside. Grill sirloin, eggplant, red peppers, onion and leeks by brushing gently with olive oil, adding a little salt and pepper and placing over medium-hot coals. Turn to grill evenly on all sides. Wash lettuces.

To serve, place red leaf lettuce on plate, top with a handful of radicchio, then arrange the vegetables on top, considering color and shape in placement. Top with thin slices of sirloin and drizzle with dressing, or serve it on the side.

Note: Radicchio has a strong flavor; use more or less of it to taste.

Lettuce salad with pine nuts and chevre Serves six.

10 ounces vegetable oil

3 ounces white wine vinegar

1/4 teaspoon oregano

1/2 teaspoon honey

salt and pepper to taste

nTC 4 ounces chevre (goat cheese), crumbled

6 ounces of pine nuts, toasted (see note) and coarsely chopped

1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced

1 red onion, sliced thin

4-5 tomatoes, medium slices

selection of lettuces, as available (red leaf, romaine, radicchio, arugula, watercress, mache, Bibb)

Whisk together the oil, vinegar, oregano, honey and salt and pepper. Add crumbled chevre and mix in gently. Set aside. Wash and trim lettuces, pat dry. Place selection of lettuce leaves on each plate, top with vegetables, then pine nuts. Drizzle with dressing or serve on the side.

Note: To toast pine nuts, spread in a single layer in a skillet over medium heat; shake occasionally. Don't let them burn; it takes just 5 minutes or less to toast them.

Seafood salad with orzo Serves six.

6 ounces olive oil

2 ounces sherry wine vinegar

squeeze of lime juice

pinch of cayenne pepper

salt and pepper to taste

1-1 1/2 pounds orzo (Greek-style pasta)

1 red pepper, seeded, ribbed and cut into fine dice

1 medium onion, peeled and cut into fine dice, then washed briefly under cold water

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, minced

1 pound bay scallops

1 pound shrimp

1/2 head radicchio, sliced (as for slaw)

1 head red leaf lettuce

6-8 fresh basil leaves, minced (or similar amount of cilantro, minced)

1/2 - 3/4 pounds champagne grapes, rinsed

Whisk together the olive oil, sherry vinegar, lime juice, cayenne and salt and pepper. Set aside. Cook orzo according to package directions, being careful not to overcook. Drain and cool. Simmer shrimp and scallops separately in 3/4 cup water for 3 to 4 minutes, until tender. Before discarding water, add a tablespoon or so to the orzo, to give it a little subtle flavoring. Shell and chop shrimp into pieces about the size of the scallops, reserving some for garnish if desired. Add shrimp and scallops to orzo, along with red pepper, onion, parsley and basil or cilantro. Mix gently; add dressing and mix again. Chill before serving.

To serve, arrange red leaf leaves on plate, top with some of sliced radicchio. Top with salad, and garnish with a small bunch of champagne grapes and reserved shrimp.

Sesame noodle and seared tuna salad Serves six.

1 pound of tuna (see note)

black peppercorns, crushed

1-1 1/2 pounds linguine or yellow Chinese noodles

1/2 pound snow peas

3 ounces vegetable oil

1 1/2 ounces rice wine vinegar

2 tablespoons sesame oil

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 1/2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger

pinch of crushed hot red pepper (pizza pepper)

3 tablespoons sesame seeds

salt and pepper to taste

Roll the tuna in the peppercorns to coat and sear in skillet over high heat for about 2 minutes on each side. (Fish should be seared on outside but still pink in center.) Cook linguine or noodles according to package directions, being careful not to overcook. Cool. Toss snow peas in boiling water for 30 seconds, drain and "shock" under cold water, drain again. Mix together remaining ingredients in large bowl, add noodles or linguine and snow peas and mix gently. To serve, place portion of noodles or linguine mixture on plate. Slice tuna in thin strips and place on top.

(Note: Mr. Gettier suggests using a tuna steak with a more rounded shape, somewhat like a tenderloin of beef, rather than a flat steak.)

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