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."
"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.
"Buying each individual herb can be pricey, and this takes the guesswork out of it for the consumer," said Pittman of Cooking Light.
Salad combinations are nearly endless in the summer. Try kiwi, avocados and red onion. Or soy-marinated grilled chicken, mandarin oranges and won-ton crisps. A slice of cold steak makes a salad a meal.
Add red or green grapes to chicken salad, dried cherries to coleslaw. Use chervil instead of parsley or garlic chives instead of onion chives.
Cook spinach, chard or brocolini, dress it in olive oil and lemon and serve it at room temperature - what Italians call insalata cotta.
Or do what Aliza Green does, and pare your salad down to its essentials: greens dressed with a good olive oil, an aged red-wine vinegar and lemon.
"In Europe, the salad is part of every meal as a palate cleanser and a refresher," she said.
"In this country, salads have gotten incredibly complex. Typically American. We overdo things. We pile everything on and make it a meal in itself. We don't know where to stop."
We have come a long way, she said, from the time when a Jell-O mold with carrot shavings was considered a summer salad.
Every restaurant offers a Caesar. Even McDonald's has radicchio in its salads and the lousiest chains serve balsamic vinaigrette.
"Heirloom tomatoes are such a big deal now. Spring mix," she said, "is a phenomenon that has taken over the world. But it is really pretty and I think it is terrific that we have embraced that.
"It makes such a nice green salad," she said. "And so simple."
In the mix
Consider using whole leaves of young herbs, such as flat-leaf parsley, cilantro or marjoram, in place of some of your lettuces.
Summer calls for a clear, not creamy, dressing. But add plenty of garlic or citrus to stand up to the garden vegetables you include in your salads.
Tired of balsamic vinegar? Try an aged red-wine vinegar.
Save heavy cheeses, like parmesan or Gruyere, for your winter salads. Use broiled or fried goat cheese or a high-quality mozzarella instead.
Leave nuts, apples and pears for your fall salads. Include grapefruit or orange wedges or berries instead.
Grill or roast squashes, eggplant, peppers or beets; blanch fresh green beans or saute mushrooms and corn and add them to your salads.
Better yet, grill your lettuces. Slice radicchio or romaine lengthwise, brush with oil and place flat side down on a hot grill for 3 to 5 minutes. Remove, drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and serve.
Add shrimp, chicken, salmon or leftover steak to make your salad an entree.
-- Susan Reimer
Green Herb Salad With Champagne Vinaigrette
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon minced shallot
2 tablespoons champagne vinegar
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 large head butter (Boston) lettuce, leaves separated and torn into bite-sized pieces
1 cup fresh flat-leaf (Italian) parsley leaves
1/2 cup fresh cilantro (fresh coriander) leaves
1/2 cup fresh chervil sprigs
In the bottom of a salad bowl, combine the olive oil and the shallot. Add the vinegar, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and mix well with fork. Top with the lettuce, parsley, cilantro and chervil. When ready to serve, toss well.
Tip: To enrich the dressing, add a little Maytag, Stilton, gorgonzola or other blue-veined cheese along with the vinegar, coarsely mashing it with a fork. Serve the salad with a sliver of cheese and some walnuts after a main course.
- From "Williams-Sonoma: Salad"
Per serving: 135 calories; 1 gram protein; 14 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 3 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 15 milligrams sodium
Spring Lettuces With Broiled Goat Cheese
5 ounces fresh goat cheese
1 1/2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
8 to 10 ounces mixed young salad greens
Preheat the broiler. Line a broiler pan with foil. Divide the cheese into 4 equal portions and shape each portion into a patty a scant 1/2 inch thick. Place the patties on the foil-lined pan and set aside.
In a salad bowl, whisk together the vinegar, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. While whisking, slowly drizzle in the olive oil to make a thick dressing. Add the greens and toss to coat well. Divide among individual plates and set aside.
Broil the goat-cheese patties about 8 inches from the heat source until the cheese is just about heated through and has softened along the bottom edge, about 4 minutes.
Remove the pan from the broiler and place a patty atop each salad. Give a final sprinkle of pepper and serve immediately.
-- From "Williams-Sonoma: Salad" (Simon & Schuster, 2001, $16.95)
Per serving: 228 calories; 9 grams protein; 21 grams fat; 9 grams saturated fat; 3 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram fiber; 28 milligrams cholesterol; 198 milligrams sodium
Makes 3 1/2 cups
1 cup grainy mustard
8 medium shallots, roughly chopped (about 1 cup)
1/4 cup Chinese black vinegar or balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup naturally brewed rice-wine vinegar
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
2 cups grapeseed oil or canola oil
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
In a blender or food processor, combine the mustard, shallots, vinegars, soy sauce and sugar and puree.
With the machine running, slowly drizzle in the oil until an emulsion is formed. Season with salt and pepper, remembering that not much salt will be needed because of the soy sauce.
Tip: To make this salad into a full meal, add either 1 pound baby shrimp or 1 pound of chicken breasts, julienne. Heat oil in the pan and saute the shrimp for 3 minutes and the chicken for 4 minutes, then proceed with the recipe.
Per serving: 81 calories; 0 grams protein; 8 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 2 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 140 milligrams sodium
Warm Shiitake and Corn Salad Frisee
1 baguette sliced diagonally 1/4 inch thick
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus additional for brushing on the baguette
2 cups fresh shiitake mushrooms sliced 1/4 inch thick
kernels from 3 ears of corn
4 scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
1/2 cup Shallot-Soy Vinaigrette (left)
2 heads of frisee lettuce, leaves separated, rinsed and torn
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Place the baguette slices on a baking sheet, brush the slices with oil and bake until golden, 10 to 12 minutes. Set aside.
Heat a wok or a saute pan over high heat. Add 2 tablespoons oil and swirl to coat the pan. Add the mushrooms and saute until soft, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the corn and scallions and saute until soft, about 2 minutes. Add the vinaigrette and heat thoroughly.
Place the frisee in a large bowl, pour the hot vinaigrette and vegetables over it and toss well. Season with salt and pepper, toss and serve with the baguette slices.
-- Chef Ming Tsai
Per serving: 338 calories; 6 grams protein; 24 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 28 grams carbohydrate; 6 grams fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 338 milligrams sodium