A twist on salad standbys
Lets get one thing clear. I am not one of those salad girls.You know that girl. The one who picks at lettuce leaves while the guys dig into their steaks. The one who skips dessert or will have one little bite. I am not her.I say that because I feel a little defensive about salads. When people ask me as they often ask food writers what I cook for myself at home, I can see the wave of disappointment cross their faces. A salad? Not a dainty plate of leaves, I hastily add. A big, satisfying salad full of cheese, nuts, seasonal vegetables and, um, whatevers languishing in the fridge.They do not look convinced. So let me make my case.First, as much as I would enjoy telling people that on an average Tuesday I come home at 8 and whip up some beef bourguignon, thats just not true. I eat out a lot for my job, and when Im home: a) I want a light meal, and b) I usually have small quantities of a hodgepodge of ingredients in the fridge. Cooking elaborate meals requires planning, and in my life, planning happens only on weekends.Second, and this is another bubble-burster, I dont want to cook for hours just for myself. I like to cook, but the joy comes from planning the menu, shopping for the best ingredients and watching friends savor the food. If Im alone, I like to be in and out of the kitchen in 30 minutes.And so Im on a mini salad crusade. Im tired of cooks, especially restaurant chefs, failing to give salads their due. Too often, menus offer skimpy green salads designed as punishment for dieters, or bucket-size Caesars with so much fat that you might as well go ahead and order that burger. Even the priciest salads often fail to impress. I can hardly remember the last time I saw something on a menu besides a mozzarella-and-tomato, a beet-and-goat-cheese or mixed salad.
So what makes a good dinner salad? Like any great dish, it calls for balance: of color, sweetness, saltiness, crunch and a little bit of fat. (A really good dressing certainly helps.) And note what I didnt say: lettuce. You do not need a bed of greens to make a salad. A salad should be a plateful of things you want to eat, not a few good morsels tossed into a bowl of tasteless leaves.I do use lettuces, but I favor romaine for crunch, radicchio and frisee for bitterness and mache rosettes for sweeter salads, such as the one with peaches, goat cheese and candied pecans that was my favorite last summer. I try not to buy the bagged, pre-washed kinds, which contain several types of leaves yet still have a monotonous, bland taste. My basic rule: If the lettuce doesnt add flavor, leave it out.Case in point: One of my favorite combinations is grilled shrimp with avocado, mango, red onion and cilantro. Its a salad I put together one night when I needed more ways to eat champagne mangoes, the unbelievably luscious variety available in stores right now. The dish has everything: protein, color and a balance of creamy and sharp, bright flavors. (It also has enough fat good fat to make it satisfying.) The dressing is a squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of good olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. Take that, Rachael Ray. This is dinner in five minutes.
Of course, the color and the particular sources of sweet and salty depend on what you like and whats available. (I tend to put fruit in everything, but that might not be to your taste.) And naturally, salad ingredients dont have to be raw. Grilled chicken or steak, boiled potatoes, roasted peppers or pears and grilled asparagus are made for salads. So are whole grains such as quinoa or bulgur wheat, which can help a salad feel more like a meal. You can prep any of those quickly, or use up leftovers that might otherwise get thrown away. Other pieces of advice: For protein, my go-to is cheese, but thats mostly because I am lazy and its what I have on hand. If Im feeling fancy I use a poached egg, as I do in my bistro-inspired Bacon and Egg Salad. For crunch, I use toasted nuts or croutons. Homemade croutons are far better, but I do buy the unflavored ones to keep on hand. I buy enormous bags of pine nuts, walnuts and almonds and stick them in the freezer. A few minutes in the toaster oven, and theyre ready to go.And after years of drizzling my salads with good olive oil and balsamic vinegar, Ive come around to using vinaigrettes that add depth and complexity. Simple ones take less than 10 minutes, can be made in large quantities and can be stored for a few weeks in the fridge. Right now, I have three dressings ready: pomegranate-hazelnut vinaigrette with shallots, cumin vinaigrette and Parmesan-lemon vinaigrette. I also love buttermilk dressing, but you have to use it up more quickly.I make salads year-round. Spring and summer are easy, of course. On my list this year: on ChocolateandZucchini.com, Clotilde Dusouliers recipe for green bean, pecan and cured ham salad; and Martha Stewarts roasted fig, feta and mint.But its just as easy in colder months. In the fall, I roast butternut squash with maple syrup and toss it with toasted hazelnuts, fresh goat cheese and baby spinach. (A seared scallop would be great, too.) My last years winter favorite was roasted carrots, white beans and grilled shrimp, a keeper of a recipe I found in Nancy Silvertons A Twist of the Wrist.For almost every salad, a twist is about all it takes. Maybe I am a salad girl, after all.
By Jane BlackThis is an unbelievably easy salad to make. Its ingredients are available year-round. Grilled chicken may be substituted for the shrimp.Ingredients1/8 teaspoon sea salt, plus more as needed1/4 teaspoon ground cumin6 large uncooked, peeled and deveined shrimp1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil1 champagne mango, cut into thin slices (about 3/4 cup)1/2 to 1 Hass avocado, cut into 3/4-inch dice or slices1/4 small red onion, cut into 5 or 6 very thin slices1 tablespoon cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lime juiceDirectionsCombine the sea salt and cumin in a small bowl. Use the mixture to lightly dust the shrimp.Heat 1/2 tablespoon of the olive oil in a medium skillet over high heat; swirl to coat the pan evenly. Add the shrimp and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until they are just opaque, then turn them over and cook for 30 seconds or so. Remove from the heat.Fan the mango slices on a dinner plate. Arrange the shrimp, avocado and red onion on top. Sprinkle with the chopped cilantro, then drizzle with remaining tablespoon of olive oil and the lime juice. Sprinkle with sea salt to taste. Serve immediately.NUTRITION Per serving: 460 calories, 11 g protein, 32 g carbohydrates, 34 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 64 mg cholesterol, 172 mg sodium, 9 g dietary fiber
By Jane BlackThis version of a French bistro salad has enough good stuff to quash fears that a salad is not adequate for dinner.Ingredients1 small clove garlic, cut in half4 ounces frisee (3 cups packed), washed and spun dry2 slices uncooked bacon1 large egg2 1/4 teaspoons balsamic vinegar1 teaspoon water1/2 teaspoon sugar1/4 cup store-bought or homemade croutonsFreshly ground black pepperDirectionsRub the inside of a salad bowl with the cut sides of the garlic clove halves; discard them. Add the frisee to the bowl and set aside.Line a plate with paper towels.Cook the bacon in a medium skillet over medium heat for about 7 minutes, until it has crisped and browned, then transfer it to drain on the lined plate. Chop into bite-size pieces. Pour half of the bacon fat from the skillet (reserve for another use, if desired).Meanwhile, bring a half-filled medium pot of water to barely boiling over medium heat. Crack the egg into a small bowl and gently slip it into the water. (You may stir the water vigorously in a circular motion with a long-handled spoon before adding the egg. That creates a whirlpool and helps the egg stay neatly contained in its center.) Cook for about 4 minutes or to your desired degree of doneness. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a small bowl; cover to keep warm.Return the skillet with the remaining bacon fat to medium-high heat. Add the balsamic vinegar, water and sugar, stirring to combine; bring to a boil and cook for 30 seconds, until the mixture has thickened slightly, then remove from the heat.Pour half of the dressing over the greens in the bowl; toss to lightly wilt the greens. Add the croutons, cooked bacon pieces and remaining dressing. Season with pepper to taste and top with the warm poached egg.NUTRITION Per serving (using store-bought croutons): 377 calories, 16 g protein, 16 g carbohydrates, 27 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 247 mg cholesterol, 698 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber
By Jane BlackThis salad, from chef David Pasternack of Esca in New York, calls for only mushrooms and cheese. But in springtime, I like to add asparagus. His delicious vinaigrette is also great on a simple green salad. Make the whole amount (3/4 cup) and refrigerate it, to use as needed within 5 days. Adapted from The Young Man & the Sea, by David Pasternack and Ed Levine.IngredientsFor the vinaigrette1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oilJuice of 1 to 2 medium lemons (about 1/4 cup)2 ounces finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese1/4 teaspoon sea salt1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepperFor the salad1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for drizzling4 ounces porcini or cremini mushrooms (or a combination), stemmed and cut into thick slicesJuice of 1/2 a medium lemon (about 2 tablespoons)Sea saltFreshly ground black pepper6 thin asparagus spears, tough ends trimmed2 ounces mache (about 4 cups; may substitute baby spinach or arugula)2 ounces goat cheeseDirectionsFor the vinaigrette: Place the oil in a small bowl. Whisk in the lemon juice and cheese; season with the salt and pepper.For the salad: Position the top oven rack 4 to 5 inches from the broiler element; preheat the broiler.Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a medium saute pan or skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and do not move or shake the pan for 2 minutes; that will allow them to take on some color. Cook for about 7 minutes total, turning them so they brown on all sides. Transfer the mushrooms to a bowl and squeeze the lemon juice over them. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.Meanwhile, place the asparagus on a baking sheet or dish and drizzle with oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. Broil for 6 to 7 minutes, turning once or twice. Transfer to a cutting board to cool, then cut into 2-inch piecesToss the mushrooms with 1 to 2 tablespoons of the vinaigrette in a small bowl.In a separate medium bowl, toss the mache with 1 tablespoon of the vinaigrette.To serve, place the greens on a large plate. Top with the mushrooms and asparagus; crumble the goat cheese on top. Season with sea salt and pepper to taste.NUTRITION Per serving, with 2 tablespoons vinaigrette: 594 calories, 23 g protein, 15 g carbohydrates, 53 g fat, 18 g saturated fat, 53 mg cholesterol, 772 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber