By Bonnie Fishman / San Francisco Bay Area
We’re officially in the dog days of summer, the hottest, most sultry time of year, when we can’t do enough to cool down. The Old Farmer’s Almanac lists the traditional time of the dog days: the 40 days beginning on July 3 and ending August 11, coinciding with the heliacal (at sunrise) rising of Sirius, also known as the Dog Star. That actually has nothing to do with lazy dogs laying around in the shade to stay cool.
I don’t know about you, but my craving for cold, crisp salads kicks in right about now. It’s also a great time of year to be inspired at farmers’ markets, the greengrocer, and in your own garden, where you can procure a variety of greens and other vegetables. There are infinite combinations for salad, which can serve as a starter, a side dish, or an entrée. The best part about making them this time of year is that it rarely requires turning on your stove or oven. The downside is that patience is of utmost importance with the usual chopping and slicing. Look at it this way: while preparing your vegetables, you can hone your knife skills! And for goodness sake, get a decent chopping knife, please! A sharp one at that.
I eat salad almost every day for lunch. It is a ritual for me. I swim a mile, come home, shower, make my salad and spend 30 minutes eating it and watching House Hunters International. God help you if you drop by or call me during my “decompression” time of day! It’s followed by fresh coffee and a nosh (that I baked, of course).
The base of my everyday salad is cabbage. I cannot resist the crunch. Then I add at least one other green–arugula, spinach, romaine hearts, or even iceberg lettuce. I slice up some fruit–apple, orange, pear, or peach; a veggie with spice, such as radishes or poblano peppers; and some nuts–toasted slivered almonds or dry-roasted peanuts. Lastly, I include some goat cheese, plus balsamic vinegar or lemon juice. I had to cut out the olive oil because I realized I was going through a liter of it a month. I don’t miss it now. Every salad needs an ample amount of coarse salt and pepper. These simple seasonings take the taste to the next level.
There are at least two styles of salad: composed or tossed. Particularly when you make a composed salad (see recipes in previous columns of mine for Tuna Nicoise and Beet and Orange Salad, you will want to have all of your veggies sliced evenly, with an even thickness, even shape. Arrange the colors so that not all your reds, such as beets and tomatoes, are sitting next to each other on the plate. I recommend an oil-based dressing so the opaqueness of, say, a Green Goddess, doesn’t mask the beautiful presentation. One last tip: try using a larger plate than you think you need. You don’t want to make a “heap” of a composed salad. All of these tips will give your salads a more professional look.
About tossed salad. Well, it’s tossed! Unless you’re adhering to a specific recipe, I suggest you use a combination of greens. It’s infinitely more interesting and tasty. I remember decades ago when field greens came on the market. The packers did the mixing for you. I was so enamored with that product at the time. My staff used to call it “garden clippings” or “mulch.” I’ve lost interest because it’s so limp in texture. That’s the same reason I don’t use just spinach leaves. They flatten down in a salad. Make sure the base of your greens is crunchy. I use romaine hearts, my absolute go-to. I try to incorporate at least one very dark green for contrast–arugula, spinach or kale. Even try chopping up some fresh herbs to give the salad a delicious lift.
What you add to your salad next is wide open. I begin by thinking of a flavor profile that I want to achieve. Is it Indian, Tex-Mex, Italian, French, or Southern? I find vegetables, fruits, nuts and/or cheeses that fit those categories. Selecting a protein is really the easiest because most are interchangeable. I like to cook the protein shortly before I serve the salad so that it is a little warm, while the rest is cold.
Finally, consider the dressing. Bottled dressing is unacceptable! Making your own vinaigrette is so easy. I don’t even bother hauling out a blender or food processor. I mix it all in a clean jar and shake. My usual ratio is one-third acid to 3 parts oil. Of course, include your seasonings such as minced garlic or shallots, dijon mustard, spices, salt and pepper. Maybe add herbs.
One of my favorite flavor combinations is Tex-Mex. Today, I’m making a tossed salad with grilled corn and poblano peppers, cherry tomatoes and sautéed spicy shrimp, garnished with avocados. I almost always add the avocados to each individual plate, given that they turn to mush if you toss them in the large bowl. You could certainly substitute the shrimp with chicken breasts. If you want to stay vegan, add some cooked black beans for protein.
Let us know here at The Insider what you put in your salad during these dog days of summer. Bon appétit and crunch away!
Tex-Mex Salad with Spicy Shrimp
Yield: 4-6 servings
2 ears of corn, shucked
2 poblano peppers
2 heads of romaine hearts
4 oz. arugula or spinach
1 pt. cherry tomatoes, halved
4 scallions, sliced thin
1 c. coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
2 ripe avocados
2 lb peeled and deveined shrimp, 21-25 count
1 Tbsp. Tajín seasoning
2-3 Tbsp. vegetable oil for sautéing
Lemon Vinaigrette Dressing:
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp. dijon mustard
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. coarse ground black pepper
1/3 c. fresh lemon juice
1 c. extra virgin olive oil
Make the Lemon Vinaigrette:
Put the garlic, mustard, and seasonings in a clean 12 oz. jar. Add the lemon juice and shake. Pour in the oil. Shake vigorously. Just before adding to the salad, shake again.
Char the corn on the cob on a grill or on the open flame of a gas burner until it is slightly blackened on all sides. Cool to room temperature. Using a sharp chef’s knife, remove the kernels and place in a bowl. Reserve.
Char the poblanos until they are blackened on all sides. Cool to room temperature. Peel the black skin away from the pepper while running under cold water. Drain on a paper towel. Remove stems and seeds. Slice peppers into long thin strips and then into thirds horizontally. Add to the corn along with the scallions and cilantro. Reserve.
Slice the romaine hearts crosswise into 1” pieces. Put in a large salad bowl. Coarsely chop the arugula a few times and add to the romaine hearts. Blend in the corn mixture. Refrigerate while cooking the shrimp.
Blot the shrimp dry. Put them in a bowl with the Tajín seasoning. Coat thoroughly. Heat some oil in a large skillet over moderately high heat. When the oil is very hot, add the shrimp. Toss them around the pan with a spoon or tongs until they are just cooked through, about 5-7 minutes. Put in a bowl. Reserve.
Add enough dressing to moisten the greens. Season with coarse salt and fresh ground pepper. Cut the avocados in half, remove the pits, and cut the flesh into a crosshatch pattern using a paring knife. Scoop out the avocados with a large spoon. Scatter on top of the salad. Arrange the shrimp on top of the avocado. Serve at once.
(This can also be done as individual entrée salads by distributing the greens to each bowl. Arrange the avocados and shrimp on top.)
Bonnie Fishman attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. Later, she owned and operated Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. and Bonnie’s Kitchen and Catering in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She has taught cooking for over 35 years and created hundreds of recipes. She is now living in Northern California.