By Shelora Sheldan
If I didn’t like meat so much, I could be a vegetarian in a snap. I can tuck into a crunchy collection of greens and vegetables at any time of day — and during the summer months, salads take even more prominence at my table.
Summer’s bounty is so inspiring that I often prepare three or four types of salads to accompany something off the grill. They might be a first course, a series of side dishes, antipasti, or a main course that’s raw, grilled, marinated or combinations thereof. I’m an equal opportunity salad-tarian!
Think Outside the Salad Bowl
At my house, summer meals are centred around my backyard grill — and that goes for salads too. Grilling hearts of Romaine is a twist on the classic Caesar. The hearts are those inner Romaine leaves that are more succulent and firmer than the outer leaves and hold up to a grill’s heat. Just a quick sear is all that’s needed — you don’t want to over-char. Instead of the usual creamy dressing, I go lighter with a lemony-garlic-caper vinaigrette — anchovies optional. Add a few crostini and shavings of Parmesan and you’re good to go.
Another lettuce that holds up to heat is radicchio. Its dark red and white veined leaves add colour and bitterness when raw, but mellow when grilled. I carefully remove individual leaves and wrap them around small rounds of fresh mozzarella. The packages are grilled on medium to mark them evenly and warm the cheese throughout. I serve them with a balsamic-maple vinaigrette.
Eat Your Greens
If I’m limited to only one salad, I like to mix and match my greens in a free-style toss: red leaf lettuce with baby Romaine and something frilly leafed, such as a bit of pungent arugula. I also love miniature beet greens or shapely Asian greens. Simple vinaigrettes work best, complementing the salad’s textural contrasts.
To me, there’s nothing like a head of crisp, green iceberg lettuce. Served cold, it’s delicious cut into a wedge-shape on a plate with crumbled blue cheese and nothing else but salt and pepper. OK, maybe a medium-rare steak! I also love tender butter lettuce, served with zen-like simplicity, halved or quartered with grated hardboiled egg and a shalloty dressing.
Sometimes simple pleasures are the best. Nothing compares with a bowl of crunchy sliced baby cucumbers with salt. And summer carrots, so juicy and sweet, are brilliant grated raw with chopped parsley in an apple-cider vinaigrette, or steamed and served warm with ground cumin, olive oil, garlic and lemon juice.
Candy cane beets, with their red and white striped interiors, can be sliced thin on a mandoline for raw-salad enthusiasts, or roasted whole and sliced, revealing their colourful display. Golden beets are great.
Here’s to Texture
By alternating grilled vegetables — and fruit — with raw ones, you achieve flavourful depths and textural interest. Grilled zucchini pairs brilliantly with spinach, roasted red peppers, dill and feta. And grilled peaches add sweet notes to baby kale, goat cheese and toasted almonds.
Different shapes also add texture. Ribbons of vegetables are achieved by using a wide-blade vegetable peeler. Simply run it down the length of carrots and they fall naturally into beautiful curls. The same can be achieved with zucchini, cucumber and even asparagus. A regular box grater works wonders for small and larger grates. A mandoline creates super thin slices, and makes tougher vegetables such as fennel, celeriac and radishes easier to take — and for cabbage, it makes the best coleslaw.
By combining techniques such as mixing larger grated carrots with finely grated beets, mandolined fennel and zucchini ribbons, you’re on the way to creating your own take on slaw.
Know Your Greens
1 Arugula adds pungency and delicate bitter notes. Add fresh to heirloom tomato or potato salads.
2 Escarole, which features broad, pale green leaves, is less bitter than its chicory counterparts. Try it with walnut-oil vinaigrettes.
3 Baby kale is delicately flavoured compared to winter’s tough-leafed crops. Enjoy it with creamy, garlicky dressings, or add to your regular salad.
4 Mache (lamb’s lettuce) is mild, grassy, tender and succulent.
5 Mizuna is a delicate feathery leaf that adds brightness and subtle earthy flavours to salads.
6 Mustard greens are spicy on the palate. Do note that they can overpower a salad; a little goes a long way.
7 Tatsoi, identifiable by its dark green spoon-shaped leaf, is wonderful with toasted sesame and ginger dressings.
8 Watercress adds a peppery bite and stands up well to citrus-forward dressings, cucumber and creamy cheeses.