Salads encourage the sloth in a cook. It’s too easy to gather up a bowl full of ingredients, paying little or no attention to anything about them except that they’re conveniently at hand, slop them liberally with dressing and then toss. As if that last word wasn’t a giveaway.
That may not be so bad in the winter, when salads act essentially as a counterpoint to the meal -- something a little crisp and fresh to contrast with the stews and roasts of the season. But in the summertime, salads are frequently the entire dinner.
So look, we know it’s hot. But please, take a little time and give your salad the consideration it’s due. The rewards will far outweigh the small amount of effort required.
This doesn’t mean complication and lots of ingredients. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Take a very few elements, but choose them purposefully. Pay attention to shape and color and texture, and, of course, flavor. Then arrange them to emphasize these qualities.
Consider a simple salad of arugula and Parmesan. Toss this in a bowl and you get a delicious though not necessarily attractive mixture. The arugula and the cheese aren’t complementary shapes and anyway the Parmesan somehow invariably winds up collecting in broken pieces at the bottom of the bowl.
But serve it on a platter and suddenly the salad’s inner beauty is revealed. Lay a base of soft dark green arugula leaves and then use a vegetable peeler to shave fragile, ivory wedges of cheese over. Hey, look what I made!
Don’t stop at greens. Some of the most rewarding salads of the season are made with vegetables -- both raw and cooked. Add a little protein -- either bits of meat, poultry or fish, or some cheese -- and you’ve got a full dinner.
Replace the arugula in that salad with thinly sliced fennel and mushrooms, for example, and what started out as a simple way to finish a nice meal becomes something worthy of a summer feast. It’s the interplay of textures and flavors that make it work: the crisp, aromatic fennel, the soft, earthy mushrooms and the nutty, fragile shards of Parmesan.
In the sweet onion, avocado and shrimp salad, the contrast of textures is even more pronounced. The avocado seems even more buttery when it is paired with a crisp, slightly pungent raw onion.
Using a raw onion this way might seem a bit disconcerting, but don’t let it scare you. Sweet onions are bred to be low in the chemical compounds that make most onions so abrasive. And after a brief, calming soak in cold water, they are mild enough to be eaten like just another crunchy vegetable.
Though you’ll find sweet onions attributed to places from Maui to Vidalia, don’t worry too much about the specifics. With the exception of Walla Walla sweets from Washington state, all of them are exactly the same variety. And if the specific growing location really made such a huge difference, could Vidalias be grown in 20 counties? These are onions, after all, not Pinot Noir grapes.
That same contrast of soft and crisp textures is intriguing in the beet and cucumber salad, but the big surprise is how the slightly bitter edge of the unpeeled cuke brings out the herbaceous quality that lies just under the surface of the beet’s sweetness. At least it was a surprise to me, until my daughter served me a bruschetta topped with that combination. College is good for something. What might seem like little things -- how thick the ingredients are cut, the ratio of oil to vinegar in the dressing, when you season with salt -- all turn out to have a major impact.
Take cutting things up, for example. Sliced thin enough, even crisp vegetables such as fennel and cucumbers will turn soft and silky. Sliced thick, even mushrooms will have a bit of crunch. There is no single correct size; it depends on the effect you’re after.
The dressing needs the same kind of consideration. A salad made with mushrooms or avocado needs a little extra zip to push through these vegetables’ inherent richness. I like a 2-1 ratio of oil to acid. Since cucumbers are tart on their own, a salad dressing made for them should be a little softer, more like the traditional 3-to-1. Or maybe somewhere in between. Taste and see.
And what kind of acid? Lemon juice? Red wine, rice or Sherry vinegar? That’s another decision.
Whatever the dressing, don’t just pour it on. Use just enough to season the ingredients without turning them into a gloppy mess. If you’re mixing everything all at once, add half the dressing and mix that in before measuring in just as much more as you need.
If, as in these recipes, you’re layering the elements, use a slotted spoon to move the ingredients from the mixing bowl to the serving platter, taking a moment to drain any excess dressing.
Even something as simple as salting needs to be carefully considered. The first time I made the beet and cucumber salad, I sliced the cucumbers fairly thin and seasoned them with salt, then let them sit while I peeled and sliced the beets. By the time I was ready to finish the salad, the cucumbers had wilted into near transparency.
Remember that salt draws moisture. So except for really dense vegetables such as avocados and cooked beets, hold off on the seasoning until you’re almost ready to serve. Unless, of course, that’s the effect you’re looking for.
Finally, before you begin to plate the salad, think for a minute about the appearance. Most of my platters are colored or patterned, so I prefer to begin with a layer of light-colored ingredients, then add the darker ones for contrast. If you’re serving on a white platter, you might want to reverse that.
It’s a little thing, but with summer salads, every detail counts.
Russ Parsons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.