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Big and Bossy

The calendar may call for autumnal fare, but Indian summer in many regions has a different agenda. And our dinner tables seek a compromise.

We're not quite ready for the heartier fare of fall, but simple greens don't cut it either. No, what we need is something transitional, a series of salads that celebrates the harvest, but offers a little more heft — arugula tossed with heirloom melon slices, prosciutto and ripe figs, for example, or last-of-the-season nectarines with haricots verts, cured ham and watermelon radishes.

Salads are perfect seasonal dinner fodder any time of year, says Oakland, Calif., food writer and pastry chef Romney Steele, author of two cookbook-memoirs about life at Big Sur and Nepenthe, the iconic restaurant owned by her family.

She's a self-described "big salad person" because salads are all about texture, color and flavor, and offer an anything-goes palette for the palate. But great food means matching what's on your plate to what's in the garden, she says. In other words, leave the spring peas for April and turn instead to October's abundant bounty.

This is still time for melons, late-season figs and wild greens. Tomatoes are bursting off the vine, and fresh herbs are abundant. So Steele combines those vibrant purples, greens and reds in a composed salad, adding paper-thin slices of prosciutto and drizzles of olive oil and oloroso sherry.

"That is a delicious salad," she says. "It's really about the imagination and using things that are voluptuous."

Steele, who has a visual arts background, brings an artist's eye to her newest book, "Plum Gorgeous" (Andrews McMeel, 178 pages, $25). Many of her edible masterpieces — and their recipes — were composed on the plate, where colorful fruits, salads and even cured meats come together.

Longtime designer Nora LaBrocca opened a downtown Medford restaurant and specialty-foods store last year to showcase her seasonal take on cooking. The menu at Downtown Market Co. features at least four salads — two mains and two sides — season in and season out. But LaBrocca's favorite season to be in the kitchen is autumn.

"It's so exciting when fall comes," she says. "You get big flavors — a lot of bossy flavors."

With assertive cheeses, LaBrocca — like many cooks — reaches for the Rogue Valley's peak-season pears. But she prefers to caramelize them to concentrate the juices.

Fruits constitute one category of LaBrocca's salads, along with vegetables and grains. Figs, typically a midfall fruit in much of the country, have been on the Downtown Market Co. menu with grilled strawberries and walnuts for several weeks.

Once the local crop has succumbed to rain, LaBrocca will look to California fruit throughout October. Simply sliced and paired with balls of burrata cheese, she says, figs take the concept of Caprese salad beyond tomato season.

"I'm starting to be a little bit bored with zucchini and tomatoes," says LaBrocca.

Fall salads, however, need heartier vinaigrettes made from reduced balsamic vinegar or sherry, she says. And the right vegetables — Italian kale, for example — stand up to being dressed for a few hours before serving.

Hefty portobello mushrooms also have a place — particularly grilled — in many of LaBrocca's salads. The large mushrooms, she says, are easier to grill than smaller ones.

When fall mushrooms are in full flush, roasting them is a technique suggested by restaurateur and Food Network star Bobby Flay. This combination of roasted wild mushrooms, quinoa, aged goat cheese and a caramelized-shallot marmalade from his "Bobby Flay's Bar Americain Cookbook" (Clarkson Potter, 262 pages, $35), is a "comforting salad," says Flay. Earthy, sweet and tangy all at once, it's perfect for fall.

Arugula with heirloom melon slices, ripe figs and prosciutto are a classic fall salad. See the accompanying recipe. - MCT photo