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Summer salads come in many colors

As summer greens turn bitter, expand your color palette
Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNSGarlicky Eggplant Salad
Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNSProvencal Roasted Pepper and Fish Salad

This sweet season for fresh produce has its trace of bitterness.

Tender greens — those mild-mannered harbingers of spring and steadfast survivors of fall frost — turn unruly in summer. Lettuce, spinach, arugula and others that make up most diners’ notions of green salad naturally bolt with soaring temperatures and lengthening days.

Abandoning their fine-textured foliage, greens shoot for the sky, growing stalks that will flower and produce seeds. The plants’ development of bitter-tasting chemical compounds is aimed at deterring insects, not humans.

But woe to humans heedless of the inevitable transformation. They’re just one indicator it’s time to transform warm-weather menus.

With so many bright, juicy, robust fruits and vegetables to be had by midsummer, salad greens are hardly on my radar. If it’s a salad I’m after, give me plump tomato wedges interspersed with aromatic basil leaves or sweet corn kernels tossed with diced zucchini or blanched green beans cozied up to tiny new potatoes and sprinkled with blue cheese. What could be more obvious?

My partner, however, is skeptical of these dishes’ status as salads. To him, “salad” is synonymous with mixed greens. A few other items may also inhabit the plate: shredded beets and carrots, maybe cherry tomatoes and sliced cucumber. But if greens aren’t the bulk of a recipe, how can it be a salad?

“I can’t find any locally grown salad mix at the grocery store,” I said a couple of weeks back. “I think it’s a sign the season’s really over.”

“Hmmmmm,” my partner replied noncommittally, inspecting my purchase: a plastic clamshell of spring mix from a large organic grower in California.

“That’s the case with our CSA, too,” I persisted. “Weekly boxes won’t have any bagged salad mix for a while because it’s all bitter. That’s what Octavio said.” If my explanation wasn’t persuasive enough, maybe the CSA farmer’s would be.

Hopefully, the CSA box’s contents — peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, melons and more — will soon make my point. And I’ll be channeling my culinary kindred spirit: Mary Shaw, former educator for Ashland Food Co-op, who’s in complete sympathy with me on the topic of summer salads.

“It doesn't have to be green,” she said.

In fact, salad can be a “pile of brown gooey stuff” — warm or at room temperature — that tastes utterly delicious, affirmed Shaw. Greek eggplant salad, said Shaw, is proof that “in other cultures, salad looks really different.”

Salads also look surprisingly different in monochromatic palettes. One of my favorite cookbooks, “The Forest Feast,” by Erin Gleeson, offers visually stunning examples in its “salads” section.

Gleeson’s “yellow salad” combines diced yellow bell pepper, halved yellow pear tomatoes, peeled and thinly sliced golden beet, raw corn kernels, golden raisins, canned chickpeas and that star of so many Southern Oregon gardens: sliced lemon cucumber. “Red salad” mixes diced red bell pepper with chopped radishes, diced red onion, halved cherry tomatoes, diced red apple, dried sour cherries and fresh pomegranate seeds.

And preparing a “green salad” in Gleeson’s kitchen calls for chopping two scallions, a cucumber, a green-skinned pear, two stalks of celery and half an avocado. Stir in 1 cup shelled edamame, 1/4 cup shelled pistachios and 1/4 cup julienned basil. Dress with the juice of one lime, olive oil and salt.

Try Gleeson’s dishes and the following recipes using summer’s most assertive produce to push salads in new directions.

Garlicky Eggplant Salad (Melitzansalata)

1 large eggplant, about 1-1/2 pounds

Olive oil, about 6 tablespoons total

1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more for sprinkling

2 small garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, or to taste

1/4 of a yellow, orange or green pepper, finely diced

8 cherry tomatoes, quartered

Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish

Heat broiler to low. If possible, position rack so the eggplant will be at least 8 inches below heat source.

Cut eggplant lengthwise in half. Place cut side up on a parchment or foil-lined baking sheet. Brush each cut side with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Sprinkle generously with some of the salt. Broil until cut side of eggplant is richly browned, for 15 to 20 minutes. Flip and broil to soften skin side, for about 5 minutes. (If you can’t adjust oven racks to be 8 inches below broiler, then reduce cooking time and watch so eggplant doesn’t burn.)

Let eggplant cool until you can handle it — but work with it warm. Decide if you want skin — it is delicious to some people, especially when finely chopped. Cut eggplant into large chunks and transfer to a food processor. Use on/off pulses to make a coarse mash. (Alternatively, use a large knife on a cutting board and finely chop eggplant.) Add the garlic, 3 or 4 tablespoons olive oil, the vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Pulse once or twice to mix gently.

Transfer to a serving bowl. Garnish with the diced pepper, tomato quarters and parsley. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon oil. Let sit for 20 minutes before serving.

Makes about 2-1/2 cups.

Provencal Roasted Pepper and Fish Salad

1 large red bell pepper

1 large yellow bell pepper

2 medium Vidalia or other sweet onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced

2 to 3 large garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

Salt, as needed

1-1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon or 1/2 teaspoon dried

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme or 1/4 teaspoon dried

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil

1-1/4 to 1-1/2 pounds mild fish fillets, such as wild Alaskan black bass, wild-caught cod, haddock or farm-raised tilapia

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 large ripe tomatoes, cored and thickly sliced

Baby arugula or spinach leaves

1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh basil leaves

Fresh lemon juice or sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar

Heat oven to 375 degrees on convection setting or 400 degree on conventional. Cut the bell peppers in half through stems; remove cores and seeds. Cut peppers into 1/4-inch wide slices and place in a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Add the onions, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, the tarragon and thyme. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil; toss well to make sure everything is coated with oil. Bake in preheated oven, stirring once or twice, until peppers are tender and onions are turning golden, for about 20 minutes. Remove from oven.

Heat broiler to high and position rack so it is about 6 inches below heat source.

Sprinkle the fish on all sides with salt and pepper to taste. Lay the tomato slices over vegetable mixture in pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Top with fish fillets. Drizzle with remaining 1 or 2 tablespoons oil.

Broil 6 inches from heat source until fish almost flakes easily and is just a little golden, for 6 to 8 minutes. Let cool to room temperature. (Dish can be covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days; serve chilled or at room temperature.)

To serve, line 4 shallow bowls with arugula or spinach. Use a spatula to transfer a portion of fish and some vegetables to each bowl. Sprinkle generously with the basil. Serve with a drizzle of the lemon juice or vinegar.

Makes 4 servings.

Tomato, Corn and Melon Salad

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup red-wine vinegar

2 jalapeno chiles (for less heat remove seeds)

2 teaspoons dried oregano

Salt, to taste

2 ears corn, shucked

2 large tomatoes, cut into chunks

1 small cantaloupe, halved, seeded and scooped with a melon baller

1 bunch of radishes, thinly shaved on a mandoline (or sliced as thinly as possible)

1 medium cucumber, peeled and halved, then seeded and thinly shaved on a mandoline (or sliced as thinly as possible)

1 medium red onion, peeled and halved, thinly shaved on a mandoline (or sliced as thinly as possible)

8 ounces feta cheese

To make dressing, in a blender combine the olive oil, vinegar, jalapeno (with or without seeds) and oregano. Puree until mostly smooth. Season to taste with the salt, then set aside.

To assemble salad, start by standing each ear of the corn on a cutting board on its wide end. Use a serrated knife to saw down length of cobs to remove kernels. Discard cobs.

In a large bowl, gently toss together corn kernels, the tomatoes, cantaloupe, radishes, cucumber and red onion. Drizzle dressing over salad, then toss again to coat evenly. Crumble the feta cheese over salad.

Makes 6 servings.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.