I was going to write about tomatoes. Or cucumbers. Or peppers. Or corn. Or potatoes. Maybe sweet onions. There are so many wonderful ingredients available in this season of plenty that I couldn’t make up my mind! So I’m sharing with you a few variations for one of my favorite summertime constructions—the mixed vegetable salad.
Every culture has some version of a composed salad, most of them based on tradition, seasonality, and the creativity and thriftiness of cooks. And although it could be assembled with only raw vegetables dressed with a simple vinaigrette, I find composed salads to be much more interesting when there is a mixture of both cooked and raw vegetables. Here is my technique. I hope you adapt it and make it your own.
My favorite summer salad almost always starts with a good ripe tomato or two for flavor, a mild acidity and lusciousness. Next, I like something starchy, such as freshly boiled new potatoes to absorb all of the dressing and juices from other ingredients. Note that if you want to get the most flavor into those potatoes, try cutting them in half and simmering them in salted water just until tender when delicately pierced with a knife, then remove them from the water to cool. Try to add a little something extra to the visual appeal by including a striking purple variety of potato or one of those with the lovely pink skins. I also love fresh beans of just about any kind in this salad, especially green Romano or yellow wax beans. You can blanch them in the water at the same time you are cooking the potatoes. Just have a bowl of ice water sitting next to the pot, and fish the beans out as soon as they are tender, shocking them in the ice water to stop the cooking process and retain their lovely, fresh colors. The same goes for a few ears of corn, simmered in the same water for about ten minutes, then removed to cool. After they’ve cooled, slice them into ¾-inch thick medallions and set aside. Another ingredient I consider a necessity is roasted peeled sweet peppers—and maybe even a few spicy ones to brighten up the salad. If you don’t want to heat up the house with the oven, lightly oil and season the peppers and char them on the grill outside, putting them in a covered dish to steam themselves and cool before peeling. And while the grill is hot, on the cooler side of the grill, cook 1/2 inch-thick slices of sweet summer onions, or wedges of red onions still connected at the root end until super sweet and tender. You could cook the corn on the grill as well if you like a little more savory char in your salad. Don’t forget chunks of grilled or roasted eggplant, lightly shriveled and crisply blackened around the edges. They make a silken addition that almost melts on the tongue. Dress the salad generously with a dressing of extra-virgin olive oil and good wine vinegar (or lemon juice) in a ratio of 3:1. And don’t forget salt and pepper.
Now here is where you make it your own. First of all, you can change up the vegetables any way you like: cucumber for crunch and freshness, the addition of herbs like basil or a little dill, maybe some minced or roasted shallots in place of the onions, leaves of Bibb lettuce in early summer, or shredded raw red or green cabbage in the summer or fall. For a more Mediterranean feel, add a handful of non-pariel capers (the tiny ones) and some buttery olives like Castelvetranos or Cerignolas. For a more substantial salad, the addition of bread—like cheesy croutons or my new favorite, Taralli crackers (see Pantry)—is an easy upgrade. Or for a gluten-free option, try cheese crisps or some cooked rice or chickpeas. Cubes or crumbles of your favorite cheese are always an option, and any sort of protein like diced grilled chicken or batons of charcuterie would be welcome additions to the bowl. For more of an Asian feel, you could add steamed soy beans or sprouts, maybe change the dressing to rice vinegar and a neutral oil, maybe use Thai basil and cilantro. It’s all up to you. At this time of year, the most difficult thing you have to decide is what to leave out of your summertime salad feast.
In Your Pantry
Also known as Tarallini when they are especially small, these crispy cracker-like rounds of crunchiness come in sweet or savory versions. Essentially a rolled breadstick that has been boiled before being fried or baked, these tasty bites provide wonderful textural contrast and maintain their texture even after sitting in a dressed salad for a while. They are surprisingly shelf stable and great to have on hand for a quick antipasti platter, soup or salad garnish. Also wonderful for dunking in wine or coffee. Available in better grocery stores and Italian specialty markets like Bella Napoli in Brookside.
The gluten-free option to the cheesy crouton, cheese crisps aren’t difficult to make as long as you start with the right cheese and pay attention. Montasio, Asiago, Cheddar, or Parmesan-style cheese generally work just fine (you don’t want a cheese that is too young and has too much moisture or it won’t crisp). Start by sprinkling a thin, lacey layer of a good grating or hard shredding cheese into a medium hot nonstick skillet and let it melt and sizzle until it turns a deep golden brown. Flip and let the other side crisp a little more. Your nose will tell you if it’s going too far. Carefully remove from the pan and let cool on a towel. Serve warm or cool.
Almost a pantry item—you’ve probably got stale bread somewhere, and probably a little dried out cheese, too. Just cube the bread, toss it into a lightly oiled nonstick skillet and toss to crisp a bit. Then, begin sprinkling on any type of drier cheese like cheddar or Parmesan (or grate up some of those dry cheese bits that you don’t remember the name of) and continue to toss until the cheese adheres to bread and everything becomes deliciously golden and crunchy. Perfect for soups, salads, or eating out of hand.
The pencil-thin breadstick is a lot more versatile than many give it credit for. There are many varieties available in better grocery stores (even gluten-free) and they are wonderful to keep on hand. Not only are breadsticks—aka grissini—a perfect nibble by themselves, they lend themselves to impromptu entertaining as a vehicle for dips or lightly buttered and sprinkled with grated cheese or wrapped with paper-thin sliced cured meats. They can also serve as a respectable bit of crunch snapped into pieces in a salad. Sweet versions scream to be dipped in an iced coffee or milk shake.