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What’s in Your Bowl?

Toss your summer greens, veggies, grains, cheeses and dressings with a little creativity for some extra-special salads

by B.A. Nilsson on June 7, 2012

This is about the anti-recipe. It’s about the fresh and colorful bounty now springing up in garden and greenhouse, the provender that this time of year is trucked in from not-so-far. It’s about putting together a meal that captures the senses in a way unique to summer.

Therefore, it’s about oil and vinegar. You’ll be dressing these fresh ingredients with something acidic to amplify the flavors, and an emollient to prolong those flavors.

Balsamic vinegar is the trendy choice for that part of the dressing. True balsamic vinegar, which has been aged at least a dozen years, is absurdly expensive, so compromise varieties are out there. What you find in the supermarket is caramel-colored, guar-gum-thickened red wine vinegar. Even that has quality levels, and while the best of them can provide a pleasing result, it’s worth having red wine, cider, rice and plain old white vinegar on hand to help you dress, as they say, for the occasion.

In the oil realm, extra virgin olive oil also tends to be severely compromised, so that you can pretty much count on adulterated inferiority of the supermarket tins. The rule of thumb is that you have to spend money on the good stuff. Find a place where you can sample oil – Saratoga Olive Oil and the Honest Weight Food Coop are two—and discover what you’ve been missing.

On to the garden. Anything you can harvest that has any mass about it can be blanched or steamed, then dressed and served. String beans or squash or broccoli florets all respond well to that treatment, but the art of the summer salad lies in combining and seasoning these ingredients.

Those beans, for example. Cooked al dente, cooled to room temperature: Where do you take them? Their color and crunch contrast nicely with new potatoes. Wash and halve some small spuds—don’t bother to peel them—and cook them just beyond the crunch-resistant point. Potatoes also invite a more robust approach with herbs and spices than beans alone might suggest, so take it beyond salt and pepper into the addition of ground cumin, roasted thyme (za’atar), savory savory.

Plus you have the eye appeal of dark green alongside linen white. If red potato jackets are flapping in the mix, all the better.

Leafy veggies like Swiss chard and kale cry out for garden friends. I recently tasted the delicious and incredibly striking-looking combination of Swiss chard with golden beets, which needed little more than that o-and-v dressing to make it complete.

More complicated accompaniments can be worth the effort. In order to get away from oil-based dressings, I’ve become a fan of salsa varieties. A mango-based version can be built on a small dice of the fruit, mixed with diced onion and garlic, colorful peppers and lemon juice.

Switch items in and out as you wish. I made a salsa to accompany steamed asparagus that featured prosciutto, quartered grape tomatoes, onions, garlic, scallions, a mix of lemon juice and red wine vinegar and a drizzle of olive oil. The saltiness of the prosciutto made a delayed entrance behind the onions and tomatoes, and gave way to a lingering sweetness. And it was a colorful contrast to the green spears.

Cheese will take you places. Feta sets off a salad, and I’ve tasted it mixed to excellent effect with broccoli florets and sliced cherry tomatoes. Avoid the mayo in a traditional potato salad by tossing the tuber with gorgonzola and lemon juice.

We’re on the brink of harvesting garlic scapes, one of my favorite veggies. They’re the flowering stalk of the garlic plant, snapped off before the flower develops, offering what could be described as a green bean with built-in garlic. They’re wonderful steamed and served hot or cold. Even better, they make a terrific pesto when ground with toasted pine nuts, good olive oil and a little grated cheese. Basil-based pesto is the classic, of course, but try it with watercress or arugula, and substitute sunflower seeds for the more costly pine nuts.

Which means you should be thinking about grains as well. In the pasta realm, twistier varieties like fusilli and rotini are great pesto-grabbers.

Rice adds texture, but you’ll want to rescue it from blandness by mixing it with bolder-flavored items. Olives and the other Mediterranean staples like capers and anchovies await this purpose, which then makes it a good forum for the addition of squash or tomatoes or peas.

And anything you do with rice can be done with couscous. The good stuff is a small, semolina-based product that responds nicely to steaming. (Even the instant varieties can be steamed, but it’s a pain-in-the-ass process.) The larger Israeli couscous (ptitim), on the other hand, is a baked pasta that adds little pearls to any salad you build with it.

To hell with cookbooks. The freshness of fresh ingredients is your best helper when creating salads like these. What you’re doing, with knife and steamer, oils and vinegars, herbs and spices, is crafting them into a pleasing, delicious summer array.