I know that salads aren’t exactly the most exciting part of any BBQ, but when it’s summertime and you have access to great fresh greens and vegetables, it’s a damn shame to not have something fresh and vibrant on the plate. The salad pictured above was from my mother’s graduation after-party BBQ and was served alongside grilled Italian sausage (with peppers, onions and fennel), BBQ chicken, grilled veggies and a deliciously and refreshing watermelon salad (with feta, olives and fresh mint). Each one of these dishes has been featured on the blog in the past week and were part of the feast you see in the photo below.
If you’ve read my blog before, you probably know about my disdain for exact recipes. Sure, they’re great for baking and chemistry, but when it comes to learning how to cook, recipes generally teach you how to follow instructions and not how to cook (or in this case, assemble). I’ll give you the run-down on what I put in the salad pictured above, but first I want to go through some summer salad basics that will help you make a hundred different salads by following some basic tips and guidelines.
Summer Salad Guidelines, Tips & Tricks
1. Think local: late summer is a great time to find great local greens and veg in many parts of the world. If you have the opportunity to support a local farmer, make sure you stop by their stand before heading to your local supermarket, you won’t regret it.
2. Greens: The foundation for your salad will be your greens, so leave the bland and nutrient deficient iceberg and romaine hearts in their plastic and go for the fresh stuff. Feel free to make your own mix. Some greens are peppery (arugula [rocket], watercress, mustard greens, purslane), some greens are a little bitter (endive, radicchio), while others are mild crisp and fresh (baby spinach, red & green leaf lettuce, bibb [boston, butter]). Feel free to mix greens or select one or another based on personal preference.
3. Fresh Vegetables: Summer makes salads easy. Select fresh, firm and preferably local veg to add to your salad. Select juicy and bright cherry or grape tomatoes that you can halve or quarter for your salad. Veg like fennel, radish, cucumber, red onion and zucchini (courgette) are all wonderful additions to a salad; keep everything raw and slice or shave them thin for salads in rounds or half-moons.
4. Cheese: Who doesn’t love cheese? It provides a great foil for bitter greens and veg and adds a rich and creamy element to any salad. There are tons of great cheeses that work well for a summer salad including crumbled blue cheeses, feta and goat’s cheese or shaved hard cheeses like Pecorino, Parmesan, ricotta-salata and Manchego.
5. Fresh herbs: Summer brings us great fresh herbs and there’s no reason that they should be forgotten when it comes to making a salad. Fresh mint, parsley, chives, scallions, tarragon, cilantro (coriander) and basil are all great additions to a salad. Choose one or two, rather than mix too many and it will add a great new dimension to the salad.
6. Seasoning: Just because it’s a salad, doesn’t mean you should neglect the salt and pepper. Just a sprinkle will help bring out the natural flavors of the greens, veg and cheese. The only thing to keep in mind is the saltiness of the cheese, so you don’t go too overboard.
7. Dressing: Leave the store-bought, calorie and preservative laden dressings on the shelf where they belong. It’s been a tradition for too long that we over-dress our salads to the point that it’s all we taste. Let the natural flavors of the salad be the main event. I often will drizzle my summer salad with a extra-virgin olive oil and a nice vinegar or fresh lemon juice. You should only use enough dressing to lightly coat the greens, taste a leaf or two to check for seasoning.
- If you’d like to make a more complex vinaigrette, remember the ratio 1:2:1; which is one part EV-olive oil, two parts canola or vegetable oil and one part vinegar. You can add a spoonful of mustard (whole grain or Dijon) which will help the dressing bind and add a little bite. Finely chopped fresh herbs like tarragon and chives work really well in dressings as well. Season your vinaigrette with a little salt and pepper and make sure you shake or stir before dressing to mix the ingredients.
8. Extras: You can add nuts and seeds to your salad to add a little crunch, but I would avoid things like sun dried tomatoes and olives that can be overpowering and take away from the fresh and raw flavors of a nice summer salad.
Chef Mike’s Summer Salad
As promised, here is the breakdown of the salad pictured above:
Greens: Fresh baby arugula
Veg: Quartered grape tomato mix and thinly sliced fennel, radish, red onion and cucumber
Herbs: Fresh chives
Cheese: Crumbled Gorgonzola (blue cheese)
Dressing: Extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar