Turning North Fork produce into a main-course salad

Stop thinking of salads as something at the start of your meal. Done the right way, using fresh local produce, a salad is a meal. (Credit: David Benthal)

Once upon a time, main-course salads were pretty much limited to chicken or seafood concoctions heavy on the mayo, or virtuous efforts composed of stodgy brown rice and not much else. These days, however, they are a great showcase for all sorts of interesting salad greens and other glories of the season, as well as staple ingredients from around the globe. Main-course salads are also an opportunity to channel your inner forager, whether you’re on the prowl at a farm stand or sizing up the contents of your refrigerator or kitchen cabinets. 

Once you start thinking about salad for supper, you’ll not only start considering leftovers in a whole new light, but building them into your culinary routine. A salad is a terrific farewell lunch or dinner at a weekend house or beach cottage: Grill extra vegetables, chicken or steak the day before, then artfully corral the leftovers on a big platter. Remember to take into account any pan juices you may have; just warm them up and add them to a dressing in place of some of the oil.

And although it’s easy to plan a filling, hearty salad around chicken, steak or seafood, don’t get hung up on having to incorporate protein-rich foods. Protein is not a food group, after all, it’s a nutrient that is present in almost all foods, including green vegetables, beans, grains, nuts and seeds.

In a perfect world, of course, we’d all have cooked-from-scratch beans in the freezer, but if you’re not that organized, don’t worry. Canned beans, a genuine convenience food, will do; just remember to rinse them (to remove much of the sodium) and drain well before using. Pair canned chickpeas with lots of flat-leaf parsley (sensibly treated as a vegetable in the Middle East), tomato, kalamata olives, red bell pepper, crumbled feta, and a lemony-garlicky vinaigrette, and you’ll have dinner on the table in no time flat. When it comes to whole grains, the nutty chewiness of farro plays well with earthy-sweet beets (roast them in the cool of the morning) and silky sautéed beet greens. Add some fresh goat cheese and you’re good to go.

Now, about salad greens: The darker lettuces, such as butterhead or romaine types, contain more antioxidants and nutrients than paler ones. Butterhead lettuces have flat, thick, soft leaves that form a voluptuous head. Romaine lettuces have stiff, upright, crunchy leaves. Two smaller romaines that have been popularized by restaurant chefs are “Little Gem” and “Forellenschluss,” which is speckled and splotched with maroon, like a trout (“forelle” in German).

So-called loose-leaf heads are the “cut-and-come-again” lettuces beloved by generations of backyard gardeners. This type has thin, soft, sometimes ruffled leaves that may be harvested individually while the plant remains in the ground to keep producing. Red and green oak leaf, “Black-Seeded Simpson” and “Lollo Rossa” are all loose-leaf lettuces. And last but not least is the compact, cabbagelike type of lettuce known as crisphead. Iceberg is the iconic example here, and although it is terribly unfashionable these days, fans enjoy its clean, neutral flavor and juicy crispness. And I don’t know about you, but I feel cooler just looking at it. If an all-iceberg salad feels too retro for words, try mixing it with more assertive greens such as arugula or watercress.

Arugula and watercress are both members of the nutritionally overachieving brassica family, which also includes broccoli and cauliflower. Because both greens are peppery in flavor, they make a good counterpoint to richness and fat. Use them as a bed for sliced steak or gently toss with slices of roasted beets or chunks of ripe melon and crisped prosciutto.

The table is set for a terrific evening in the backyard. (Credit: David Benthal)

Baby leaves of Asian greens such as mizuna, tatsoi, bok choy, and pea shoots can give verve and texture to mixed green salads, and you can find an abundance of them, along with other pristine produce, at Sang Lee Farms, in Peconic.

One of co-owner Karen Lee’s favorites is napa cabbage.

“Asian cabbage is not as heavy or strong-tasting as other cabbages,” she stressed. “It makes a lighter slaw and is great in salads.”

“Karen’s napa is so tender,” said chef Adam Kopels of 18 Bay on Shelter Island. “You can just chiffonade it [cut crosswise into ribbons], and use it raw in salads. There’s no need to wilt it or anything.”

“And it’s so beautiful,” interjected his wife and fellow chef, Elizabeth Ronzetti. The two, named semifinalists in the 2018 James Beard Foundation Awards’ competition for best chef in the Northeast, were on speakerphone and so in sync that they completed one another’s sentences. They described one of their favorite composed salads for high summer — thick slices of heirloom tomatoes, yellow wax beans, basil, and perhaps a piece of leftover fish or steak.

What brings it all together is their corn vinaigrette.

“Haul out your grandmother’s box grater,” said Kopels. “And grate the raw corn on the widest holes so that you get almost a corn pulp. Then pour an irresponsible amount of extra-virgin olive oil into it and add some lime juice, red pepper flakes, maybe some chives or garlic chives.”

The dressing must be used immediately or the corn will get starchy, Kopels noted. “Dress the beans, then put on top of the tomatoes with some purple or Thai basil,” said Ronzetti. It’s very satisfying and complete and all cold,” added Kopels. “We make it on our day off!”

We made author Jane Lear’s ranch dressing recipe. (Credit: David Benthal)

DRESSING FOR SUCCESS

Salad dressings are a great way to hone your culinary improvisational skills. That said, here are a few tips:

• Buy high-quality oils and vinegars.  I tend to prefer a mild extra-virgin  olive oil over one with a strong peppery kick, but experiment with specialty oils such as walnut, pumpkinseed and  grapeseed. As far as vinegars go, look for those on the lower end of the  acidity scale — four to five percent (it will be printed on the label).

• In a typical vinaigrette, the proportions of oil and acid are two to three parts oil to one part vinegar. Deep-flavored greens and other salad ingredients — beets, for example — can handle a more acidic dressing better than tender lettuces can.

• Adding minced shallot to a dressing lends finesse and a hint of sweetness.  A little anchovy paste, Asian fish  sauce, miso, or pan juices are a shortcut to depth of flavor. Buttermilk or yogurt provide tang and creaminess.

• To give a dressing more body, whisk in a teaspoon or so of Dijon mustard, mashed egg yolk or finely grated
Parmigiano-Reggiano.

• Dressings wilt salad greens quickly, so it’s usually best to dress them just before serving. As comedic great Fred Allen famously said, “A salad should be dressed like Dorothy Lamour —  adequately but lightly.”

BETTING THE RANCH

Would the salad bar phenomenon have happened without ranch dressing? Probably not. The creamy buttermilk dressing is easy to love; in fact, it’s America’s bestselling salad topping. It was created by Steve Henson, the proprietor of the Hidden Valley dude ranch, near Santa Barbara, Calif., in the 1950s. Guests began taking it home in Mason jars, and soon Henson developed a packaged blend of dried herbs and spices for mixing with fresh buttermilk and mayonnaise. Before you could say “ka-ching!,” a multimillion-dollar business was born. Henson never copyrighted the name “ranch,” so these days,
various companies sell similarly flavored products. Clorox bought the rights to Henson’s dressing in 1972 and ever since has sold it under the Hidden Valley Ranch label.

To those who have only had store-bought bottled dressings, a homemade one like the one at left will be a revelation. It’s delicious and easy to whip up in a blender — just right, in fact, for the last weeks of summer.

RANCH DRESSING

(Makes about 1¾ cups)

This recipe was a staff favorite at Gourmet magazine, where
I worked for many years. It’s wonderful drizzled over fried green tomatoes, but it is excellent over ripe red ones, too, as well as salad greens. Although it is thinner than commercial versions, it still has great body and rich flavor. You may want to make extra, so guests can take some home in a Mason jar.

1 cup well-shaken buttermilk

½ cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons mild extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Dressing keeps, refrigerated in an airtight container, about 1 week.