Summer Salads

Dog days mean salad days at my house – air-conditioning, swimming and salads. That’s how August in New Orleans should play out. Early residents of this steamy city, with no cold air or pools to cool off with, must have enjoyed their salads.
“The Creoles have always been famous for the excellent salads which grace their tables,” says the 1901 The Picayune’s Creole Cookbook.

It also quotes the old Spanish proverb: “To make a perfect salad, there should be a miser for vinegar, a spendthrift for oil, a wise man for salt and a madcap to stir all these ingredients, and mix them well together.”

At the turn of the century and for decades in the best of restaurants, French dressing reigned supreme. Not the coral-colored French salad dressing that we know today, but an oil and vinegar mix that we now call vinaigrette. Some older restaurants in town stick to the vinegary style that was little more than olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. To some, onion was added; to others, mustard and a hint of tarragon.

Entrée salads can be composed at home on a moment’s notice when the proper ingredients are stocked in the pantry. Black olives, capers, roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, pecans, walnuts and dried cranberries top off a pungent Mediterranean salad of gourmet greens, now available at all grocery stores. Similar ingredients with the addition of chickpeas, mint and cucumber produce a Middle Eastern version. All of which can be added to your choice of greens and vegetables.
The latest rage that proves all things are cyclical is the wedge salad that graced white tablecloths in the 1940s and ’50s. It is as simple as cutting a head of iceberg lettuce into wedges, placing them on plates and pouring Thousand Island or blue cheese dressing over them. Chefs add nuts, chunks of blue cheese, bacon and whatever strikes their fancy. Though iceberg was off the “In” list for many years, I have to admit it’s crisp and refreshing in the heat of a New Orleans summer.

Once I had lunch at the home of Myriam Guidroz, a cooking teacher and food writer who grew up in Belgium and excelled in classic French cooking. The meal was as simple as could be but equally delicious. A salad of asparagus, boiled eggs and homemade mayonnaise was served as the entrée. The combination was stunning and contained all the ingredients of a healthful meal. One of the saddest victims of the salmonella fear is mayonnaise made with raw eggs. The odds of getting the illness from raw eggs are minuscule but to be on the safe side, you can use the best quality of bottled mayonnaise instead.

Textures are important in salads, one reason Guidroz’s crisp asparagus complemented the creamy eggs and mayonnaise. A recipe I have used many times may have been the forerunner to the popular layered salads, some of which use Asian ingredients such as ramen noodles. Three lettuces are layered for the Sarah Salad and are marinated overnight with red onions and grated Swiss cheese. At the final moment, the layers are tossed and crisp bacon added, creating an explosion of flavor, texture and color.

More fruits and vegetables are recommended for almost every ill that haunts us – heart disease, cancer, diabetes, you name it. In a salad, you can eat a dozen veggies all at once. What better way to take our medicine and keep our kitchens cool at the same time?

SARAH SALAD
2 cups iceberg lettuce
2 cups Romaine lettuce
2 cups curly endive
6 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 medium red onion, cut into
      thin rings
3 to 4 teaspoons sugar
3/4 package frozen green peas,
      brought just to a boil and drained
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup grated Swiss cheese
6 strips bacon, cooked and
      crumpled

Before measuring the three lettuces, tear into pieces. Press lightly into measuring cups. Then mix the lettuces.

In a large salad bowl, place one-third of the lettuce and dot with 2 tablespoons mayonnaise. Sprinkle with 1/3 of the onions, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1/3 of the peas, salt, pepper and 1/3 of the cheese. Repeat twice. Cover and let marinate for at least 2 hours or overnight (longer the better) in the refrigerator. When ready to serve, toss and top with bacon.
Serves 6 to 8.

ASPARAGUS SALAD
1/2 pound asparagus
4 eggs, boiled
4 tablespoons homemade
      mayonnaise (see recipe)
Salt and pepper to taste

Cut the tough ends (about 1 inch) off asparagus. Place asparagus on a plate and sprinkle with water and a little salt. Microwave on high for 1 minute and check to see if a knife goes through it easily. The asparagus should be bright green and crisp. If not done enough, microwave another minute. The amount of asparagus determines the time needed to microwave. A handful is usually done in 1 minute. Or, drop into boiling salted water for about 1 to 2 minutes.
On two salad plates, divide the asparagus, eggs cut into wedges or halves and dot all with mayonnaise. Sprinkle eggs lightly with salt and pepper.
Serves 2.

HOMEMADE MAYONNAISE*
2 egg yolks
1 cup canola, peanut or
      safflower oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

In a large bowl, beat egg yolks with a wire whisk, hand-driven or electrical. Add a drop or two of oil while whisking the egg yolks. Continue to add by the drop until an emulsion begins to form, or the mixture thickens. Continue adding slowly while whisking until you have added half the oil. Add lemon juice gradually while whisking and then more oil, slowly at first and gradually faster until all has been added. Add salt and mustard and whisk until smooth. Chill before serving. Use as soon as possible and keep only for a couple of days.
Makes about 1 cup.
*According to the American Egg Board, one in 20,000 eggs might be contaminated with salmonella. To avoid the illness, the board recommends using only fresh eggs.

WEDGE SALAD
1 head iceberg lettuce
1 cup blue cheese dressing
(see recipe)
3 green onions, chopped
Extra crumbled blue cheese,
      about 1/3 cup
6 strips bacon, cooked and
      crumbled

Cut head of lettuce into six wedges, removing the stem. Rinse and drain well. Keep cold until ready to serve.
Place wedges on salad plates either on their sides or with points up. Drizzle dressing over wedges and sprinkle green onions, a little extra crumbled blue cheese and bacon.
Serves 6.

BLUE CHEESE DRESSING
2 1/2 ounces blue cheese such
      as Roquefort
1 cup good quality mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup buttermilk
Salt, pepper and garlic powder
      to taste
Crumble blue cheese and place in blender. Add all other ingredients and blend briefly, leaving some small lumps of blue cheese. Or, this can be mixed by hand, crumbling the blue cheese first and whisking all ingredients together.
Makes 2 cups.

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