It used to be that when one of my kids asked, “What’s for dinner?” I’d grab a basket and say, “Let’s see what the garden has to offer.”
Generally, I knew what the garden had to offer, be it beans, tomatoes, zucchini, or salad greens. I could count on my boy to snack on as much as, or more than, what he put in the basket. That was OK by me — better to fill up on green beans than on crackers. But the ritual of going to the garden to harvest supper, well, that’s one of the joys of summer.
What isn’t a joy for me is the heat. I don’t like it. And I don’t like to work in a hot kitchen. So my summer meal planning involves lots of main-dish salads. Often, I’ll cook the protein or grains that round out the salad in advance, before the kitchen heats up in the afternoon sun. Then, supper is simply tossed together or arranged on a platter as a composed salad.
Although a world of dressing choices are available, I tend to go light — meaning high-quality extra-virgin olive oil, and either freshly squeezed lemon juice (never bottled) or a high-quality vinegar. The olive oil doesn’t have to be expensive, but it does have to be extra-virgin, stored in a dark bottle, and bought recently; oil that’s over a year old should be tossed out. Sure, you can make cheesy or creamy dressings, but I prefer those for winter salads. The exception, of course, is a Caesar salad topped with grilled salmon or chicken. That makes a great salad year-round, and you’re likely to find it on the menu of every American bistro you frequent. For most of these salads, I add the oil and lemon juice or vinegar, as well as the herbs, directly to the salad, rather than dirtying an extra bowl to mix them. Cleanup for these recipes should be quick.
For a main-dish salad, start with a base of either greens, pasta, or grains. Greens can be tricky if you’re only thinking in terms of lettuce fresh from the garden, because lettuce will fail you (that is, bolt) in the heat. To extend the harvest, stagger the planting, harvest young, plant in the shade, and choose bolt-resistant lettuces. Many crisphead lettuces and red oak leaf types are bolt-resistant. Consider other greens as well. Baby bok choy works as a lettuce replacement, as do baby kale, radicchio, and baby chard.
For a grain salad, choose whole grains for maximum nutrition and interest. For me, farro, spelt, and wheat berries rank high in terms of nutty flavor and chewy texture. Farro and spelt are ancient forms of wheat. Quinoa is actually a seed in the same family as spinach, but it has grain-like qualities and is exceptionally high in protein, making it a great choice for a vegetarian salad. To cook these grains, simmer them in water and hold them in the refrigerator for a few days. The cooking time for each grain will vary depending on its age; the older the grain, the longer the cooking time. With farro and barley, look for pearled versions that cook faster than the whole grains; wheat berries should be soaked overnight.
Because you want the salad to serve as a main dish, consider adding a protein that’ll satisfy. Here’s where the grill is particularly handy; fire it up outside and keep the kitchen cool. Meat, fish, and chicken can be grilled and served at room temperature on top of a bed of greens and vegetables. And don’t forget eggs. A couple of poached eggs or barely hard-cooked eggs per person served atop a salad adds a delicious counterpart to the veggies and just the right amount of protein. For a vegetarian main dish, nothing is faster or easier than adding a cup or two of cooked beans. Nuts add protein and crunch. For both protein and flavor, add cheese, such as crumbles of fresh goat cheese or feta cheese, creamy burrata or mozzarella, or shaved Parmesan. From the supermarket, I can usually buy high-quality smoked fish that’ll keep nicely in the fridge or freezer for a special salad supper. And there’s always rotisserie chicken, which makes a lovely addition to a salad.
But of course, my favorite part about creating salads is harvesting ingredients from the garden. As you make the following recipes, note which fresh foods your garden can provide for these healthy dishes. “What can I whip up with cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, and green beans?”
- Mediterranean Farro Salad Recipe
- Smoked Trout Salad with Summer Berries Recipe
- Vietnamese Shrimp and Rice Noodle Salad Recipe
Andrea Chesman cooks, writes, and teaches in Vermont, where she lives on a 1-acre homestead. She’s the author of many cookbooks, including Serving Up the Harvest and The Fat Kitchen. Her book 101 One-Dish Dinners is available below.