SUMMER IS "the peak season for salad making," says Richard Ruben, author of The Farmer's Market Cookbook (Lyons Press, 2006) and an instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education. There's a plethora of produce, it's too hot to fire up the oven, and eating raw vegetables and fruit will help cool you down. Better still, recent studies show vegetables help reduce the risk of developing head and neck cancers and fight the spread of breast and ovarian cancers. To get your fill of veggies this season, consider eating a salad a day. The secret to keeping it interesting and satisfying is variety-of flavors (bitter, salty, sour, spicy, and sweet), textures (crunchy, chewy, creamy, and soft), and color. A rich palette translates into a wider range of vitamins, minerals, and protective phytochemicals, says food scientist Elizabeth Pivonka, Ph.D., R.D., president and CEO of the nonprofit Produce for Better Health Foundation. To toss the perfect salad, keep these helpful hints on file.
Layer with lettuce
Most salads start with a canvas of lettuce, which is rich in vitamins A and C, potassium, fiber, and phytochemicals (see Greens Guide for a list of lettuces and their nutritional highlights). When buying fresh greens, look for crisp, well-colored leaves and heads; if you see black or brown spots or wilting, don't buy it. "As soon as you get home, remove the cling wrap or packaging, peel off the outer leaves, and store the lettuce in the refrigerator below 40 degrees and in a crisper if you have one," advises Robert Gravani, Ph.D., professor of food science at Cornell University.
Water deteriorates lettuce, adds Gravani, so wash and dry it just before using. To do that, place the individual leaves in a bowl filled with cool water (or use a salad spinner and put the leaves in the mesh basket); swirl the leaves in the water to dislodge dirt; let them sit in the water until the dirt sinks to the bottom of the bowl; then lift the leaves out of the water (if using a salad spinner, lift mesh basket). Repeat once more, then dry the leaves with paper towels. (If you are using a spinner, rinse it out first to get rid of any dirt that settled on the bottom, then spin the leaves dry.)
Enliven with extras
A mélange of lettuces dressed with freshly made vinaigrette is an elegant way to start a meal. To make salad the main event, follow these tips.
Add Bite-Size Veggies:
When they're cut into dime-size cubes, dense veggies such as raw broccoli, cauliflower, or pole beans have a better "mouth feel" than larger pieces. Likewise, a carrot sliced into long ribbons with a peeler is easier to eat and looks more elegant than a big chunk of the vegetable. Mix Flavors and Textures: The same flavors that go well together in baking will go well in salads. For example, lemon and blueberries are a natural combination in muffins; a salad of baby greens with fresh blueberries, goat cheese, and lemon vinaigrette would be equally delicious. Or, combine the juiciness of a fresh fruit with the chewiness of its dried version. "Dried fruits extend chewing time and give you a comforting feeling," says Ruben. A spinach and endive salad with a mixture of dried and fresh apricots, blue cheese, and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil would make a perfect accompaniment to a grilled turkey burger.
Flavor with Cooked Produce:
Grilled or roasted fruits and vegetables, warm or cool, create interest when combined with cool, crisp greens, says Ruben. A favorite is grilled asparagus tossed with red onion, pine nuts, and a light Dijon dressing-it's simple and elegant on a bed of baby greens or frisée.
Accent with Nuts and Proteins:
A quarter-cup of chopped nuts or a cup of beans adds substance, a variety of texture, and extra protein to a salad, without adding too many calories.
The finishing flourish
Dressing adds a final layer of flavor and character to a salad and unifies the combination of disparate solid ingredients. When you're applying the dressing, think of coating the salad, not drowning it (use approximately one tablespoon per person), and use tongs or salad utensils instead of your bare hands to toss the salad to minimize the risk of transferring foodborne illnesses, advises Gravani.
Vinaigrettes: The trick to a successful vinaigrette is to combine an acid (vinegar or lemon juice) with an emulsifier (like mustard), then slowly add oil while whisking briskly. With the rich variety of oils and vinegars that are available, you can make virtually any flavor of vinaigrette (the classic is balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, or lemon juice with olive oil). To enhance the flavor, try adding minced garlic or onion or your favorite herbs and spices.
Creamy: These dressings are often high in fat, but if you replace cream and mayonnaise with yogurt or use pureed fruits or vegetables as a base, you can get the same smooth texture without the unwanted calories. You can also use avocados and nonfat yogurt in place of oil if you're making a dressing that includes fruit or vegetable juice or vinegar.