Cooling salads for hot summer days

Lettuce cooleth the heat of the stomacke, called the heart-burning; and helpeth it when it is troubled with choler: it quenches thirst and causeth sleepe. Lettuce maketh a pleasant sallad, being eaten raw with vinegar, oile, and a little salt: but if it be boiled it is sooner digested, and nourisheth more.

— John Gerard

According to the Spanish proverb, four persons are wanted to make a good salad: a spendthrift for oil, a miser for vinegar, a counsellor for salt, and a madman to stir it all up.

— Abraham Hayward

Iceberg lettuce is perhaps the most aptly named plant in the world, and should be avoided as though you were the Titanic with a second chance.”

— Alan Koehler

Salad ingredients have been around for a long time, but the salad as a culinary art form — and an essential part of our diet — is a modern American phenomenon. During the 1950s and SSRq60s the famous iceberg salad became a restaurant standard with a choice of Italian, Russian or blue cheese dressing. Then came the salad bar with all the healthy “fixin’s” that you could help yourself to. Then romaine lettuce and the Caesar salad gained popularity, first as an exotic restaurant item and then a common supermarket commodity.

Today, the salad has taken on a whole new identity, with a vast amount of flavorful greens, garnishes and dressings. Now, it is often the centerpiece of the meal instead of a mere accompaniment, and the creative use of herbs, oils, vinegars and seasonings creates endless possibilities for healthy enjoyment.

Tomato, Watermelon and Avocado Salad

Cut 4 tomatoes into bite-sized wedges. Cut enough yellow watermelon into 3/4-inch chunks to make 4 cups. Peel, seed and cut 2 cucumbers into 3/4-inch pieces and cut 2 ripe avocados into 1/2-inch cubes. Combine the above in a large bowl and fold in 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil and 1/4 cup chopped cilantro. In a small bowl combine 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar with 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander, 1 teaspoon coarse salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Whisk in 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil and toss lightly with the salad.

Serves 6.

Corn Salsa

Purchase 6 ears of very fresh corn. Shuck the corn, brush off the silk with a towel and scrape off the kernels with a small knife. Heat a large sautà pan and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Sautà the corn kernels for about 5 minutes, tossing them in the pan to prevent burning. Put the corn into a large bowl and let it cool. Dice 3 tomatoes into 1/2-inch cubes and chop one red onion. Add the tomato and onion to the corn along with 1/2 cup chopped cilantro, 1/2 cup lime juice, 1 minced jalapeño pepper (without seeds) and 1 tablespoon finely minced garlic. Season with 2 teaspoons coarse salt and 1 teaspoon black pepper.

Serves 6.

Green and Yellow Bean Salad with Toasted Walnuts

Purchase 1 pound each of green and yellow string beans. Cut off the tips and rinse. Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil and cook the beans for about 5 minutes or until just cooked. Drain in a colander and plunge into ice water to cool quickly. Drain and place in a large bowl. Toast 2 cups of walnuts in a dry sautà pan over medium heat. Shake the pan to avoid burning. Whisk 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil into 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice. Toss the beans, walnuts and dressing together and season with 1 teaspoon coarse salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper.

Serves 6.

Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad

Purchase 2 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken cutlets. Brush the chicken with olive oil and grill over charcoal until just cooked, about 5 minutes. Remove, cool and cut into bite-sized pieces. Rinse and trim two heads of romaine lettuce. Dry with paper towels and cut into bite-sized pieces. Place two eggs in a food processor along with 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 1/4 cup lemon juice and 4 anchovies. Process for 1 minute and slowly add 1 1/2 cups olive oil. Season with 1 teaspoon black pepper. Grate 1 cup of parmesan cheese. Toss the lettuce, chicken, dressing and cheese together and serve.

Makes 6 portions.

Iceberg Wedge with Watercress and Blue Cheese Dressing

Purchase one large head of iceberg lettuce. Cut out the core, remove outside leaves and rinse thoroughly. Cut into 4 wedges, dry with paper towel and refrigerate. Rinse 2 bunches of watercress, remove stems and dry the leaves. Refrigerate. In a small bowl whisk together 1/4 cup mayonnaise, 1/4 cup sour cream, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1/4 teaspoon coarse salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper. Chop or crumble 4 ounces of good quality blue cheese. Line the plates with watercress, place the iceberg wedge on top and drizzle with dressing. Garnish with more watercress.

Serves 4.

Warm Roasted Beet Salad with Goat Cheese and Walnuts

Purchase 1 bunch of beets, trim off the tops, and wrap in foil. (Make 2 bunches.) Place on a sheet pan and roast in a 400-degree oven for 1 hour or until easily pierced with a knife. Remove and cool, leaving them wrapped in foil. Slip the skins off the beets and cut into slices. Cut 1 log of goat cheese into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Make an egg wash with 1 egg and 1/4 cup milk. Dip the goat cheese slices in the egg wash and then into 1 cup of fresh bread crumbs. Heat a large sautà pan and add 3 tablespoons olive oil. Add 1 cup of walnuts to the hot pan and cook about 3 minutes. Remove the walnuts with a slotted spoon and sautà the breaded goat cheese until brown on both sides, about 3 minutes, and remove to a paper towel-lined plate. In a small bowl whisk together 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, 1 minced shallot, 1 tablespoon grated ginger, 1/2 teaspoon sugar, 1/4 teaspoon coarse salt and 3 tablespoons olive oil. Toss the warm beets in the dressing and place on a bed of baby arugula. Surround the beets with the goat cheese and sprinkle with the toasted walnuts.

Serves 4 to 6.

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. E-mail: [email protected].