Salad Daze: Avoiding Lettuce Burnout


I enjoy few things as much as feeding people, but the heat in Mississippi can shrivel the will of even an enthusiastic cook. When summer rolls around, I'll take any flimsy excuse to keep my distance from the stove. Inevitably, common sense gives me a good shake, and I make a reasonable decision: I just need to eat more salads.

I begin my endeavor passionately—chopping vegetables, fantasizing about the heirloom tomatoes I'm growing—but by the end of the week, boredom looms. Buying into preconceived notions (both complex and ascetic) about salads will lead you to the local Chinese takeout. I try to approach salad with equal measures of laziness and innovation: leftover rice and grains are a filling base for chopped vegetables and store-bought dressing. Knobs of stale bread can be transformed into fancy croutons. A standby vinaigrette recipe can be turned on its ear by adding lime juice and your favorite taco seasoning. Nearly every pantry item can be viewed as plausible salad fodder. Here are two of my new standbys.

Deconstructed Pesto Salad
Serves four as a side, two as an entree.

My entire crop of Italian basil is devoted to pesto, but I don't want to stand over a pot of boiling pasta in June. This salad has pesto's bold flavors, but eliminates any need for a culinary middleman (unless you count the fork.)

2 ounces toasted pine nuts
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, sliced
Juice from half a lemon
1 pound baby spinach or arugula, rinsed and dried
1 cup loosely packed basil leaves, torn
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
Coarse salt and cracked black pepper, to taste

Place your largest skillet on medium-low heat. Add oil and garlic, and cook until the garlic is golden and fragrant. Stir in lemon zest, and turn off the heat. Add spinach and basil leaves to the pan, tossing quickly to coat. Season with lemon juice, salt and pepper, then transfer to a serving bowl. Top with cheese and pine nuts, and serve.

Grilled Caesar
Serves four.

Cookouts are all about the grill, and good barbecue is one of the few reasons to brave the swelter. However, salads at outdoor potluck are usually mayonnaise-laden starchfests. I'm all for a good potato salad, but I'm no fan of food poisoning—it's tough to keep picnic-sized tubs cool during transport, much less while they're on the picnic table. Most greens will wither in the heat, and the coolers are usually reserved for meat and drinks. Romaine hearts are a smart choice for a picnic because of their crisp, sturdy structure, and a short turn on the grill imparts a smoky, buttery flavor to the leaves. The resulting alchemy pairs well with the sharp bite of lemons and raw garlic of homemade Caesar dressing, which can easily sneak into a cooler. You may quarter the heads of lettuce to accommodate more people, but I'd be reluctant to give up my crouton. (Bring extras!)

3 cloves garlic
4 anchovy fillets
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon mustard (I use spicy Chinese mustard, but traditionalists use Dijon)
1 egg yolk
Juice from a lemon, plus grated zest
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/3 cup olive oil (use the oil from the anchovy tin; it's great)
2 hearts of Romaine lettuce, halved lengthwise
Romano cheese, shaved into curls with a vegetable peeler
4 thick slices crusty bread
1-2 garlic cloves, halved

In a blender or food processor, puree the first eight ingredients until smooth. Drizzle oil into the churning mixture until the dressing turns creamy. Adjust seasoning to your liking. Transfer to a portable container and keep refrigerated or on ice until ready to use.

Prepare a gas or charcoal grill. Grill the lettuce halves cut side down until the inner leaves turn a deep gold, about 1-2 minutes. Toast the bread on the grill, then rub the halved garlic pieces on each side of your oversized crouton. Top lettuce with dressing and cheese. No one will fault you for using utensils, but it's more fun to hold it like a hot dog.

Previous Comments


Great article!! The recipes look delicious! Please keep up the good work. Can't wait for you next column! :)


Lovely article, D. I especially like the term "knobs of stale bread." Ready to try these recipes!


I really like the article. There are some very interesting ideas here -- grilling lettuce never occurred to me, despite the fact that it seems we've tried grilling just about everything else. I particularly like the pesto salad recipe. I love the flavour of pesto and arugula is one of my favorite things ever. I can't wait to try this one.



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