Master the tossed salad: It takes effort to look this good
Summer time is salad time. When it's hot out and the garden is bountiful, everyone's in the mood for a light and refreshing entree salad.
And what could be easier? You just toss together a bunch of lettuce with some cooked protein, add an excellent dressing, and boom! You're done. Or not. Turns out that if you pay a little more attention to the components of the salad, you won't need to rely quite so much on the dressing to provide all the flavor. In fact, it's easy to make something wonderful.
Here's the basic formula per serving of salad: 2 cups of lettuce, a heaping 1/3 cup of halved cherry tomatoes, 1/3 cup of sliced cucumbers, a quarter of an avocado (cubed), and 1 tablespoon of dressing. The key, though, is to season each and every part one at a time, and to do so at just the right moment.
It's also important to deal with the water. Vegetables contain a high percentage of water. If you remove some of that water, you concentrate and amplify the vegetable's flavor.
Let's start with the cherry tomatoes. You'll be amazed at how much more tomato-y they'll taste after they've been salted and drained, preferably for 30 minutes. Cucumbers, likewise, become more cucumber-y with salting, though the salt also tenderizes them. If you care more about a cuke's crunch than its flavor, skip the salting of them.
By the way, here's a little tip I learned from Rachael Ray about how to slice a raft of cherry tomatoes all at once rather than one-by-one. Put a whole bunch of them on a small plastic lid, then place another lid on top of them. Stabilize the tomatoes by gently pressing the lids together. Insert a serrated knife into the gap between the lids and slice all of the tomatoes in half at one time.
While the tomatoes and the cucumbers are draining, you should cut up the avocado, put it in the bottom of the salad bowl, season it, and toss it with the dressing. This last step prevents it from oxidizing and turning color. Pile on the additional ingredients as they become ready. Note: To remove the pit from an avocado safely, cut it into quarters. As tempting as it might be to imitate the TV chefs — who cut the avocado in half, slam a huge knife into the pit, and twist out the pit — it's a technique that has landed many a home cook in the emergency room.
After rinsing the lettuce, spin it dry or gently pat it dry with paper towels. Dressing will slide right off of wet greens. Keep in mind that a variety of lettuces is more enticing than just one kind, and mixing in whole herb leaves with the greens makes a salad extra special.
Finally, after all of the components have been prepped and added to the bowl, sprinkle the greens with a little salt and pepper and toss the salad with your hands. Lettuce bruises easily. Your hands are exactly the right tool for this delicate job. Now that your basic salad is dressed and ready to go, top it off with grilled chicken, shrimp, beef, pork or tofu to turn it into a substantial summertime entree.
Tossed Salad 101
Start to finish: 50 minutes (15 active)
1 1/2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes
6 ounces English cucumber
1 firm ripe avocado
8 cups lightly packed torn lettuce
Ground black pepper
1/4 cup dressing
Set a wire rack over a rimmed baking sheet.
Halve the cherry tomatoes and arrange cut side up on the wire rack. Sprinkle the cut sides liberally with salt, then turn the tomatoes so the cut sides are down. Let stand for 30 minutes. Peel the cucumber if it has a thick skin. Halve it lengthwise, then slice it thinly crosswise. Toss the sliced cucumber with some salt and let drain in a colander set in the sink for 30 minutes.
Quarter the avocado, remove the pit and lay the avocado skin side down on the counter. Using a paring knife, make a crisscross pattern in the flesh in 1/2-inch cubes, cutting down to the skin. Use a spoon to lift out the cubes and transfer them to a salad bowl. Sprinkle the avocado lightly with salt and toss gently with a fork. Add the dressing and toss again.
When the tomatoes and cucumber have sat for 30 minutes, pat them dry with paper towels and add them to the bowl with the avocado. Add the lettuce, sprinkle with salt and pepper and use your hands to toss the salad very gently just until the leaves are coated. Serve right away.
Nutrition information per serving: 140 calories; 90 calories from fat (64 percent of total calories); 10 g fat (1.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 440 mg sodium; 13 g carbohydrate; 6 g fiber; 3 g sugar; 3 g protein.
— Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."