Well, it’s that time of year again: the sweltering, moist, and thoroughly unpleasant circle of heck that is summer in North Carolina.
When it gets really miserable, I only want cool. I don’t even take hot showers. So turning on the oven on most days isn’t an option.
But how many spinach salads and tuna sandwiches can one eat before succumbing to crankiness and insanity?
Actually, the same summer that drives us (me) around the bend is also responsible for an awesome culinary option. I’m talking gorgeous, colorful, and delicious fruit salads.
Just head over to the farmer’s market or the Co-op and fill your basket with beautiful, fresh local produce. Blueberries, blackberries, melons, and stone fruit are all in season right now and the grocery store has tropical fruits like pineapple, mango, and bananas. Apples and pears are always available.
After you’ve picked out some sweet, colorful fruity stars of the show, then it’s time to choose the guest stars of your production.
Green and spicy stuff. Adding fresh herbs to your salad can turn it from a fruit cocktail wannabe to something very special. Fresh mint is a traditional addition. But almost any herb can work. Try some fresh basil, thyme or dill. To go the unexpected route, use cilantro, sage, or very finely chopped rosemary.
Spinach and other sturdy greens can be tossed into the salad along with the fruit. Or, you can top it with a handful of delicate crispy greens like pea shoots or curly endive.
And don’t ignore your spice cabinet. Warm notes like nutmeg, cinnamon, or cardamom are lovely. Exotics like Chinese five spice, cumin, curry or za’atar bring evocative zing.
Crunchy stuff. Nuts are a natural cohort to fruit. If you want exotic, try pine nuts, macadamias or pistachios. Pecans, walnuts, and almonds give a nice cozy, comfort food vibe. Just toast the nuts if they didn’t come already toasted, to bring out the maximum of flavor.
Nuts aren’t your only crispy option. Croutons, bacon, and even canned chow mein noodles will add novelty and bite. But unlike nuts, this crispiness can be lost and sogginess will ensue if they spend an extended time in liquid. So add them at the last minute, or sprinkle on top, so they stay crunchy until service.
Dressing stuff. To be a true salad, and not just a mélange of fruit, a dressing should be used. It can be as simple as some lemon juice, or a splash of rum. But a composed dressing really transforms it into a main dish, rather than a snack.
Take a cup of low-fat sour cream and stir in one tablespoon of brown sugar, and a splash of vanilla. Refrigerate for an hour then fold it into the fruit 20-30 minutes before service.
And I’ve always liked the sweet/sour combo and snap of poppy seed dressing.
Poppy seed dressing
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
¼ cup sugar
¼ red onion, roughly chopped
1 ½ tablespoons poppy seeds
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Place into a blender or a bowl, if using an immersion blender. Blend until smooth.
With blender on low, slowly stream in 1/3 cup olive oil to make an emulsion. When all the oil has been added, check for seasoning and refrigerate four hours to overnight. Using less than you think you need, fold into salad, adding more if necessary. Store covered in fridge up to five days.
And for the simplest, oddest salad of all, my favorite from junior high: toss canned or peeled and chopped pears with bottled blue cheese dressing. I know, sounds really weird, but it actually has a pretty complete range of flavors and textures.
Anyway, get out there and pick up some of this sweaty season’s bounty. To round your meal out without heating up the kitchen, pick up some prepared salads from the supermarket or specialty store. And if you can get some chump…I mean some sweetheart, to stand over the grill and make the burgers this weekend, you’re all set (guess who the chump usually is at my mom’s cookouts).
Thanks for your time.