- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2004

CONCORD, N.H. - On too many dinner tables, the salad is an afterthought, a random toss of greens and garden castoffs offered for seemingly no other reason than that the host thinks it ought to be.

No doubt you have encountered these salads of limp greens or watery iceberg lettuce in a jumble of carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes. Their only advantage is how easily they are forgotten.

It need not be that way. Salads can stand on their own merits, complementing the meal and even challenging the palate without threatening to overshadow the entree.

As so often is the case, simplicity is best. My favorite salad is an elegant yet rustic heap of mesclun drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil, salt and balsamic vinegar. The construction may be simple, but the tastes are bold and complex.

That same basic salad also can be dressed up to suit different themes. Asian on the menu? Substitute toasted sesame oil and seasoned rice vinegar, then sprinkle with sesame seeds.

In fall, add thin slices of apples or pears. For more oomph, toss the greens with roasted whole garlic cloves and drizzle with cider vinegar and toasted hazelnut oil.

For a more substantial yet equally simple salad, try an Italian tomato and mozzarella platter. Alternate slices of roma tomatoes with water-packed mozzarella. Top with basil leaves, salt, freshly ground black pepper and extra-virgin olive oil.

For a Greek version of the same dish, substitute crumbled feta cheese for the mozzarella and replace the basil with fresh thyme and pitted Kalamata olives.

Pickles are another — and often underrated — way to liven up a salad. Toss diced bread-and-butter pickles (some of the new zesty varieties are particularly good) with chopped romaine lettuce hearts and corn kernels. Drizzle with a 1-to-2 blend of cider vinegar to mayonnaise.

For another fantastic dinner salad, try a strawberry salad with poppy-seed dressing. This simple salad of romaine, strawberry slices and almond slivers from Cooking Light magazine has received raves from our dinner guests. The mango-cucumber salad from Byron Ayanoglu’s “125 Best Vegetarian Recipes” (Robert Rose).

Strawberry salad with poppy-seed dressing

3 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons light

mayonnaise

2 tablespoons fat-free milk

1 tablespoon poppy seeds

1 tablespoon white wine

vinegar

10-ounce bag romaine lettuce, roughly chopped

1 cup sliced strawberries

2 tablespoons toasted slivered almonds

Combine the sugar, mayonnaise, milk, poppy seeds and vinegar in a small bowl; whisk well. Place the lettuce in a large bowl. Add the strawberries and almonds, and toss lightly. Divide among individual serving plates, and drizzle each with about 1 tablespoon dressing. Makes 6 servings.

Mango-cucumber salad

8-inch section English cucumber, not peeled, cut lengthwise into quarters, thinly sliced

1 green mango, peeled and cut into julienne strips

1/4 cup slivered red onion

3 green onions, finely chopped

2 tablespoons freshly chopped cilantro

red bell pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips

1 jalapeno pepper, finely chopped (with or without seeds, depending on heat tolerance)

2 tablespoons lime juice

2 tablespoons white vinegar

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon sugar

Salt, to taste

Place the cucumber and mango in a large bowl. Add the red onions, green onions, red pepper, jalapeno and half of the cilantro. Toss until well-mixed. In a small bowl, whisk together the lime juice, vinegar, oil and sugar until emulsified. Season to taste with salt. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss well. Transfer the salad to a serving bowl, and garnish with remaining cilantro. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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