Making a salad into a meal

Toss in most anything from grilled shrimp to cheese, and turn side dish into main course.

Posted: September 20, 2007

Like many home cooks, I happily rely on tried-and-true formulas when I cook - basic equations into which I can plug any number of ingredients. They allow me to improvise with whatever I have on hand or feel like cooking.

One of my favorite formulas is for warm main-course salads substantial enough to anchor a meal: a bed of salad (mixed leafy greens, slaw, vegetables such as roasted peppers or potatoes, beans or lentils) topped with slices of warm, quickly cooked meats, poultry, game, seafood or cheese, which provide protein.

The warm ingredients wilt the greens slightly, and the natural juices form part of the dressing, fusing the two elements.

Nobody has written more eloquently about improvised main-course salads than Richard Olney in Simple French Food (Wiley, 1992) who, in just a few pages, summarized their conceptual possibilities, range of ingredients, even their metaphysical meaning.

Olney called them "composed salads" because they are just that - composed of whatever is at hand into a harmonious whole.

Ingredients might include anything you feel works well together or have available - few foods are inappropriate. Composed salads are an ideal way to transform leftovers.

You can use a prepared mesclun mix or any combination of greens such as oak leaf, arugula, baby romaine, Boston, watercress and mache.

Vinaigrettes can be made with extra-virgin olive oil or more exotic roasted nut oils, such as walnut or hazelnut, in league with an interesting vinegar - balsamic, sherry, apple cider, pear, cherry and red wine, to name a few.

It is possible that one of the most famous composed salads, Salade Nicoise, was fashioned from what was at hand in a Proven├žal kitchen - potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, anchovies, capers, oil-packed tuna from nearby Italy - all bound together with good olive oil and vinegar.

Indeed, the addition of few ounces of cooked meat, poultry, seafood or cheese can elevate a simple appetizer salad into a serious main-course offering.

Warm potato salad becomes a satisfying dinner garnished with olives, lemon zest and thyme and topped with grilled shrimp. Goat cheese gently warmed in the oven is dazzling on strips of roasted bell peppers tossed with pine nuts and basil. Warmed lentil salad makes a perfect foil for grilled salmon.

Figure about 3 to 4 ounces of protein such as beef, lamb, pork, chicken, duck breast, fish filet or shrimp per person, thinly sliced or artfully cut, or about 2 ounces of cheese per serving.

Elaborate on this recipe as inspiration strikes, adding elements such as olives, roasted peppers and other cooked or raw vegetables, or even other salads.

Improvisational Warm Main Course Salads

Makes 2 main course servings, 4 as a first course

For the salad:

4 cups washed and dried greens (mesclun, oak leaf, arugula, baby romaine, Boston, watercress, mache)

Optional additions:

1/4 cup roasted walnut, pecan or hazelnut pieces

1 tomato, diced

Thinly sliced fennel

1 small pear, apple, orange or fig, peeled and sliced, 1/2 cup roasted green beans, beets or peppers

1/4 cup mild herbs: chives, basil, mint or chervil, torn

For the protein:

6 to 8 ounces boneless meat, poultry or seafood: steak, loin of lamb, pork tenderloin, skinless duck or chicken breast, salmon, tuna steak, or peeled, deveined shrimp

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil for sauteing or grilling

Salt and fresh ground pepper

Vinaigrette (see note)

1. In a large bowl, combine the greens and any optional additions.

2. Rub the meat, poultry or seafood lightly with the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Sear on a hot grill or in a nonstick or well-seasoned cast-iron skillet until browned on each side and cooked as you like it. Remove to a cutting board to rest a few minutes before slicing.

3. Drizzle the dressing over the greens and toss to coat completely, adding salt and pepper to taste. Arrange half the salad on each of two dinner plates (or four salad plates).

4. Cut the meat, poultry or seafood into thin slices as appropriate. Place slightly askew on the greens. Drizzle any juices over the salad. Serve at once.

- From Sally Schneider

Note: To make the vinaigrette: In a small bowl, combine 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon warm water

water, a pinch of kosher salt and 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil. Set aside.

Per serving (based on 4 with chicken breast): 226 calories, 16 grams protein, 14 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 13 grams fat, 36 milligrams cholesterol, 154 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber

Warm Goat Cheese Salad

Makes 4 servings

8 cups cleaned and dried greens such as mesclun, oak leaf, arugula, baby romaine, Boston, watercress and mache

11/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, or 2 teaspoons each balsamic and sherry vinegar

Kosher salt

1 teaspoon water

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 pound mild goat cheese, such as Lingot or Montrachet, cut into 4 equal portions

1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves or 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. Place the greens in a large salad bowl. In a small bowl, combine the vinegar, a large pinch of salt, water and olive oil. Drizzle the dressing over greens and toss to coat completely, adding salt and pepper to taste. Divide the salad between four dinner plates.

3. Place the goat cheese in a small cast-iron skillet or a heavy baking pan and sprinkle with thyme and pepper to taste. Bake until the cheese is warmed through and soft, but not collapsing, about 3 minutes.

4. Using a thin metal spatula, place one slice of cheese directly on each portion of the greens and serve.

- From Sally Schneider

Note: The flavors and creaminess of goat cheese are accentuated when warmed. Since this cheese is very rich, about 2 ounces per person is ample. Be sure to serve an interesting bread on which to spread the warm cheese, such as slices of a crusty sourdough or walnut bread.

Per serving: 228 calories, 12 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 19 grams fat, 26 milligrams cholesterol, 214 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber

Warm Wild Mushroom Salad

Makes 2 main course servings, or 4 as a first course.

1 pound wild mushrooms, such as chanterelle,

shiitake, oyster, morel or

hen of the woods

4 to 5 cups cleaned and dried mesclun or a

combination of greens such as oak leaf, arugula, baby romaine, Boston, mache, watercress

2 teaspoons snipped fresh chives

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar or fine red wine vinegar, or more to taste

Kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper

1. Trim the tough stems off the mushrooms and discard. If they are dirty, quickly rinse in a salad spinner and spin dry.

2. Cut the mushrooms lengthwise into halves, quarters or eighths to make bite-sized pieces that still retain some of the mushroom's shape.

3. Place the greens in a large salad bowl and toss with the chives.

4. Heat a heavy skillet over high heat and add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. When it starts to shimmer, add the mushrooms and saute, stirring and tossing constantly, until they are browned and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and the vinegar and toss, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.

5. Pour the mushrooms, oil and vinegar over the salad greens and toss quickly. Taste and add additional salt or vinegar to lift the flavors if necessary. Serve at once.

- From Sally Schneider

Note: If you have some goose, duck or bacon fat on hand, use it instead of olive oil to saute the mushrooms. Sometimes I add a few ounces of shredded prosciutto, duck or goose confit, or roasted dark meat chicken to the sauteeing mushrooms.

Per serving (based on 4): 160 calories, 5 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 16 grams fat, no cholesterol, 8 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber

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