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COOL FOOD : Toss and Serve

August 20, 1992|RUSS PARSONS

Is salad the casserole of the '90s?

In the old days, family dinners, as likely as not, were composed of meat (usually hamburger) cooked with some kind of vegetable (mostly onions and tomatoes) and noodles (generally macaroni), probably with cheese (or, more accurately, cheese-food) melted over it.

If there was a salad, odds are it was a wedge of iceberg (Romaine if mom was feeling fancy) with bottled Thousand Island on top.

That was 30 years ago--practically the Stone Age in this rapidly evolving world of cuisine. We are so much more sophisticated now, culinarily conversant in French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai and even Tagalog. We wouldn't dream of serving something like casserole.

Now our everyday family dinners are much more likely to consist of a piece of grilled chicken or fish served on a bed of greens, garnished with some crisply steamed or parboiled vegetables and dressed with a light, mustard-y vinaigrette. In other words, meat, some kind of vegetable, and greens with a dressing poured over them. Substitute noodles for greens and cheese for vinaigrette and the resemblance is inescapable. "Separated at Birth."

Of course, given the weather these days, cool, crisp salads make a whole lot more sense than baked noodles, but the impulse is the same--layers of ingredients combined into one-dish meals that get to the table in a hurry.

Dinner salads can be as simple or as complex as you want to make them. They can be made with something as exotic as the mesclun salad mixes from the growers markets (they're even starting to show up in many grocery stores) or with something as basic as boiled potatoes. They can even be made with fruit.

In fact, the farther from a lettuce-based salad you can get these days, the better off you are. Hot weather in the Salinas Valley effectively tripled prices of iceberg, Romaine and loose-leaf lettuces last month. The heat has broken, but its effects on the produce market linger. Any lettuce that formed a head during the hot weather is susceptible to all kinds of problems, meaning there won't be much lettuce around, and what there is will be very expensive.

Making things worse is the impact of the food-service industry, which fell behind on its supplies during the peak of the bad weather and now is buying everything in sight to catch up. All told, it will take at least three weeks, maybe longer, for prices to return to normal at the retail level.

So, you can use beans, beets and snap peas; mushrooms and cheese; potatoes and smoked salmon; figs, grapes and plums; or lamb, eggplant and tomatoes. You can even add fried leeks if you want.

Just fight the urge to open a box of Salad Helper.

INCREDIBLE VEGETABLES WITH BLUE CHEESE VINAIGRETTE

6 asparagus spears, cut into 1-inch pieces

1/4 pound wax beans, cut in 1-inch pieces

1/4 pound haricot verts, trimmed

1/4 pound sugar snap peas, cut open along 1 side

6 baby beets, boiled, peeled and halved

1 green pepper, cut julienne

1 sweet red pepper, cut julienne

1 purple pepper, cut julienne

Blue Cheese Vinaigrette

2 large carrots, peeled and shredded

1 chayote, peeled, seeded and thinly sliced or shredded

8 black pitted olives, sliced

Blanch asparagus, wax beans, haricot verts and peas separately in boiling, salted water. Drain and refresh in ice cold water until serving time, then drain well.

In large bowl combine vegetables with beets and green, red and purple peppers. Add 3/4 of Blue Cheese Vinaigrette and toss well.

Arrange carrots on large serving platter. Top with chayote shreds or slices. Heap salad on top in tall mound. Drizzle with remaining dressing. Garnish with olives. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

195 calories; 284 mg sodium; 8 mg cholesterol; 13 grams fat; 16 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 2.04 grams fiber.

Blue Cheese Vinaigrette

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Combine olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice and cheese. Stir well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

FABULOUS FRUIT SALAD

1 small firm-ripe cantaloupe, cut in 1/2-inch wedges

4 to 6 figs, cut in halves

1 yellow or white nectarine, halved, pitted and cut in wedges

3 kiwis, peeled and sliced 1/2-inch thick

2 yellow Mirabelle or black Friar plums, pitted, halved or quartered

1 cup small watermelon balls or dice

1/4 pound Champagne grapes

1 cup strawberries or other berries in season

1/2 cup blackberries

Citrus Sorbet

Arrange cantaloupe wedges to fill bottom of serving platter. Build up salad, using figs, nectarine, kiwis, plums, watermelon, grapes, strawberries and blackberries. Cover and chill until serving time. Garnish with large scoop of Citrus Sorbet. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

453 calories; 28 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 114 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 3.67 grams fiber.

\o7 Citrus fruits provide more juice than pulp, making the texture of sorbets grainy. To improve the texture, stiffly beaten egg whites may be added to the sugar syrup base.

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