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The Ultimate Salad

June 18, 1997|MARGARET SHERIDAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Southern California, entree salads are popular all year long. But when the temperature rises and the markets overflow with summer produce, they really have their day in the sun.

What's the perfect summer salad?

Ideally, a summer salad is light-tasting and colorful, with exciting flavors and textures, especially crunchiness.

Fish, chicken or pork on a toss of mixed greens, fresh herbs, a few vegetables and an olive oil-based vinaigrette is a good basic formula. Cheese, croutons, fried wontons or nuts are options too.

Michael McCarty, of Michael's in Santa Monica, rotates eight salads on his menu. Many are fashioned after a salad he ate in France years ago: watercress and endive with lardons (thick bacon bits) in vinaigrette, topped with a poached egg.

He sees the major element in an entree salad as protein: "Chicken, goat cheese, tuna, whatever. The norm is about 4 to 6 ounces."

"These salads are creative because they take anything," says Joachim Splichal, chef-restaurateur of Patina Restaurant and Pinot bistros. "Just buy whatever is the freshest in the market and enhance it. Salads are hard to mess up."

Splichal concentrates on fresh herbs, such as basil or chives. Protein isn't necessary, he insists. Nor are starchy ingredients, though he makes an exception for warm pasta in small amounts.

One of his favorite herbs is mint, and he plays it up in a salad of grilled salmon with green onion, Boston lettuce, tomato and orange sections dressed with an olive oil dressing flavored with grated orange peel and orange juice.

For many home cooks who aren't so experienced with herbs and greens, however, the open-endedness of salad can cause problems.

"If you're not careful," says Suzanne Tracht, executive chef of Jozu Restaurant on Melrose Avenue, "you add too many ingredients and end up with a garbage salad. You've got to select the greens and herbs carefully and understand each's flavor."

The flavor of endive, for instance, is so assertive that it could easily be used as a spice. Tract says the key to salad-making is simplicity. She suggests picking one flavor (an herb, a cheese, a green) and letting it dominate.

Likewise, Patrick Healy, chef of Xiomara and Oye! in Pasadena as well as consulting chef at the Buffalo Club in West Los Angeles, counsels restraint. He believes that controlling the amount of dressing and keeping temperatures of ingredients in balance are what makes a salad light and refreshing.

"The most common error is over-saucing," he says. "It makes the salad heavy.

"To keep it refreshing, keep the greens slightly chilled. Add the protein warm, not hot. The balance between cold and warm comes when you add the olive oil and vinegar or acidic element at room temperature."

Moistness is an important element, continues McCarty. "You want ingredients that are moist, but not wet." Grilled Vidalia onions and grilled peppers are examples.

Although salads seem like pure California cuisine, entree salads are, of course, universal.

"In Germany, when the weather gets warm, people go for main course salads," says Hans Rockenwagner, chef-owner of Rockenwagner in Santa Monica. A German classic is the mixed salad plate: four to six marinated salads in tiny portions, often served with a ham roll, sausage or a hard-boiled egg.

Rockenwagner agrees that cooks can get dizzy with too many ingredients. "You've got to stick to the nature of what a salad is," he says. "You want as little processed as possible. Keep the ingredients raw. Use a small amount of dressing and herbs to enhance the freshness.

"The more you chop and dice and handle salad, the less attractive it is. That's why I never liked Cobb Salad. It's all over the place."

"When I do an entree salad," says Ken Frank, executive chef of Fenix in the Argyle, "I try to envision the ultimate balanced meal, sort of the pyramid on a plate, little bits from all the food groups. I take a Chinese approach to using protein and use it just as a flavor and accent.

"For me," he concludes, "entree salads have to have that 'I dare you to eat just one' quality."

OK, you might not eat two salads in a day, but a salad almost every day through summer is what a lot of people eat to keep cool. Based on the advice of our chef experts, with some input from The Times Test Kitchen, we came up with a recipe for the perfect summer salad that is adaptable enough to keep things interesting (chicken one day, fish the next) all the way to fall.

THE SUMMER SALAD

DRESSING

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Swish together oil, lemon juice, vinegar and mustard. Add salt and pepper to taste. Use at room temperature.

SALAD

2 cups slightly chilled mixed greens (or combination of arugula, mache, mesclun)

1/2 cucumber, peeled, seeded, thinly sliced

1 dozen cherry tomatoes, stemmed and halved

2 ounces haricot verts (French green beans), trimmed, lightly steamed

4 tiny red boiling potatoes, steamed and halved

Dill sprigs

Small basil leaves

4 ounces steamed or grilled halibut (or grilled chicken)

Freshly ground black pepper

1 won ton skin, baked, sliced into thin strips

This recipe is the consensus of six chefs.

Combine greens with cucumber, tomatoes, haricot verts, potatoes, several dill sprigs and few basil leaves. Pile on plate.

Slice warm fish diagonally and arrange slices over greens. Drizzle with dressing. Sprinkle with coarsely ground pepper. Garnish with baked won ton skin strips.

1 serving:

459 calories; 494 mg sodium; 47 mg cholesterol; 18 grams fat; 40 grams carbohydrates; 37 grams protein; 4.15 grams fiber.

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