Lettuce Move On: Time is ripe for colorful, versatile vegetable salads

Consider it official: July is crunch time in River City.

Crunch time? Ab-sculpting crunches? If you insist. Number crunching? Yes, but only calories and carbs. A Nestlé Crunch bar? Sure, but moms are right: “Eat your veggies first.”

Crunch time starts in the produce section and ends on the kitchen table. It’s the season when fresh vegetable salads can make the menu night after night with nary a repeat. Vegetables are of course healthful and diet-friendly, but they’re also quick and easy – they go to the table in minutes with quick knife work and a fast whisk – and they’re flexible enough to serve as a last-minute addition to supper or a make-ahead dish for a neighborhood potluck. Most impressively, vegetables are easily adjusted for taste preferences and what’s on hand.

“Salads are appealing for summer, as accents but also as meals,” said Karen Tedesco of Webster Groves, a finalist in Pillsbury’s 2006 Bake-Off Contest and the grand prize winner of Cooking Light magazine’s 2005 Ultimate Reader Recipe Cook-Off. “Start with fresh vegetables with a mix of color and flavor. Add salt and sweet, then put slices of grilled chicken on top.”

Tedesco especially appreciates the crunch of delicately flavored fennel. “I slice raw bulbs thin, then add lemon juice, olive oil and Parmesan. It’s delicious. And I’ve thought about buying a Japanese slicer, you know, to create piles of spaghetti-string vegetables.”

Trick one: Small pieces

Most summer vegetables can be eaten raw in healthful and filling salads. The trick is to create small bits with extra surface area to soak up the dressings. Use a sharp knife, a food processor or a mandoline (try an inexpensive model, like those made by Benriner).

Dice celery, cucumber, peppers and summer squashes into half-inch to 1-inch pieces. Broccoli and cauliflower florets should be an inch or two across. For carrots and cabbages, a food processor speeds grating. Green beans benefit from blanching. (Blanching, often also called parboiling, is kitchen code for dropping a vegetable or fruit into boiling water for a minute or so until barely cooked, then immediately plunging it into a big bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process.)

Trick two: Mix it up

The best vegetable salads blend the flavors, textures and colors of several vegetables. Just imagine a colorful Jacob’s coat of broccoli, bell pepper, carrot and summer squash. Be sure to include a bit of kick from red onion, green onion or my personal favorite, chopped radish.

Trick three: Flavor-powered dressings

Bottled dressings lighten the wallet and thicken the waistline. Instead, combine two to three parts acid with one part olive oil. (Yes, eagle-eyed cooks, this reverses the typical proportion of acid to oil. It’s a trick that works for calorie counters and taste connoisseurs alike.) For a pound of vegetables serving four, that means two to three tablespoons of good vinegar or fresh citrus juice whisked with just one tablespoon of olive oil. Then, add fresh herbs, good mustard, a touch of honey for sweetness and a few grinds of sea salt and pepper.

A world of new vegetables

July is the perfect time, before local tomatoes ripen for the annual tomato gorge, to experiment with new-to-you vegetables that crop up at farmers’ markets and supermarkets.

Tessa Greenspan is the driving force behind independent grocer Sappington International Farmers’ Market in South County. Greenspan suggested, “I like to add thin slivers of kale and spinach to salads – membranes removed – also thin sticks of raw sweet potato.” Raw sweet potato? That was new to me. But I tried it – it works and it’s good.

Since last year, I’ve been impassioned by vegetables. I’ve tried poke (the wild green featured in the 1969 hit song “Poke Salad Annie”), fiddlehead ferns, pattypan squash, sweet-spicy South African Peppadew, black radishes, Thai eggplant, ridge gourd, lacinato kale and cabbage sprouts, to name a few.

But chayote and daikon, two new-to-me vegetables, became instant favorites. Both are readily available in supermarkets. Both are terrific in vegetable salads.

Chayote (pronounced “chy-oh-tay”) is native to Central America. Each slightly pear-shaped, luminescent gourd is the size of a woman’s fist. Chayote are members of the summer squash family and can be prepared like yellow squash or zucchini. Just expect a firmer texture and none of the sponginess that can occur in summer squash. Buried inside is a soft, edible seed; I call it the “cook’s snack,” as it’s gobbled up between whisking and chopping.

Daikon (pronounced “die-kon”) is a Japanese radish, crisp, sweet and wet, with wonderful tooth-crunch. There’s no bitter bite of radish and no woodiness of jicama. Daikon peels as easily as carrots and slices as readily as cucumbers.

Both chayote and daikon are worth seeking out. And once you’ve enjoyed a crunchy salad, go ahead, treat yourself to that chocolate bar.