Ah, August, the kids are back in school, the temperatures are hot, hot and hot. Wouldn’t it be nice to invite some friends over to enjoy a summer evening?
If only we had the energy to, you know, cook something.
The trick is to make do-ahead salads that showcase the season so spectacularly your main course can take a back seat. Fortunately, by committing to fresh produce you will be serving food so fabulous it needs no heavy dressings and sauces.
A favorite combination for Daniel Capra, executive chef for Paula LeDuc Fine Catering, is fresh peaches nestled atop a basil puree — like a pesto, but without the garlic — and garnished with arugula and shaved Parmesan. Capra compares it to that summer classic, melon and prosciutto.
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“It’s successful because of the saltiness of the ham against the sweetness of the melon,” Capra says.
The San Francisco company, which has catered thousands of events, including Hollywood premieres, a reception for British royalty and San Francisco’s Black and White Ball, is known for dishes that play with sweet and savory whimsy. A sense of surprise, says Capra, can be found in an herb-infused Tomato Kiss cocktail, paper cones filled with late night “nibbles,” or a peach and basil still life.
“I always have fun with fruit,” says Capra.
Fruit’s casual popularity
The peach-basil pairing is particularly popular this summer, says Barbara Llewellyn, another East Bay caterer. Her most popular salads this summer feature lettuces and basil, peach slices, pine nuts and chevre lightly tossed with a Champagne vinaigrette; or rosy watermelon, ripe blueberries, kalamata olives, feta and fresh mint.
“You walk up to a salad with mint in it, and you immediately know it’s there,” Llewellyn says. “There’s just a minimal need for salad dressing when you have all those wonderful things you’re putting in your salads.”
That casual, carefree approach is the essence of summer, says Menlo Park’s Vicki Vaughn, whose Perfect Taste Catering company does parties at Stanford University, as well as weddings and other events.
Her variation on a Caesar salad also forgoes the typical heavy dressing in favor of a light, lemony vinaigrette and homemade, gar- licky croutons, and her current favorite — a Baby Blue Salad — is a showstopper. Vaughn uses a very dark, jewel-tone lettuce, such as the deep purple and almost bluehued leaves found in a spring mix, and mixes it with crumbled blue cheese, fresh blueberries and blue pansies.
“We serve it with a blueberry chutney vinaigrette,” says Vaughn. “It’s a very blue, summery garden-looking thing. And if you want to make it extra naughty, we put spiced pecans in it.”
With salads like these, one hardly needs an entree.
No, Vaughn says with a laugh, what you really need is a main course that goes with the salad, not the other way around. The blue salad, she says, is lovely with a simple grilled chicken breast. Serve it with some of that blueberry chutney. Then go have fun with your guests.
After all, it’s summer.
SUMMER BABY BLUE SALAD
1 pound jewel-toned lettuce 1/4 lb. blue cheese, crumbled 1/2 cup fresh blueberries Edible blue pansies Blueberry Vinaigrette and Blueberry Chutney (see recipe)
Place the salad greens in a large bowl and toss lightly with some of the vinaigrette. Mound salad on serving platter. Top with fresh blueberries and crumbled Blue Cheese and garnish with edible pansies.
1 large Granny Smith Apple, chopped 1/2 cup sugar 1/2 cup orange juice 1 tablespoon finely grated orange rind 1 teaspoon ground ginger 4 cups fresh blueberries 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Place the apple, sugar, orange juice, orange rind and ground ginger in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes. Stir in the blueberries and vinegar and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, stir occasionally and cook for 40 minutes. Yields 3 cups.
3/4 cup blueberry chutney (see recipe) 3/4 cup finely chopped white onion 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar 2-3 teaspoons salt 1 teaspoon pepper 2 cups canola oil
Stir together the first five ingredients. Gradually whisk in oil until mixed. This vinaigrette is very thick and you don’t need much to dress a salad.
MIXED GREEN SALAD WITH FRESH PEACHES,
BASIL AND CHEVRE
Champagne vinaigrette 1 small shallot, sliced 1 garlic clove, sliced 3 tablespoons Champagne vinegar 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard 1/2 teaspoon honey Salt and pepper to taste 1/2 cup 50-50 olive oil/canola oil blend Salad 8 cups of greens 3 peaches sliced 1/2 bunch whole basil sprigs 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts 1/2 cup chevre, crumbled
Place all the vinaigrette ingredients except the oil in a blender and puree. Drizzle in the oil to blend.
Place the salad ingredients into a large salad bowl and drizzle lightly with the vinaigrette.
VARIATION ON A CAESAR
1 teaspoon finely chopped Meyer lemon zest 5 tablespoons Meyer lemon juice 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil Salad 4 heads romaine lettuce hearts 2/3 cup shaved Parmesan cheese 1 cup homemade or store-bought croutons, or more if desired
Combine the lemon zest, juice, salt and garlic in a small bowl. Whisk in the oil. Wash lettuce and either spin dry or wrap in lint free towels. Refrigerate for 4 hours.
Tear lettuce into bite-sized pieces and place in large salad bowl. Toss with vinaigrette, croutons and cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Plate salad and top with a little more shaved cheese.
Note: You can make your own croutons by tossing cubed bread with a generous amount of melted garlic butter. Bake them at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes.