Pairings: Salad Days

Summer is the time for salads, and that can mean anything from lettuce and tomato to a fruit medley spiked with whiskey.


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Salad Days

Summer is the time for salads, and that can mean anything from lettuce and tomato to a fruit medley spiked with whiskey

Among the many pleasures of summer are salads, especially served al fresco on a warm night, the full moon rising and a huge bowl of stars overhead. Yet even without an idyllic setting, salads keep life simple and delicious when the weather makes us disinclined to turn on the stove.

But what counts as a salad? you might ask. These days, the answer is, almost anything. From a few hand-picked leaves kissed by artisan olive oil to beef cheek terrine on shredded sorrel and nettle pasta, a myriad of raw and cooked foods fits under the "salad" umbrella.

The more unusual combinations appear on restaurant menus, of course. At home, we still rely on familiar lettuces, tomatoes, avocados, fresh fruit and the ever-popular potato to make most of our salads, and with good reason. Most of these ingredients are available year 'round at farmers' markets and supermarkets, and their quality has never been better.

When it comes to pairing wines with salads, a myth persists that it is difficult to do. It isn't and really never has been. All you need to do is understand a few basic concepts and you'll select wines for these salads, and others, with confidence. The first thing to consider when selecting a wine is the dressing. Begin by making sure it is balanced, as an overly tart vinaigrette will fight with most wines and tends to be rather unpleasant on its own, too. When a dressing is too tart, you can balance it in two ways: By adding a bit more oil or by adding a generous pinch or two of salt, as salt balances acid. Some tart dressings need both. Salt engages acid in wines, too, so selecting a crisp white wine with a good acid structure (a French Chardonnay, unoaked Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris) is your best bet. A rich, buttery white wine may end up tasting bitter. For a vinaigrette sweetened with fruit vinegar or honey, choose a dry rosé, a Viognier or a lighter-style red. Champagne flatters either style of vinaigrette.

When a dressing is creamy—a vinaigrette with blue cheese, cream, or buttermilk, for example—you have a few more options. A Chardonnay, provided that it's not too oaky, will work, as will a light-bodied Pinot Noir. With composed salads, base your selection on both the dressing and on the primary ingredients. Classic mayonnaise-based sauces such as Crab Louis dressing and its sibling, Thousand Island dressing, are best with richer-bodied whites, such as California Chardonnays, and medium-bodied red wines.

In this quartet of salads, I use the classics—green salad, tomato salad, fruit salad and potato salad—as inspirations for contemporary versions that are easy to make at home.

Mediterranean Green Salad with Herbs and Fennel
In 1980, the Chez Panisse Cafe in Berkeley introduced its signature salad of garden greens, croutons and goat cheese. Ever since, such greens—alternately called baby greens, field greens, spring salad mix, fall salad mix and mesclun—have become the default salad in restaurants and homes nationwide. Made with fresh greens, the salad is satisfying and easy to make, but its ubiquity has made us forget the delight of other green salads, such as this one, inspired by salads from Sicily and the Greek Isles. You may shock your friends by putting a knife to lettuce ("Isn't that illegal in California?" a student once asked me) but the results can be dazzling.

3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 head romaine lettuce, leaves separated, rinsed and dried
1 head red leaf or butter lettuce, leaves separated, rinsed and dried
1 medium fennel bulb, very thinly sliced
3 scallions, trimmed and very
thinly sliced
3 tablespoons fresh mint leaves,
thinly sliced
3 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley
leaves, chopped
1 tablespoon chives
1 teaspoon fresh oregano, minced
(optional)
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced
(optional)
Kosher salt, to taste
3 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted


In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar and plenty of pepper. Set aside.
Stack about a third of the lettuce leaves and roll them lengthwise. Cut them crosswise into thin (about 3/8-inch) slices. Put the cut lettuce into a large salad bowl and continue cutting until all of the lettuce has been sliced.

Add the fennel, scallions and all of the herbs to the bowl of lettuce, sprinkle with several generous pinches of salt and toss gently. Pour the vinaigrette over the salad and gently toss to coat. Scatter the pine nuts over the top and serve immediately. Serves 4 to 6.
Wine recommendations: Any light white wine or sparkler works with this salad; I'd select a wine based on other elements of the meal and trust that it is very likely to work with this salad, as long as it is not too full-bodied or too oaky.

Summer Tomato Salad
These days, Heirloom tomatoes are nearly as common as those found in supermarkets; backyard farmers have their favorites and hundreds of varieties thrive in different parts of the country. Look for the best tomatoes at your local farmers' market, or perhaps simply over the fence, if you don't have them in your own garden.

6 medium or large slicing tomatoes
5 small tomatoes, about 1½ inches
in diameter
2 cups small cherry tomatoes
2 small torpedo onions, thinly sliced
Kosher salt, to taste
6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
6 ounces fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
¼ cup best quality extra-virgin olive oil
Sel gris, or other solar-dried sea salt, or
kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Fresh basil leaves, to taste
Basil flowers, for garnish

Remove and discard the stem and blossom ends of the slicing tomatoes and cut the tomatoes into 3¼8-inch thick slices. Set aside. Cut the small tomatoes (through the poles, not the equator) into wedges and set aside. Cut the cherry tomatoes in half, cutting pear-shaped tomatoes through the poles and round tomatoes through the equator; set them aside.

On a large platter, assemble the salad: Begin by arranging a circle of large tomato slices on the outside edge of the plate, alternating colors and overlapping the slices slightly. Next, add a ring of onion slices, overlapping the onions onto the tomatoes by half. Add another ring of tomatoes, moving towards the center, and another of onions. In the center of the plate, arrange a circle of small tomato wedges. Tuck slices of mozzarella here and there. Arrange the remaining tomato wedges on top of the sliced tomatoes and scatter the sliced cherry tomatoes and the garlic over the salad. Season with kosher salt and let sit for 15 minutes.

Drizzle the olive oil over the salad. Add several turns of black pepper and a light sprinkling of sea salt, if using, or kosher salt. Garnish with basil leaves and basil flowers. Serve immediately, or cover and serve within one hour. Serves 6 to 8.

Variations:
· Scatter 2 cups poached salt cod over the salad before adding the olive oil.
· Scatter Italian canned tuna (drained) over the salad before adding the olive oil.
· Omit the fresh mozzarella and crumble 4 ounces blue cheese or goat cheese over the salad before adding the olive oil.
· Use sweet onions (Maui or Walla Walla) instead of the torpedo onions.
· Omit the basil; scatter 1 or 2 minced serranos and 2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro over the salad before adding the olive oil.
· Fry 6 rashers of bacon until it is crisp; crumble and scatter it over the salad just before serving.

Wine recommendations: Bandol rosé is a gorgeous match with this salad, as is any dry rosé without too much forward fruit. Alternatively, the herbaceous, grassy flavors of a Sauvignon Blanc or Sicilian white wine will complement the tomato and basil flavors in the salad.

Summer Melon Salad with Prosciutto
The alcohol in this salad adds a delightful splash of flavor that works beautifully with both the sweet fruit and salty meat. Both the whiskey and the salt draw out the natural juices of the melon, making additional dressing unnecessary.

3 small melons (a mix of cantaloupe, Crenshaw, Crane, Casaba,
Charentais, honeydew, orange honeydew or green honeydew; do not use watermelon)
3 tablespoons whiskey, preferably Scotch
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Kosher salt, to taste
6 ounces prosciutto, very thinly sliced
1 head butter lettuce, leaves separated
1 cup raspberries


Cut the melons in half and scoop out and discard the seeds. Peel one half of each melon and cut into 1/3-inch wide wedges. Set the wedges in a wide shallow bowl.

Use a melon baller to cut balls from the reserved melon halves and add them to the bowl with the wedges. Sprinkle with the whiskey, add several turns of black pepper and two or three pinches of salt, cover and refrigerate for 30 to 60 minutes. Chill 6 dinner plates.

Cut half the prosciutto into ½-inch wide crosswise slices. Set aside.

Put the butter lettuce into a large bowl, add several pinches of salt and toss gently.

Put the chilled melon wedges on each plate, placing them like the spokes on a wheel. Divide the lettuce among the plates, setting it in the center of each. Divide the whole slices of prosciutto among the servings, draping it across the melon wedges. Add the short strips of prosciutto and the raspberries to the melon balls, toss gently, and spoon some into the center of each plate, on top of the lettuce. Drizzle each serving with some of the juices in the bowl. Grind black pepper over each portion and serve immediately. Serves 6.
Wine recommendations: For spot-on perfection, choose a Prosecco (preferably from the same region as the prosciutto you're using) or a dry Rouge de Noir, such as Schug Rouge de Noir or Iron Horse Brut Rosé.

Potato Salad with Grilled Steak and Warm Bacon-Shallot Vinaigrette
Summer is not complete without at least one great potato salad experience. In this one, the lusty flavors of grilled beef mingle with earthy potatoes, crisp radishes and smoky bacon. With a green salad and some corn on the cob, you'll have an excellent meal for any summer occasion.

8 large garlic cloves, minced
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 flank steak (about 1¼ pounds)
2 pounds red potatoes, scrubbed clean but not peeled
4 bacon rashers
2 shallots, peeled and minced
3 tablespoons Champagne vinegar
Juice of 1 lemon
½ teaspoon granulated sugar
4 tablespoons minced fresh Italian
parsley
½ cup olive oil
2 bunches radishes, trimmed and
thinly sliced
1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
6 ounces small Blue Lake green beans, or other thin, fresh green beans, blanched until just tender


Put two-thirds of the garlic in a small bowl, add 2 teaspoons salt and several turns of black pepper, and mix thoroughly. Rub the mixture into the flank steak, set it on a plate, cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours and as long as overnight. Set the remaining garlic aside or put it in a small bowl, cover it and refrigerate until ready to use.

About an hour before serving the salad, remove the steak from the refrigerator and prepare a charcoal fire (if using).

Cook the potatoes in a large pot of rapidly boiling salted water until they are tender but not mushy, about 12 to 20 minutes, depending on the size of the potatoes.

While the potatoes cook, make the vinaigrette: Cook the bacon in a medium-sized skillet until it is crisp. Transfer to paper towels, reduce the heat, add the shallots to the bacon drippings, and simmer until they are limp and fragrant, about 8 minutes. Add the reserved garlic and sauté 1 minute. Add the vinegar, lemon juice, sugar and 3 tablespoons of the Italian parsley, and simmer 1 minute more. Add the olive oil and remove from the heat. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

If using a stove-top or propane grill, heat it now. Crumble the bacon and set it aside.

Drain the potatoes thoroughly, let them cool slightly, slice them thinly, and place them in a large mixing bowl. Add the red onion, radishes, the green beans and about half of the dressing; toss lightly but thoroughly. Transfer to a large serving platter.

Grill the steak until it is just rare, about 5 to 6 minutes per side, or a bit longer for medium rare. Transfer the meat to a work surface, let rest 5 minutes, and cut crosswise and at an angle into diagonal slices. Arrange the steak over the salad, heat the remaining vinaigrette, and spoon it over the steak. Scatter the crumbled bacon and the remaining tablespoon of parsley over the top. Serve immediately. Serves 4 to 6.

Wine recommendations: Choose a red wine with restrained, even subdued tannins, a bit of smokiness and moderate fruitiness. Delas Frères 2001 Côtes du Ventoux, a Gigondas or other Southern Rhône wine or a California Syrah are good bets. Beer—preferably a red ale without overpowering hops—is a great accompaniment also.

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