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FOOD FINDS: Making better, more creative summer salads with paper-thin vegetables

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Want to build a better salad? Think thin.

This summer, I fell in love with my mandoline, that paddle-shaped kitchen gadget that with back-and-forth swipes lets you easily and quickly render produce to paper-thin slices. Why for salads? Because tender wafers of carrot and ribbons of cucumber and flakes of radish are so much more pleasing and delicious than the hunks and chunks our usual knife hacking produces.

The result is a salad of contrasts. Crunchy romaine and wedges of tomato play off deliciously pliable slices of otherwise firm produce. And for dressing addicts such as me, lots of slices offer up more surface area for vinaigrette to cling to.

Typically, I start by making a simple dressing in the bottom of a large bowl. I usually do a 2-to-1 ratio of olive oil to cider vinegar spiked with hefty pinches of salt and pepper. A splurt of Dijon mustard or a blop of strawberry jam helps emulsify the whole mess. Whisk, then start building the salad. First in, raw garlic. A chopped clove would be too intense. But paper-thin slices of garlic shaved on a mandoline add a mild, pleasant bite to the salad.

Now add the greens and tomatoes, then shave in carrots, bell peppers, celery, cucumber, fennel, or any other firm vegetable. Another advantage of the mandoline is that it renders rather pleasant some vegetables I otherwise find abrasive. Raw radishes and red onions, for example, tend to overpower when merely chopped. But thin slices — as with the garlic — add a delicious spike of flavour.

Once all of the ingredients are shaved into the bowl, toss well, then top with something crunchy. Homemade croutons are fantastic, but for ease I often just toss a handful of sunflower seeds or toasted pumpkin seeds on top. Done.

You can easily spend some serious cash on stainless steel mandolines, but I wouldn’t. I have one of those and almost never use it. I prefer the cheap plastic ones with ceramic blades, such as those made by Kyocera. They can be found for as little as $11 online, are easily held directly above your salad bowl, and can be tossed in the dishwasher. They also sport a double-sided blade, meaning the produce is sliced on both the downward and upward slides.

But be sure to be smart about your mandoline. They come with a finger guard for a reason. Use it.

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CHILI-CUCUMBER BREAD SALAD

Start to finish: 30 minutes

Servings: 4

Four 1-inch thick slices sourdough bread (about 10 ounces)

Olive oil

1 teaspoon garlic powder

Kosher salt and ground black pepper

1 1/2 tablespoons cider vinegar or white balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 large English cucumber

1 green bell pepper, cored

1 small red onion

2 heads romaine lettuce, roughly chopped

1 serrano chili

1/2 cup crushed roasted and lightly salted peanuts

Heat the oven to 375 F.

Cut the bread slices into 1-inch chunks, then pile them on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle the chunks with about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, then sprinkle with the garlic powder and a hefty pinch each of salt and pepper. Toss to coat, then spread in an even layer. Toast in the oven for 20 minutes, stirring halfway through, or until the bread is just lightly browned and crusty, but not dried out (the bread should still be tender at the centre). Set aside to cool (refrigerate to speed cooling if desired).

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together 3 tablespoons of olive oil, the vinegar, mustard and a pinch each of salt and pepper.

Trim off one end of the cucumber, then carefully use a mandoline to shave the cucumber into the bowl. Repeat with the bell pepper and onion. Add the romaine, then toss well to coat with the dressing. Once the bread cubes have cooled, add those and toss again. Divide between 4 serving plates, then use the mandoline to shave some of the serrano over each. Sprinkle each serving with peanuts.

Nutrition information per serving: 510 calories; 240 calories from fat (47 per cent of total calories); 27 g fat (4 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 690 mg sodium; 56 g carbohydrate; 11 g fiber; 10 g sugar; 16 g protein.

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J.M. Hirsch is the food editor for The Associated Press. He blogs at http://www.LunchBoxBlues.com and tweets at http://twitter.com/JM—Hirsch . Email him at jhirsch(at)ap.org

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