Friday, July 22, 2011

Cooking to Save the Planet: Summer Salads

Summer salads should be cooling.  Simple to make.  Using the freshest local ingredients available.  Served just between icebox-cold and room temperature.  Full of flavor to perk up heat-fatigued appetites.    Here are two we make routinely throughout the hottest days of summer:

When tomatoes are in season, fully ripe, we eat this salad almost every evening of the week.  It's one my family served constantly as I grew up, and one I've met on many local tables, though it's seldom served in restaurants.  To make it, you'll need two or three tomatoes, dead ripe and as fresh and local as you can find them, a slice or two of sweet white onion, a sprinkle of red wine vinegar, some good olive oil, salt, pepper, and if you like it, a toe or two of garlic, chopped.

Slice the tomatoes either across or in wedges.  Lay them in the bottom of a salad bowl or onto a platter.  Strew across them a slice or two of onion, cut into thin strips.  I take the slices of onion, cut them across into quarters and then quarter the quarters.  Then I separate the onion pieces and add them to the tomatoes.

Now add just a suspicion of vinegar.  The object is to point up the flavor of the ripe tomatoes, which should be the star of the dish, not to overwhelm the tomato flavor.  And then add a glug or two of olive oil, with salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste, and, if you wish, chopped garlic.  When anyone who dislikes the taste of raw garlic is eating with us, we leave the garlic out.  Otherwise, we always add it.

And that's it.  Toss (unless your tomatoes are in slices), refrigerate, and within the hour before you serve the salad, bring it out to take some of the chill off.  We eat this with cheese (sharp cheddar and low-fat feta are our standbys) and oatcakes perhaps five evenings of the week when tomatoes are in season.  With a bit of fresh fruit to follow, it's an entire meal for us, and one we love.  (And--I hope this won't be a shock--we consider the mix of tomato juice and dressing that accumulates in the bottom of the salad bowl a summer soup, and we pour it into cups as we serve ourselves the salad and drink it with the salad.)

The second salad we eat over and over throughout the summer is not a traditional Southern one, but one I've encountered as we've traveled in Germany or as I've read German cookbooks.  It features fresh cucumbers, one of the most cooling vegetables around, in my book.  To make it, take three or four fresh locally grown cucumbers (the flavor of fresh ones in summertime is, to my taste, incomparably superior to the flavor of the watery, huge, overgrown ones encased in wax and shipped in from elsewhere) and, after you've pared them, slice them as thin as possible.

I either drop them into the food processor, using its slicing blade to slice them across, or I take the vegetable peeler--the same one with which I pared them--and I slice across the cucumber to cut the pieces.  Lay the cucumber slices into a bowl and sprinkle over them about two rounded teaspoons of salt, and then mix well.

Set the cucumbers aside for an hour or so, to let the salt penetrate the slices and remove some of the juice of the cucumbers.  As the cucumbers sit, take a slice or two of onion and do just as I describe above, for the tomatoes.  Set the onion aside to be used when you assemble the salad.  Then take a stalk or two of fresh dill leaves and chop fine.  Set this aside, as well.

After the cucumbers have sat with the salt for an hour or so, drain them well and run cold water over them, pressing the slices to remove as much of the salt and juice as possible.  Put them into a salad bowl, add the onion and dill, some fresh-ground black pepper, a pinch of sugar, and a little bit--not too much--of cider vinegar.  Let this sit in the refrigerator until it is well-chilled, and before you serve the salad, stir into it a spoonful or two of either sour cream or yoghurt.

We keep a Greek-style yoghurt on hand all the time.  In fact, we make it, from a starter we bought long since at the grocery store.  We make a gallon batch of it at a time, and eat it all summer long for breakfast, with sliced fresh fruit and granola I make in huge batches every few months.  To thicken the yoghurt, Steve--who is more of a dab hand than I am at making it just right--dips off the whey every day or so until it has become a gloriously smooth and thick consistency that can be eaten with the fruit like a soft fresh cream cheese.

I am not precisely sure why I associate dill (along with cucumber) with cooling properties, but I do.  I think I may have read someplace that Scandinavian cooking features dill and uses it in many cold salad and buffet dishes because there's a belief that it helps to cool folks in hot weather.  Or I may think of it as a cooling herb because it was blazing hot when Steve and I last visited his cousins in southern Germany, near Karlsruhe, and on the day we arrived, they had prepared a wonderful feast for us: several salads, cheese, and, after we had sat a while on their patio, a bit of grilled chicken and lamb to go with the cheese and salads.  And some of the white wine they used to make, but now buy from the vintner who has bought their vineyard.  And the cucumber salad that was part of this wonderful feast had chopped dill in it.

I suspect, as well, that I associate dill with cucumber and cooling summer salads because the one place I remember it growing, always, when I was a child was on my uncle Pat's farm outside Little Rock, and one of our rituals, when we children visited the farm, was to head to the row of dill, pick handsful of it, and eat it on the spot with a cucumber or two we'd plucked from the garden.  

The dill grew along an old rail fence that separated the garden from the orchard, and I have an idea that Pat didn't even replant it every year, but that it seeded itself over and over.  He cherished the herb because he made dill pickles yearly from the cucumbers that bore in abundance in his and Aunt Nellie's bountiful garden patch.  The best pickles in the world, I exclaimed every time he gave a gallon jar of them to us to take home.

Huge pickles, made from overgrown cucumbers, floating in a murky brine full to the brim with heads of dill and halved toes of garlic.  Pickles unlike any I have ever had since.  The closest I've ever come to them is brine-pickled gherkins from Jewish delicatessens.

Pickles that stood in huge jars in Pat and Nellie's pantry beside his brandied peaches, made from peaches picked in his orchard, where we invariably stepped on a wasp in the sandy soil, as we rummaged beneath the peach trees with our bare feet, looking for windfallen fruit.  Peaches that also swam in a murky liquor, in this case brandy laced with sugar and perhaps a hint of spice, waiting to be eaten on Christmas day (and anytime else in the year you could sneak a bite of them), with a small glass beside each plate to hold the delicious brandy that warmed the insides so beautifully after a meal of turkey and dressing and ham and sweet potatoes.

Good memories.  And good food.  And I hope the two salads will be good for those who try them.

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