Bibliobites in June: Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of…. Salad!

For many of us, salads equal summertime.  In the winter, we may be happy to hunker down with steaming bowls of soup or sturdy casseroles, but when warmer weather (finally) arrives, we’re more likely to crave something lighter.  A cool, crunchy main-dish salad can be the perfect dinnertime solution– substantial without being too heavy, refreshing, and uncomplicated to prepare.  As a bonus, salad components can often be made ahead, and may not require much (if any cooking)– because wouldn’t you rather be at the beach instead of standing in front of the stove?  This month our Bibliobites group gave their salad bowls a workout with The Complete Salad Cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen.

As is the norm for ATK titles, the subject of salads is given a thorough discussion.  There’s  lots of general information about ingredients and equipment, and comprehensive (some would say absurdly detailed) headnotes for each recipe.  It’s a pretty hefty squarish tome, printed on thick, glossy paper; and there are inviting full-page photos of most recipes.  But, no matter how fabulous the photos are, what really matters is the yumminess factor– so how did it go in the kitchen?

Most of us focused on main-dish salads; if you’re going to go to the trouble of chopping/cooking/assembling multiple ingredients and making a dressing from scratch, it might as well be dinner.  But, we did make a few side-dish salads: tangy cabbage-apple slaw was a simple, quick, yet flavorful take on this summertime classic.  Tangy, fruity cider vinegar and red pepper flakes really kicked it up a notch, and as a bonus, it kept quite happily in the fridge for more than a week.  Recipes for Sichuan smashed cucumber salad, or pai huang ga, have proliferated in books and on blogs; ATK’s version was “very fresh and light.”  It was a good, simple side that also kept “better than expected,” considering that the main ingredient is intentionally bruised.  And, caesar green bean salad was a “tasty” riff on the popular salad, if “a bit too mustardy.”

When we moved on to main dishes, there was a multitude of choices.  Lentils were featured in spiced lentil salad with butternut squash which was “a good combination….but too much vinegar for me.”  However, for another person, lentil salad with spinach, walnuts and parmesan hit the right notes with its similarly assertive vinegary tang.  Garlic and shallot were the perfect complements in this simple dish.  Black-eyed pea salad with pecans and peaches was a winner that we were lucky enough to taste at our post-meeting potluck.  This was a tasty and colorful combination of creamy beans, sweet and tart peaches, and spicy arugula.  Marinated cauliflower and chickpea salad had all the makings of a keeper, with its veggies and beans complemented with Spanish-leaning flavors of lemon, smoked paprika, and saffron.  However the recipe also called for 3 tablespoons of sugar, which was an “unpleasant,” overly-prominent flavor in the finished dish.   Another Spanish-y chickpea salad was much more successful: pearl couscous salad with chickpeas, chorizo, and warm spices was “a keeper!”  Neutral couscous and nutty chickpeas were nicely balanced with spicy chorizo, raisins, and a simple lemon juice and olive oil dressing.  Two people tried quinoa taco salad; one person didn’t care for the quinoa’s chipotle flavor, but for another it was just right.  Both thought this was a good vegetarian version of taco salad; it had all the usual bells and whistles (avocado, tomato, queso fresco), while the quinoa and black beans provided heft.  And, “it kept well.”  Southwestern black bean salad also highlighted Mexican flavors of lime, chipotle, and cilantro; the result was “delicious…had a little kick!”

Noodle salads were a popular choice for our group; in addition to the pearl couscous salad above, one cook made sesame lo mein salad.  This was “good– but I have other recipes that are better.”  The cucumbers in it were a pleasant, refreshing addition.  Peanut noodle salad was also “similar to others;” it was “a bit too sweet, but I did use less hot sauce” which may have thrown off the flavor balance.  Crunchy bell peppers and cucumbers were cooling additions.

Orzo salad with broccoli and radicchio showcased savory Italian flavors with pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes, and plenty of Parmesan.  Unfortunately its bright colors faded significantly after a day in the fridge, so it’s not the best make-ahead dish.

Since this was our last meeting until September, we finished up with a potluck lunch featuring several of the salads mentioned above, as well as a highly praised mascarpone cheesecake from one of Joanne Chang’s books.  Thanks to everyone for their delicious contributions!

Though we had a second title for this month (Food52 Mighty Salads), no one had used it.  Some of us had paged through it, and thought it seemed a bit more involved than we wanted.  Overall there was less cooking going on than usual; June is often a hectic month, and some members confessed they were still busy working their way through April’s selection, Half Baked Harvest Super Simple.  That’s high praise indeed!  Our voting for this month’s title averaged out to a 3.75 (out of a possible 5); the general consensus was, as one person put it: “….it was OK, very comprehensive but not innovative.”  But, it’s a great way to start building your salad repertoire, should you need ideas.

Thank you to everyone for your participation this year, through all the ups and downs with which the  pandemic has so generously gifted us.  Your comments, opinions, and expertise are always enjoyed and appreciated.  I look forward to our next meeting on Friday, September 30 at 11 AM.  Have a wonderful summer!