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A Guide to Composed Summer Salads

Composed Summer Salads | Delightful Crumb‘Tis the season for composed salads! Summer produce is at its peak—and so, simple cooking as easy as it gets. I thought I’d drop by with a quick little guide to building simple summer salads, my go-to for this time of year…even more than in other seasons!

For a certain set of you, none of this will be new. But for others, I know it’s not, and I can easily recall a time when I didn’t know any of these tips. I’ve also found that simple things are what I’m most often asked about, whether it’s a salad I’ve made for dinner with friends or family or a picture of my lunch that I’ve posted on Instagram. It’s hard, I think, to teach the concepts that lend confidence rather than just sharing a recipe. But concepts and confidence are what empower us to pick up what’s beautiful at the market or make use of the veggies lounging in the crisper drawer…rather than seeking out a specific recipe with a long list of ingredients and breaking out in a cold sweat when that one obscure spice is nowhere to be found at the grocery store. Greater ease in the kitchen lends freedom to the task of cooking and is far more useful in the day-to-day lives of most people I know, so it’s also the goal today.

I should say here that I still love recipes, and I long relied on them for most things I cooked. But at some point along the way, I stopped using recipes for certain dishes, and salad is first on that list. It’s the one thing I’ll almost never follow a recipe for these days—because I know I can do a mighty fine job myself, and without breaking a sweat.

And so, here’s what I know about composed summer salads! Raw ingredients only and simplicity in spades. We’ll save lettuce for another day. Read through and let me know what you think! What did I miss? What are your favorite combinations?

Melon, Cucumber & Fig Salad | Delightful Crumb

GUIDELINES

These are, to me, the key components of simple salads, listed in the order that I like to do my assembling. Start by arranging your fruit and/or veg and the creamy ingredient artfully on a plate, drizzle generously with olive oil and your chosen acidic component and then sprinkle on the rest: seeds and/or something pickled if you’d like, herbs, flaky salt, black pepper and perhaps a spice. And that’s it! Taste, adjust and serve.

By the way, if you’re feeling stuck on determining which ingredients pair well, the best tool I know (beyond experimenting and tasting) is The Flavor Bibleby Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg.

1. One or two types of produce: Slice cucumber and zucchini thinly, or peel them into strips with a vegetable peeler. Tomatoes can be sliced into wedges or thin rounds—a mix is always nice, especially if you have a few colors or types. I like to cut watermelon into cubes and other melons in thin half moons. Halve little things, like figs, strawberries and cherry tomatoes.

2. Something creamy: For me, this is most often cheese. I rely on feta, soft goat cheese, mozzarella, burrata, Parmesan shaved into strips with a peeler, dollops of ricotta and crumbly blue cheese. Avocado is another excellent option. Or, try Greek yogurt or labneh. Spread it on the plate before you begin assembling, or dollop spoonfuls on top. Sometimes, but not always, avocado and dairy play nicely if you’d like to use both (see the second link in the favorites list below for an example).

3. Extra-virgin olive oil: Good stuff is worth it, though it doesn’t have to be super expensive. Aim for the middle ground—California Olive Ranch is my go-to.

4. Acid: Lemon or lime juice (fresh squeezed is always best, but don’t ever be embarrassed to use the bottled kind instead), balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, rice vinegar, soy sauce or apple cider vinegar.

5. Something crunchy, optional: Toasted seeds like pepitas, sunflower seeds or sesame seeds are nice with melons and cucumbers. Chopped toasted almonds are often an easy fit, and peanuts are a good pair for Asian flavors. Croutons and toasted pita bread are delicious, too, for a salad that’s panzanella adjacent.

6. Something pickled or briny, optional: Thinly slice a red onion or shallot and put it in a small bowl with your chosen vinegar and a pinch of salt. Let it rest for 10 to 20 minutes for a quick pickle, which also mellows the flavor. Use the pickling liquid on the salad. Radishes take well to this treatment, too. Alternately, buy a cool pickle at the store and slice it thinly. Or, get a briny kick from olives or salt-packed capers.

7. One or two fresh herbs: Pick the leaves off of parsley or cilantro stems—tedious but worthwhile! Basil and mint leaves can be left whole or cut into a chiffonade. That is, pile several leaves up, roll them tightly, and slice the roll into strips, leaving you with a mess of little ribbons. Dill is best in small quantities. You could also throw on a handful of arugula or sprouts instead.

8. Flaky sea salt: Maldon is my favorite and absolutely worth having in your kitchen.

9. Freshly cracked black pepper: Start with peppercorns if possible!

10. Spice, optional: Aleppo and Urfa pepper can be hard to find but add a pleasant warmth without much heat. Red pepper flakes and cayenne are spicer but also easier to find. I like any of these when avocado is at the forefront, and with melons as well. Coriander is unexpected but very tasty, especially with tomatoes. Swap in a smoked salt for the flaky sort noted above. Or, let the spice do all the work of flavoring with a blend like za’atar or shichimi togarashi.

A FEW FAVORITES

These are some of the combinations I return to again and again. Want to start with a more detailed recipe? Click the links below for a few that I’ve posted here in the past!

Tomato, mozzarella/burrata, balsamic & basil (for a variation on the classic, add nectarine or fig, or use avocado instead of cheese)

Cucumber, feta & mint

Cucumber/zucchini ribbons, goat cheese, seeds, mint & basil

Fennel, Parmesan, lemon & parsley

Watermelon, feta, pickled red onion & mint

Melon, cucumber, Parmesan, basil & Aleppo pepper

Cherry tomatoes, corn, Parmesan, lime juice, cilantro & red pepper flakes

Oranges, avocado, almonds & parsley

Figs, blue cheese, walnuts & arugula

Strawberry, mozzarella & sprouts

One Comment (Add Yours)

  1. This is very helpful! Thank you! After watching you put salads together, and trying some new recipes, I am getting braver and more adventurous all the time. Fresh produce from the summer market makes it easier and more fun. (But I have to admit that I still like having a recipe.)