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Summer salad: It’s what’s for dinner

Let’s get one thing clear. I am not one of those salad girls.

You know that girl. The one who picks at lettuce leaves while the guys dig into their steaks. The one who skips dessert or will “have one little bite.” I am not her.

I say that because I feel a little defensive about salads. When people ask me – as they often ask food writers – what I cook for myself at home, I can see the wave of disappointment cross their faces.

A salad? Not a dainty plate of leaves, I hastily add. A big, satisfying salad full of cheese, nuts, seasonal vegetables and, um, whatever’s languishing in the fridge.

So what makes a good dinner salad? Like any great dish, it calls for balance: Color, sweetness, saltiness, crunch and a little bit of fat. (A really good dressing certainly helps.) And note what I didn’t say: Lettuce. You do not need a bed of greens to make a salad.

Case in point: One of my favorite combinations is grilled shrimp with avocado, mango, red onion and cilantro. It’s a salad I put together one night when I needed more ways to eat champagne mangoes, the unbelievably luscious variety.

The dish has everything: Protein, color and a balance of creamy and sharp, bright flavors. (It also has enough fat – good fat – to make it satisfying.) The dressing is a squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of good olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt.

This is dinner in five minutes. Take that, Rachael Ray.

Of course, the color and the particular sources of sweet and salty depend on what you like and what's available. (I tend to put fruit in everything, but that might not be to your taste.) And naturally, salad ingredients don't have to be raw. Grilled chicken or steak, boiled potatoes, roasted peppers or pears and grilled asparagus are made for salads.

So are whole grains such as quinoa or bulgur wheat, which can help a salad feel more like a meal. You can prep any of those quickly, or use up leftovers that might otherwise get thrown away.

 One salad, from chef David Pasternack of Esca in New York, calls for only mushrooms and cheese. But in springtime, I like to add asparagus.

His delicious vinaigrette is also great on a simple green salad.

Make the whole amount (3/4 cup) and refrigerate it, to use as needed within 5 days.

Shrimp and Mango Salad

This is an unbelievably easy salad to make. Its ingredients are available year-round. Grilled chicken may be substituted for the shrimp.

1/8 teaspoon sea salt, plus more as needed

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

6 large uncooked, peeled and deveined shrimp

1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1 champagne mango, cut into thin slices (about 3/4 cup)

1/2 to 1 Hass avocado, cut into 3/4-inch dice or slices

1/4 small red onion, cut into 5 or 6 very thin slices

1 tablespoon cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lime juice

Combine the sea salt and cumin in a small bowl. Use the mixture to lightly dust the shrimp.

Heat 1/2 tablespoon of the olive oil in a medium skillet over high heat; swirl to coat the pan evenly. Add the shrimp and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until they are just opaque, then turn them over and cook for 30 seconds or so. Remove from the heat.

Fan the mango slices on a dinner plate. Arrange the shrimp, avocado and red onion on top. Sprinkle with the chopped cilantro, then drizzle with remaining tablespoon of olive oil and the lime juice. Sprinkle with sea salt to taste. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 460 calories, 11 g protein, 32 g carbohydrates, 34 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 64 mg cholesterol, 172 mg sodium, 9 g dietary fiber

Mushroom and Cheese Salad

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Juice of 1 to 2 medium lemons (about 1/4 cup)

2 ounces finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the salad:

1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for drizzling

4 ounces porcini or cremini mushrooms (or a combination), stemmed and cut into thick slices

Juice of 1/2 a medium lemon (about 2 tablespoons)

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

6 thin asparagus spears, tough ends trimmed

2 ounces mache (about 4 cups; may substitute baby spinach or arugula)

2 ounces goat cheese

For the vinaigrette: Place the oil in a small bowl. Whisk in the lemon juice and cheese; season with the salt and pepper.

For the salad: Position the top oven rack 4 to 5 inches from the broiler element; preheat the broiler.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a medium sauté pan or skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and do not move or shake the pan for 2 minutes; that will allow them to take on some color. Cook for about 7 minutes total, turning them so they brown on all sides. Transfer the mushrooms to a bowl and squeeze the lemon juice over them. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.

Meanwhile, place the asparagus on a baking sheet or dish and drizzle with oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. Broil for 6 to 7 minutes, turning once or twice. Transfer to a cutting board to cool, then cut into 2-inch pieces.

Toss the mushrooms with 1 to 2 tablespoons of the vinaigrette in a small bowl.

In a separate medium bowl, toss the mache with 1 tablespoon of the vinaigrette.

To serve, place the greens on a large plate. Top with the mushrooms and asparagus; crumble the goat cheese on top.

Season with sea salt and pepper to taste.

Per serving, with 2 tablespoons vinaigrette: 594 calories, 23 g protein, 15 g carbohydrates, 53 g fat, 18 g saturated fat, 53 mg cholesterol, 772 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber

French Bistro Salad

1 small clove garlic, cut in half

4 ounces frisee (3 cups packed), washed and spun dry

2 slices uncooked bacon

1 large egg

2-1/4 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon water

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/4 cup store-bought or homemade croutons

Freshly ground black pepper

Rub the inside of a salad bowl with the cut sides of the garlic clove halves; discard them. Add the frisee to the bowl and set aside.

Line a plate with paper towels.

Cook the bacon in a medium skillet over medium heat for about 7 minutes, until it has crisped and browned, then transfer it to drain on the lined plate. Chop into bite-size pieces. Pour half of the bacon fat from the skillet (reserve for another use, if desired).

Meanwhile, bring a half-filled medium pot of water to barely boiling over medium heat. Crack the egg into a small bowl and gently slip it into the water. (You may stir the water vigorously in a circular motion with a long-handled spoon before adding the egg. That creates a whirlpool and helps the egg stay neatly contained in its center.) Cook for about 4 minutes or to your desired degree of doneness. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a small bowl; cover to keep warm.

Return the skillet with the remaining bacon fat to medium-high heat. Add the balsamic vinegar, water and sugar, stirring to combine; bring to a boil and cook for 30 seconds, until the mixture has thickened slightly, then remove from the heat.

Pour half of the dressing over the greens in the bowl; toss to lightly wilt the greens.

Add the croutons, cooked bacon pieces and remaining dressing. Season with pepper to taste and top with the warm poached egg.

Per serving (using store-bought croutons): 377 calories, 16 g protein, 16 g carbohydrates, 27 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 247 mg cholesterol, 698 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber

Moroccan Couscous Salad

Start to finish: 45 minutes

Servings: 8 sides or 4 main

1 cup water

1 teaspoon turmeric

2 teaspoons ground coriander

2 teaspoons cumin

Salt

1 cup uncooked couscous

2 lemons

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Skin of 1 medium zucchini, finely diced

1 red bell pepper, seeded and finely diced

1 green bell pepper, seeded and finely diced

1/2 medium red onion, finely diced

1/2 cup currants, soaked in hot water for 10 minutes, then drained

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

In a small saucepan, combine the water, turmeric, coriander, cumin and 1 teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil.

Meanwhile, place the couscous in a large bowl. Once the spice mixture has boiled, pour it over the couscous, then mix together with a fork. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let stand 15 minutes, or until all liquid is absorbed.

Use your hands break up and fluff the couscous, breaking up any clumps. Zest and juice the lemons and add both to the couscous. Drizzle in the olive oil, then use a fork to mix well.

Add the zucchini skin, bell peppers, onion, currants and parsley, then mix well. Season with salt. Cover and refrigerate several hours to allow the flavors to blend. Let come to room temperature for servings. The salad can be prepared several days in advance.

Nutrition information per serving: 211 calories; 88 calories from fat; 10 g fat (1 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 28 g carbohydrate; 4 g protein; 3 g fiber; 297 mg sodium.

Hot and Cold Chicken Peanut Noodle Salad

Start to finish: 30 minutes

Servings: 6 to 8

1 pound spiral pasta

1 cup frozen peas

1/2 cup chunky peanut butter

1/3 cup low-fat sour cream

1 to 2 teaspoons hot sauce (more or less to taste)

1 tablespoon cider or white vinegar

2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger

1/3 cup orange juice

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

3 cups roughly chopped cooked and cooled chicken (about 1 pound meat)

2 large carrots, diced

3 scallions, chopped

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions.

Just as the pasta finishes cooking, add the peas and stir for 30 seconds. Drain and rinse the pasta and peas under cold water until cool. Let stand in the colander to drip excess water.

Meanwhile, in a blender combine the peanut butter, sour cream, hot sauce, vinegar, ginger and orange juice. Blend until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. If the peanut sauce is too thick, add more orange juice or water until it is pourable.

In a large bowl, combine the chicken and carrots. Add the peas and pasta, then toss well. While continuing to toss, slowly pour in the peanut sauce. Mix until all ingredients are well coated.

Top the salad with scallions. The salad can be refrigerated or served immediately.

Nutrition information per serving: 381 calories; 126 calories from fat; 14 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 51 mg cholesterol; 36 g carbohydrate; 29 g protein; 65 g fiber; 459 mg sodium.

Curried Pasta Salad with Tuna

Start to finish: 30 minutes

Servings: 6

1 tablespoon whole cumin seeds

1/2 cup reduced-fat mayonnaise

1/2 cup reduced-fat sour cream

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon curry powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

8 ounces bow-tie pasta (or similar small pasta shape)

2 cups thinly sliced celery

1 cup halved, seedless red grapes

1 cup unsalted cashew pieces

Two 6-ounce cans chunk light tuna in water, squeezed dry and flaked

In a small dry skillet, toast the cumin seeds over medium heat, until they just get fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Pour the seeds onto a small plate to cool for a few minutes.

To make the dressing, in a medium bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, sour cream, lemon juice, toasted cumin seeds, curry powder, salt and pepper. Set aside.

Cook the pasta according to package directions. Rinsed under cold water and drain thoroughly. Transfer the pasta to a large bowl and add celery, grapes and cashews.

Add the reserved dressing and mix thoroughly to coat. Gently stir in tuna. Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Piquant Tomatillo and Jicama Salad

Start to finish: 20 minutes; servings: 6

12 medium tomatillos (about 12 ounces)

1/2 medium jicama (about 12 ounces)

1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1/4 cup fresh lime juice (2 medium limes)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste

2 medium tomatoes, each cut into 8 wedges

1/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Peel off and discard papery husks from the tomatillos. Under warm water, rinse away the sticky residue from the skin. Halve the tomatillos, then thinly slice and place in a large bowl. Peel the jicama, cut into quarters and thinly slice. Cut the slices into matchsticks. Add to the bowl and set aside.

In a small bowl, stir together the cilantro, lime juice, olive oil and red pepper flakes. Drizzle the dressing over the tomatillos and jicama. Add the tomatoes, then toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper.

Nutrition information per serving: 107 calories; 50 calories from fat; 6 g fat (1 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 14 g carbohydrate; 2 g protein; 5 g fiber

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