Help me, world. It’s tough enough to find the time to cook in summer. Who wants the heat, too?
Add the other things I want every day — something fast, something healthful, something affordable — and weeknight dinners can become daunting. Did I mention that I actually want it to taste good, too?
The idea behind The Observer’s Assembly Line Cooking series is to find ways to combine fresh food with a few high-quality, high-flavor shortcuts. With that in mind, I set to work to come up with six really good dinner salads. I wanted the kind that can be full meals. And I didn’t want the kind that are glopped up with too much creamy dressing.
At the end of the day, I realized that I had hit on something good here. These salads aren’t deprivation dinners, they’re delicious. They’re recipes I'll keep in my weeknight dinner rotation from now on – even when it isn’t summer anymore.
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1. Shrimp salad with green curry dressing: Empty a 1-pound bag of frozen cooked shrimp (any size will work, although I like at least 41- to 50-count) into a colander and rinse under cold running water to thaw. In a salad bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup fresh lime juice (2 to 3 limes; zap them in the microwave for 10 to 15 seconds to yield more juice), 1/4 cup canola oil and 2 tablespoons green curry paste. Add the thawed shrimp, about 6 cups shredded romaine lettuce, and 1/4 cup each chopped cilantro and mint. Top with roasted peanuts. Find green curry paste with the Asian ingredients in most supermarkets. (Adapted from “Market Math: 50 Ingredients x 4 Recipes 200 Simple, Creative Dishes,” by the editors of Food & Wine.)
2. Greek chicken salad with feta dressing: Puree 1/2 cup feta cheese, 3 tablespoons water and 1/4 cup oil in a blender. Toss with 2 cups diced cooked chicken, 4 to 6 cups chopped romaine, 2 cored and diced tomatoes, and 1/4 cup pitted kalamata olives. Just before serving, toss with 2 cups crushed pita chips.
3. Mediterranean chicken & chickpea salad: Whisk together 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, and 1/2 teaspoon each Dijon mustard, honey and dried oregano in a serving bowl. Whisk in 3 tablespoons olive oil. Stir in 3 tablespoons chopped pitted kalamata olives and about 3 tablespoons diced red onion. Add 4 to 6 cups chopped romaine or other sturdy salad greens, 1 cored and diced tomato and 2 (15-ounce) cans rinsed/drained chickpeas. Top with 1/4 cup crumbled feta and about 2 cups diced, cooked chicken. (Adapted from “Dinner A.S.A.P,” by the editors of Cooking Light.)
4. Sort-of-nicoise lentil salad: Place 1/2 cup bottled Italian dressing in a mixing bowl. Whisk in 1 tablespoon honey and 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil. Add cooked green lentils (1 package Trader Joe’s steamed lentils or 3 cups cooked green or Le Puy lentils). Stir in 1 cup grated carrot (1 large shredded carrot, or salad-bar carrots) and about 2 tablespoons minced onion (red, yellow or shallot). Line a serving platter with lettuce and pile the lentils over it. Flake a can of drained, oil-packed tuna over the top.
5. Layered antipasto salad. (See recipe.)
6. Pastrami and rye panzanella salad. (See recipe).
4 HANDY INGREDIENTS FOR FAST SALADS
▪ Trader’s Joe’s steamed lentils, $2.99 for a (17.6-ounce) pouch. I usually have a couple of packages in the refrigerator all the time. You can use them hot or cold.
▪ Perdue Short Cuts Carved Chicken Breast, $4.39 for a (9-ounce) bag. I tried two flavors, roasted and rotisserie, while testing these recipes and was pleasantly surprised. It’s not as salty and fatty as rotisserie chicken, and it’s free of preservatives, hormones and steroids. Look for it near the lunch meat.
▪ Bottled Italian dressing. Yes, I’d rather have from-scratch. But who has time? A basic oil-and-vinegar Italian dressing can be dressed up (try a little sesame oil and honey), and it can double as a marinade.
▪ Olive bar: Many supermarkets have them now. While olives with the pits in have the most flavor, there’s no shame in saving a little time with good-quality pitted olives. What you’re after for salads is fast flavor.
LAYERED ANTIPASTO SALAD
Adapted from cookingchanneltv.com. Look for giardiniera and pepperoncini on the pickle aisle.
1 (12-ounce) jar pepperoncini
1 (15-ounce) jar giardiniera
2 tablespoons olive oil
About 4 cups chopped romaine lettuce
1 cup pitted kalamata olives
1 (9-ounce) jar artichoke hearts
2 tomatoes, cored and diced
1/2 pound thinly sliced provolone
1/2 pound thinly sliced soppressata
Place 2 tablespoons of brine from each of the jars of pepperoncini and giardiniera (4 tablespoons total) in a mixing bowl and whisk in 2 tablespoons olive oil. Stir in the lettuce and set aside.
Drain pepperoncini. Remove stems and chop. Drain giardiniera and combine in a separate bowl with the chopped pepperoncini and the olives. Set aside.
Drain artichoke hearts and cut into quarters. Core and dice the tomato. Slice the provolone and sopressata into bite-size pieces.
Place a third of the lettuce in the bottom of a large, clear bowl. Top with a third of the pickled vegetable mixture, a third of the artichoke hearts and tomato and half the sliced meat. Repeat layers, using the remainder of the meat, then a third layer of the lettuce, pickled vegetables, artichoke hearts and tomato.
Yield: 8 servings.
PASTRAMI & RYE PANZANELLA
Adapted from countryliving.com.
1/2 red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
About 6 slices (1/2 pound) light or seeded rye bread
1 cucumber, peeled and diced
2 tomatoes, cored and diced
1/4 pound sliced pastrami, chopped
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon caraway seeds
Put the onion slices in a small bowl and cover with cold water. Set aside until ready to use.
Cut rye bread into 1-1/2-inch cubes. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet. Place in a 450-degree oven for 6 to 8 minutes, until the edges are crispy. Remove from oven and cool.
Prepare the cucumber and tomato and put in a large salad bowl. Add the toasted rye bread, drained onion and pastrami.
Whisk together the vinegar and mustard, then whisk in the olive oil. Just before serving, pour over the salad and toss well. Sprinkle with caraway seeds and serve.
Yield: 4 servings.