Sometimes on a hot day, setting up the grill to make rich, barbecued meats can feel like too much heavy lifting (for body and belly!). Those are the times when a light yet hearty summer salad sounds like heaven.
But how does one create an all-in-one dish that shines like a full course spread would? Are some greens better than others? What time of dressing will give it that refreshing flair expert chefs seem to so effortlessly master? TODAY Food turned to James Beard Award-winning chef and Emmy Award-nominated TV host Pati Jinich. The resident chef of the Mexican Cultural Institute whose new cookbook, "Treasures of the Mexican Table," hits shelves in October, makes summer salad prep easy.
Follow her four tips and you'll be whipping up salads all season long.
What is the foundation good summer salad?
Before getting into the nitty gritty of emulsifying a dressing or choosing the right greens when you're serving dinner outside on a hot day, let's begin with the basics.
Jinich breaks down the components of a summer salad. Once you master these simple steps, you'll be a pro!
- Create the base: "Choose a combination of ingredients that have a variety of textures and flavors. I love to mix ingredients that have a wet crunch, such as jicama or radishes or apples, with creamy buttery ingredients, like ripe avocado and a bit of salty cheese," Jinich said. "Using a mix of lettuces is another great way to add different textures and flavors, such as a blend of crispy romaine, peppery arugula and sweet butterhead lettuce."
- Try some seeds: Sometimes having that hearty crunch and hearty protein can bring a salad from a side dish to a centerpiece. "You can add toasted nuts or seeds such as pecans, peanuts, walnuts, pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds," Jinich recommended.
- Make a little magic with herbs: "Tossing in a handful of your favorite fresh herbs, such as cilantro, parsley, basil, oregano, mint, dill or tarragon, can add a lot of flavor," Jinich said.
- Opt for vinaigrettes: "You need a solid vinaigrette that is irresistible and will make the salad ingredients shine, without masking the quality of the ingredients or making them bland," Jinich told TODAY. So whether you make a homemade dressing or have a tried and true store bought citrus vinaigrette, make sure this type of dressing is on hand all summer.
Seize what's in season during the summer months
"Summer salads really welcome fresh fruits such as watermelon, plums, peaches, apricots, strawberries. It is also the season for tomatoes, corn, peppers, zucchini, yellow squash and tomatillos. It is a great opportunity to pair sweet with tart and savory or even spicy," Jinich told TODAY.
Each of summer's three months has its own bounty of ingredients that will really shine. If you have access to a local vendor, feel free to ask about what produce did well that week, as some harvest times vary by location.
- June: Jinich loves the balance of late spring and early summer produce like peas, spring onions, radishes and strawberries. She advises this is also one of the best times to buy salad greens fresh from a farm or local market because they taste the most sweet during this time.
- July: "By July, you start to get tomatoes and cherry tomatoes at their most delicious, and it's the time for sweet corn, which is delicious shaved off the cob and sprinkled onto salads," Jinich told TODAY.
- August: The end of summer is when you have lots of ingredients to work with. "The markets start to overflow with zucchini and summer squash that you can shave into thin ribbons with a vegetable peeler and enjoy on salads," Jinich added.
Are some salad greens better than others?
While many greens are great when tossed with seasonal ingredients, some may require different storing techniques to maintain ultimate freshness. Jinich enjoys spinach and watercress in her salads, for example, but they can wilt fast.
"So for the summer when you are going to be outside more you may want something more sturdy like romaine, or no lettuce at all. A go-to salad for me is combining wet and crunchy jicama, with sweet apples and mild chayote squash, all covered in a creamy avocado dressing," Jinich told TODAY.
Dress it up
"Mixing a good acid, such as your favorite citrus with a vinegar you like, can immediately make a salad feel bright and summery. You want vinaigrettes that are multilayered," Jinich told TODAY. "Just be sure to emulsify your vinaigrette well, which means to make sure the oil is not separated from the vinegar or citrus, and then season it with ingredients you love."
Here's her basic guide to creating a summer dressing. Don't be afraid to taste as you go to!
- Combine lime juice and orange juice with white distilled vinegar; or orange juice with natural rice vinegar.
- Mix in your favorite oil. Jinich turns to safflower oil often, as it's very neutral and let's the other flavors do the talking.
- If you prefer a "pungent punch," Jinich advises adding a tad of mustard or Worcestershire sauce.
- For a "drop of sweetness," add a bit of honey, maple syrup or agave.
- A dash of a dry chile, like chile de arbol, will help add a hint of spice, which can be really nice when you have ingredients to balance that out like creamy cheeses and sweet fruits like in Jinich's go-to watermelon salad.
- "Mostly, think outside of the box and customize to you and your families' tastes! Many times we get stuck in the regular salad mix with the regular vinaigrette, and there is so much room to play with salads," the chef said.
Get to playing with some of TODAY's favorite summery salad recipes: