Building blocks of chopped salads

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Salad can be much more than greens

Asked why her latest cookbook focuses on salads, veteran author and food writer Patricia Wells says the theme simply reflects the way she’s been eating at home in France for a long time.

“It seemed a natural extension,” she explains, noting that “Salad as a Meal: Healthy Main Dish Salads for Every Season” (William Morrow, $34.99) follows logically on her 2007 work, “Vegetable Harvest: Vegetables at the Center of the Plate.”

A main dish salad can be many things — it doesn’t even have to include lettuce or greens. Wells offers a wide range of ideas from a creamy ricotta terrine to poached turkey breast dressed with herbs to falafel paired with heirloom tomatoes and a tahini dressing.

Wells also includes a recipe for her version of the Cobb salad.

This main meal chopped salad was invented at Hollywood’s Brown Derby Restaurant in the 1920s or 1930s — there’s some debate about the date.

Some, like Wells, believe the salad started as a late night snack for the owner; others say it was a way to use up leftovers. (Cobb was the name of the Brown Derby’s owner).

Wells calls the Cobb salad a precursor to today’s chopped salads, describing it simply as an American classic.

Five tips for a better salad from Patricia Wells and “Salad as a Meal.”

• Embrace the crunch, whether it’s raw carrots, crisp greens, toasted pumpkin seeds or tortilla chips.

• Dress the salad lightly but thoroughly. The French believe it takes 33 turns for a salad to be properly dressed, Wells notes.

• An herb can change the salad. Experiment with using fresh tarragon, fresh rosemary or whatever herbs you have on hand.

• Looks count. Not only add color to your salad but consider unusual presentations. Use tart rings and other molds to shape salads; present salads on an edible plate made out of toasted bread.

• Buy top-quality, super-fresh ingredients for your salad.

-- Bill Daley

Chopped salad could well be described as a buttoned-down version of a tossed salad. For while the latter can be something of a leafy anarchy both in the tossing bowl and on the plate, the disciplined uniformity of size among the various ingredients in a chopped salad gives a definite structure that’s appetizing to the eye and the tongue.

That structure comes from cutting greens, vegetables and perhaps meat or cheese into “fairly uniform pieces that offer a variety of flavors, colors and textures with every forkful,” according to “Williams-Sonoma Cooking at Home.” Chopped salads run the gamut from the classic Cobb to the whimsically-titled garbage salad to whatever you can whip up. And you can do it — easily.

“A chopped salad is a great way to use up everything in your refrigerator. It’s a great use for leftovers,” says Kristine Kidd, the book’s co-author. “The variety of flavors and textures make it fun.”

Don’t get too carried away, though.

“Something I realized in looking at what chopped salads have in common is you can … make a chopped salad out of anything, but you have to put some thought into it,” says Patricia Wells, a food writer, journalist and author of the new “Salad as a Meal: Healthy Main-Dish Salads for Every Season” (William Morrow, $34.99).

“Freshness, crunch, texture and color. There’s nothing more important for a chopped salad,” she added.

Kidd recommends having staples on hand to help create the salad, items like canned beans, olives, Dijon mustard, cheese. Pair them with some romaine lettuce and last night’s roast chicken for a quick, easy dinner, she says.

Wells also recommends taking a moment to make the chopped salad look its best. Take a tuna can, open both ends, and use it as a mold to plate the salad into an appetizing round, she says. Or, do as Wells did with a mussel, chorizo, tomato and basil salad and serve it atop thin slices of toasted sourdough bread like an open-faced sandwich.

“Dumping everything on a plate doesn’t make it,” Wells says.

Original-Ish Waldorf Salad

Makes 4 to 5 servings

From Mollie Katzen’s “Get Cooking.”

4 medium-size unpeeled apples

1 stalk celery

¼ cup raisins (dark or golden)

1 cup plain yogurt

¼ cup mayonnaise

½ cup chopped lightly toasted walnuts

Chop apples in ½-inch chunks; chop celery. Combine apples, celery and raisins in a large bowl. Whisk together yogurt and mayonnaise until smooth in a second bowl. Pour over the apple mixture; stir gently to coat evenly. Serve topped with walnuts.

Crunchy Garden Salad with Tuna

Prep: 20 minutes. Makes: 4 servings

Patricia Wells uses tuna packed in extra-virgin olive oil for this recipe adapted from “Salad as a Meal,” and uses the oil to make the dressing.

2 cans (5 ounces each) tuna in extra-virgin olive oil, drained, oil reserved

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

Grated zest of 1 lemon

1 cup fresh salad burnet leaves or fresh parsley leaves

4 ripe heirloom tomatoes (about 1 pound), cored, chopped

1 green bell pepper, seeded, chopped

2 green onions, white part only, chopped

1 small zucchini, chopped

1 small cucumber, chopped

20 cherry tomatoes, halved

1 tablespoon capers, drained

10 cornichon pickles, cut into rounds

½ teaspoon salt

Combine 3 tablespoons of the reserved tuna oil, lemon juice and zest in a small jar. Cover; shake to blend. Place the tuna in a large, shallow bowl. Break up the tuna into small pieces with a fork. Add remaining ingredients and the dressing. Toss to evenly coat. Taste for seasoning. Serve at room temperature.

Nutrition information: Per serving: 286 calories, 52 percent of calories from fat, 17 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 22 mg cholesterol, 13 g carbohydrates, 22 g protein, 783 mg sodium, 5 g fiber

Chopped Chicken Salad with Lemon-Tarragon Vinaigrette

Makes 8 servings.

Adapted from “Williams-Sonoma Cooking at Home,” by Chuck Williams and Kristine Kidd.

For the vinaigrette:

6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice,

4 teaspoons each Dijon mustard and minced fresh tarragon

3 cloves garlic, minced.

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

salt and freshly ground pepper

FOR THE SALAD

4 skinless, boneless poached chicken breast

1 pound hearts of romaine lettuce

½ small fennel bulb

12 ounces mushrooms

20 radishes

4 small carrots

1 small head radicchio

1 small red onion

In a small bowl, whisk together lemon juice, Dijon mustard, tarragon and garlic. Gradually whisk in ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Let stand 30 minutes before serving. Makes about ¾ cup

Chop the chicken breast halves into small, neat dice. Chop into pieces approximately the same size as the chicken the following ingredients: hearts of romaine lettuce, fennel, mushrooms, radishes, carrots, radicchio and red onion. Combine the vegetables in a large bowl. Combine the chicken and lemon-tarragon vinaigrette in another bowl; stir to coat. Pour over the vegetables. Toss well.

‘My’ Cobb Salad

Prep: 15 minutes. Cook: 5 minutes. Servings: 4

Adapted from Patricia Wells’ “Salad as a Meal.”

2 ½ ounces smoked bacon, rind removed, cut into matchsticks

1 head iceberg lettuce, chopped, about 4 cups

2 ripe heirloom tomatoes, cored, peeled, seeded, chopped

1 large ripe avocado, halved, peeled, pitted, cubed

4 ounces chilled blue cheese (preferably Roquefort), crumbled

4 green onions, white part only, chopped

Yogurt and lemon dressing, see recipe

Freshly ground pepper

Brown the bacon over moderate heat in a large, dry skillet until crisp and golden, about 5 minutes. Transfer the bacon to paper towels to absorb the fat. Blot the top of the bacon to absorb any additional fat.

Combine the bacon, lettuce, tomato, avocado, cheese and green onion in a bowl. Toss with just enough dressing to lightly and evenly coat. Season with pepper to taste.

Yogurt and lemon dressing: Combine ½ cup plain low-fat yogurt, 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice and ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt in a jar. Cover with the lid; shake to blend. Taste for seasoning. May be stored in the refrigerator up to 1 week. Makes about ¾ cup

Nutrition information: Per serving (using half the dressing): 267 calories, 65 percent of calories from fat, 20 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 33 mg cholesterol, 12 g carbohydrates, 13 g protein, 705 mg sodium, 5 g fiber.