Embrace season’s bounty of fresh fruit, vegetables to create dazzling salads

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The calendar may call for autumnal fare, but in many places, Indian summer has a different agenda. And our dinner tables seek a compromise.

We’re not quite ready for the heartier fare of fall, but simple greens don’t cut it either. No, what we need is something transitional, a series of salads that celebrates the harvest, but offers a little more heft — arugula tossed with heirloom melon slices, prosciutto and ripe figs, for example, or last-of-the-season nectarines with haricots verts, cured ham and watermelon radishes.

Salads are perfect seasonal dinner fodder any time of year, says Oakland, Calif., food writer and pastry chef Romney Steele, author of two cookbook-memoirs about life at Big Sur and Nepenthe, the iconic restaurant owned by her family.

She’s a self-described “big salad person,” because salads are all about texture, color and flavor, and offer an anything-goes palette for the palate.

But great food means matching what’s on your plate to what’s in the garden, she says. In other words, leave the spring peas for April and turn instead to fall’s abundant bounty.

This is peak time for melons, late-season figs and wild greens. Tomatoes are bursting off the vine, and fresh herbs are abundant. So Steele combines those vibrant purples, greens and reds in a composed September Salad, adding paper-thin slices of prosciutto and drizzles of olive oil and oloroso sherry.

“That is a delicious salad,” she says. “It’s really about the imagination and using things that are voluptuous.”

Steele, who has a visual arts background, brings an artist’s eye to her newest book, “Plum Gorgeous” (Andrews McMeel, 178 pages). Many of her edible masterpieces — and their recipes — were composed on the plate, where colorful fruits, salads and even cured meats come together.

“People tend to think of fruit in fruit salad,” she says. “But I like to do nectarines with ham, and figs for a late harvest salad. That little touch of sweetness — the fleshiness of a peach — makes everything so much more delicious, and you get all the local flavors.”

That riot of colors and textures can evoke memories and places, as well as flavors. Steele mixes nectarines, for example, with thinly sliced, cured ham, watercress and Marcona almonds for an autumnal salad she calls “my ode to Spain.”

There’s also an artistic element to the sweet summer corn and diced zucchini salad favored by restaurateur Eva Longoria.

This Aztec-inspired salad bridges the seasons with colorful flair. Add some queso fresco, or serve it with crostini, spread with fresh ricotta and drizzled with olive oil, and this salad can play an entree role, too.

September Salad

Serves 4-6 as a starter

From Romney Steele, “Plum Gorgeous” (Andrews McMeel, 178 pages, $25)

1 ripe heirloom melon

⅓ pound thinly sliced prosciutto

8-12 ripe figs, halves

Handful of arugula leaves

Opal basil leaves

Spearmint leaves

Handful of almonds, sliced and lightly toasted

½ cup vine-ripened cherry tomatoes

¼ cup oloroso sherry (see note below)

Extra virgin olive oil

Coarse sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Peel, seed and thinly slice the melon (use just half, if it’s substantial), then arrange the slices on a large platter. Drape the prosciutto over the top and scatter with the figs, arugula and a few leaves of basil and spearmint, torn or slivered if they are large. Sprinkle with the almonds and tomatoes.

Warm the sherry in a small pan over low heat for just a minute. (Tip: If you do not have sherry wine, you may substitute good-quality sherry vinegar, although less of it, and a pinch of sugar.) Transfer to a small bowl, and swirl in olive oil to taste. Drizzle over the salad. Season with salt and pepper.

Nectarine Salad With Haricots Verts and Cured Ham

Serves 3-4

From Romney Steele, “Plum Gorgeous”

½ pound haricots verts

1 small shallot, finely chopped

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar

Few leaves each of basil and mint, finely slivered

Salt, pepper

Pinch sugar, optional

1 bunch watercress, rinsed and trimmed

2-3 nectarines, pitted and sliced into wedges

2 watermelon radishes, halved and thinly sliced

Several thin slices cured ham

¼ cup Marcona almonds

Blanch the haricots verts in boiling salted water until tender to the bite, 2-3 minutes. Drain and rinse under cool water, then spread on a plate to cool.

Whisk together shallot, olive oil and vinegars; add herbs and season with salt and pepper. Whisk in 1 tablespoon of water and a pinch of sugar, if needed, to soften the vinaigrette.

Place the green beans in a bowl with the watercress, nectarines and radishes; gently toss with the vinaigrette. Arrange the salad on plates, tucking a couple of slices of ham into each. Scatter the almonds on top and serve.

Corn and Zucchini Salad

Serves 6-8

From Eva Longoria, “Eva’s Kitchen” (Clarkson Potter, 2011, 224 pages)

5 ears corn, shucked

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 cups zucchini, cut in ¼-inch dice

½ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ cup finely chopped red onion

1 ½ tablespoons cider vinegar

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

½ cup chopped fresh cilantro or basil

Prepare a large bowl of ice water and set aside. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the corn to the boiling water, cover and remove from heat. Let stand 3-5 minutes. Drain and immerse the corn in the ice water to stop the cooking. When cool, cut off the kernels, cutting close to the cob. Place the kernels in a large bowl.

In a small skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the zucchini and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring, until tender, about 4 minutes. Add the zucchini to the bowl with the corn.

Add the red onion, vinegar, oil, remaining salt and pepper. Just before serving, toss in the herbs. Taste, adjust the seasoning as needed, and serve cold or at room temperature.

Wild Mushroom Salad with Quinoa, Goat Cheese and Caramelized Shallot Marmalade

Serves 4

From Bobby Flay, “Bobby Flay’s Bar American Cookbook” (Clarkson Potter, 262 pages)

½ pound cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced

½ pound oyster mushrooms, coarsely chopped

3 shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, halved and thinly sliced crosswise

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt, black pepper

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme

¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 cup quinoa

4 ounces mesclun greens

2 teaspoons white truffle oil, optional

Caramelized shallots (see right)

12¼-inch slices French baguette, toasted

6 ounce log aged goat cheese, cut into 12 slices

Preheat oven to 400 F. Place mushrooms in a roasting pan, toss with 2 tablespoons olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast, stirring a few times, until golden brown, 25 minutes.

Whisk together the remaining ½ cup oil, vinegar, thyme and parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Reserve 3 tablespoons of the vinaigrette.

Add the warm mushrooms to remaining vinaigrette, season with salt and pepper, and stir to combine. Let marinate at room temperature for at least 30 minutes.

Rinse the quinoa in a fine-mesh strainer under cold running water for 1 minute. Drain well. Transfer to a medium saucepan. Add 2 cups cold water and 1 teaspoon salt; cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low; cook until quinoa is tender and water has evaporated, 18 minutes. Turn off heat and let stand for 10 minutes, without lifting the cover. Stir quinoa into the marinated mushrooms.

Toss the greens with the reserved vinaigrette. Divide among 4 large plates. Top with the quinoa-mushroom salad. Drizzle with truffle oil, if using, season with pepper and garnish with parsley leaves.

Spread some of the caramelized shallots over the toasted bread. Top with a slice of cheese. Place 3 around the perimeter of each plate.

Caramelized Shallots

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

8 large shallots, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons light brown sugar

½ cup red wine vinegar

2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme

Kosher salt, black pepper

Melt butter with oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and golden brown, 20-25 minutes. Add sugar and vinegar; cook until the mixture becomes jam-like, about 15 minutes. (If it gets too thick, stir in a tablespoon or so of water.)

Add thyme and season with salt and pepper. Let cool to room temperature. Will keep for 2 days in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator.