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Season of the Salad: This summer, think outside the macaroni box with these sides

Staff Writer
Austin 360

When you get down to it, potato salad really isn't that different from pasta salad, and egg salad is just an ingredient or two away from tuna salad.

This Memorial Day, it's likely that you'll be serving or eating one of these lettuce-free salads, which all revolve around the same idea: mix contrasting but complementary ingredients together and bind them with an oil-based dressing.

Whether you are using mayonnaise or olive oil, chicken or salmon, tomatoes or apples, there is no perfect ratio to get you from your basic potato salad to, say, an elaborate rice salad with tuna, roasted red peppers and pimento-stuffed olives, but we hope to get you to think outside the macaroni box the next time you put together one of these popular side dishes.

Let's start with a traditional potato salad, which has four or five basic components: starch (potatoes), protein (hard-boiled egg), acid (pickles and mustard), crunch (onions and/or celery) and oil (mayo or sour cream). (Yes, sour cream and yogurt aren't oil-based, but they are often used in these kinds of salads to bind ingredients, so for our purposes, we'll categorize them as such.)

Swap pasta for the potatoes (starch), replace the pickles with some capers (acid), ditch the mayo for olive oil (oil) and leave out the eggs and onions (protein and crunch), and you have yourself a respectable pasta salad.

With tuna, shrimp, egg and chicken salads, you can take the same components — minus the starch — and then serve the final product on bread or with crackers.

Not all salads benefit from the addition of a sweet element, especially egg salad, but others aren't worth eating without it. The Waldorf salad, first created at its namesake hotel in New York in 1893, is perhaps the most famous crunchy, sweet and creamy salad, but cranberries are what put Whole Foods Market's tuna salad over the top for reader Kimberly Schneider. (Find a mock recipe for the dish in Food Matters, page D3.)

"If it has something sweet, you have to balance with acid and salt," says Stephen Cash, a former Le Cordon Bleu instructor. "You have to make sure you are balancing all the elements."

When he makes these kinds of salads, he'll often keep the ingredients in separate bowls so he can visualize the components and proportions before mixing them all together.

Personal preference plays a huge role in how much of each ingredient you use, but in general, you don't want to overdo the extras or else the nuts, mayo, herbs, fruits or vegetables will outshine the main ingredient.

"Some people might like tuna salad mixed with nothing but mayo," he says. "But my fiancée, for instance, only wants the minimum amount of mayonnaise possible."

Grains (and grain-like pastas such as orzo and couscous) open a whole new world of possibilities, as long as you don't smother them in mayonnaise. Take tabbouleh, the Lebanese salad, which features the same contrast of colors and textures as a pasta salad, but is based on tomatoes, parsley and bulgur, an ancient grain considered healthier than traditional refined pasta. (Fresh herbs are excellent in these salads, just stay away from thyme, oregano and rosemary, which aren't quite tender enough in their raw state to blend in, Cash says.)

Panzanella is an example of just how far you can take this idea of a sweet, salty, crunchy salad bound with a dressing. Tomatoes and basil become the stars, instead of simply supporting crew members. And instead of using some kind of pasta, potato or grain for starch, toast bread and mix it directly in the salad, letting the olive oil and vinegar bring the dish together.

Southern Living Test Kitchen specialist Vanessa McNeil Rocchio loves the flexibility of these kinds of salads. In her new book, "Southern Living What's For Supper," she offers dozens of mix-and-match salads, many of which don't contain a single leaf of lettuce.

"People tend to overthink things," she says. If you don't like mayo, substitute low-fat sour cream instead. Don't have grapes on hand? Try peaches or even melon in your chicken salad. Have leftover grilled chicken or fish? Use that as a starting point for your salad and then find what you already have in the pantry or refrigerator to piece together the rest: a few pieces of red onion here, some roasted red bell peppers there, a handful of toasted pecans, a scoop of pesto, a squeeze of lemon juice, a piece of pita bread and you're looking at lunch.

Every Sunday throughout the summer, Rocchio makes three substantial salads that she and her family can eat throughout the week for snacks, lunches or a quick dinner. Hers are bean-based (green bean salad, lentil salad and black bean salsa, which she uses as a hearty protein-filled dressing on traditional green leaf salads), but you could make whatever suits your family.

Rocchio's 9-year-old son is a better eater than he used to be, but she'll sometimes pull out a few handfuls of the salad before mixing the rest with the mayonnaise, vinaigrette or sour cream so that he can pick out the parts that he likes.

We should all be eating more greens, and some of these recipes taste especially good served on a bed of arugula or spinach, but it's nice to know that you can make an infinite number of salads without a single piece of romaine.

Stay up-to-date with the latest food news by following food writer Addie Broyles on Twitter (@broylesa) or on her Relish Austin blog, Contact Addie at 912-2504.

Honey-Chicken Salad with Peaches and Blackberries

1/2 cup chopped pecans

4 cups chopped cooked chicken

3 celery ribs, diced (about 1 1/2 cups)

3/4 cup chopped fresh peaches

3/4 cup fresh blackberries

1 1/2 cups mayonnaise

1/3 cup honey

1/4 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. pepper

Toasted chopped pecans, for garnish

Combine pecans, chicken, celery, peaches and blackberries in a large bowl. Whisk together mayonnaise, honey, salt and pepper. Add to chicken mixture, stirring gently until combined. Garnish with more pecans, if desired. Serves 4 to 6.

— From "Southern Living What's for Supper" by Vanessa McNeil Rocchio (Oxmoor House, $19.95)

Panzanella Di Farro (Tuscan bread salad with farro)

Though tomatoes and basil are a must, feel free to vary the other vegetables in this no-bread panzanella. Celery, asparagus and snap peas can be added or used as swaps. Farro, an ancient whole grain packed with fiber and protein, can be found in the bulk section of many grocery stores, but if you can't find it, you could use barley or quinoa.

1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved

Fine sea salt

1 large ear of corn, shucked

1/2 lb. green beans, trimmed

6 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1 1/4 cups farro

1 large garlic clove

3 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

Finely ground black pepper

1 small cucumber, peeled and sliced into half moons

1 cup packed basil leaves, large leaves torn

4 medium radishes, halved and very thinly sliced

3 scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. In a large serving bowl, toss together the tomatoes and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Set aside.

Cook the corn and the green beans together in the boiling water; after 3 minutes, using tongs, transfer the corn to a cutting board. Once cob is cool, cut off kernels.

Continue to cook the green beans until crisp-tender, 1 to 2 minutes more. Using tongs, transfer the beans to a colander to drain, pat dry, cut into 1-inch lengths, place in a medium bowl and reserve water.

Cook the farro in the boiling water that you used for the corn and beans, stirring occasionally, until tender but still firm to the bite, 18 to 20 minutes.

While farro is cooking, slice the garlic clove on a cutting board, then mound the garlic together with 1/2 teaspoon salt, and using both the blade and the flat side of a chef's knife, chop and scrape the mixture into a paste. In a medium bowl, combine the oil and the vinegar. Add the garlic paste and 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and vigorously whisk the dressing to combine.

Drain the farro, then spread it on a baking sheet set over a wire rack to cool for 5 to 10 minutes. When the farro is cool, whisk together the dressing and add it to the tomatoes, along with the farro, green beans, corn, cucumber, basil, radishes, scallions, 3/4 teaspoon pepper and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Toss the salad to combine well.

— Adapted from a recipe in "Salads: Beyond the Bowl" by Mindy Fox (Kyle, $19.95)

Carrot Quinoa Salad with Orange Coriander Vinaigrette

For vinaigrette:

1 Tbsp. orange zest

1/4 cup orange juice

1 tsp. Dijon mustard

2 tsp. honey

1/4 cup Champagne or white wine vinegar

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 tsp. coriander seeds

1/4 tsp. kosher salt

For salad:

1 cup red quinoa

1 large carrot, sliced into thin ribbons with a mandoline

2 large carrots, cut into sticks and grilled or roasted

2 Tbsp. chopped cilantro

Combine the orange zest, orange juice, Dijon mustard, honey and vinegar in a blender or with a whisk. Slowly stream in the olive oil to emulsify the vinaigrette.

In a sauté pan, slowly toast the coriander seeds over low heat. Once the coriander seeds are toasted, set aside to cool. Once cool, crack the whole coriander seeds by using the bottom of a sauté pan or pot. (You do not want them to be ground, just cracked.) Add coriander and salt to vinaigrette and refrigerate for four hours to develop the flavors.

While the vinaigrette is in the fridge, place quinoa and 2 cups water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.

In a large bowl, combine both the grilled and raw carrots, quinoa and cilantro, and toss with 1/3 cup vinaigrette, more if needed. (Salad should be lightly dressed, not soupy. Reserve remaining vinaigrette for another use.) Serves 4.

— Adapted from a recipe by Hickory Street chef Camden Stuerzenberger

The breakdown

Not every salad will have every one of these elements (eggs don't like sweets, for instance, and potatoes don't play well with nuts), but they are a starting place for you to break out of your potato/pasta/three bean salad rut and try a new combination. Some multi-use ingredients, such as beans, tomatoes, olives, capers, celery, onions and peas, can fit into various categories, depending on how (or if) they are cooked, how small or rough they are cut, and your own preference (not everyone thinks eggs belong in potato or tuna salad, for instance). In general, grains don't mix well with creamy dressings, so stick to something along the lines of oil and vinegar.

1. Oil and acid: Olive oil, mayonnaise, red wine vinegar.

See also: Capers, pickled cabbage, relish, salsa, yogurt, sour cream, pickled anything.

2. Starch: Israeli couscous, red lentils, macaroni.

See also: Purple potatoes, beans, orzo, bulgur, Asian noodles, quinoa, wild rice.

3.Sweet: Cranberries, peaches, raisins.

See also: Grapes, apples, tomatoes, mangoes, grilled pineapple, cantaloupe.

4. Veg: Fennel, corn, broccoli.

See also: Roasted bell peppers or beets, green beans, cucumbers.

5. Herb: Dill, basil, cilantro.

See also: Mint, parsley, Mexican mint marigold, chives.

6. Crunch: Celery, almonds, cucumbers.

See also: Raw vegetables like radishes, carrots or peppers, walnuts, pecans, pine nuts, chow mein noodles.

7. Protein: Chicken, eggs, salmon.

See also: Beans, nuts, legumes, cheese, firm tofu, cooked shrimp, lobster or crab.