Goodbye to gravy; welcome to dinner salads

December 1, 2017

After a long weekend of nonstop eating, we were ready to clear our palates. Instead of all the rich foods we enjoyed for Thanksgiving, it was time for something lighter (and healthier) until the next round of festivities begins. We'll say a (brief) goodbye to gravies and stuffings and mountains of potatoes, in exchange for dinner menus featuring main-course salads.

Transforming a bowl of lettuce from a small appetizer or side dish into a one-plate meal takes just a few tweaks. First, you'll need to select greens that are neither too dense in texture nor too large in size. My preference is to reach for a delicate spring mix, baby spinach or arugula. Simply toss the leaves with vinaigrette to distribute the dressing.

Now that you have your canvas, you're ready to layer it with colors and flavors, choosing a combination of vegetables and protein. Examples of the latter could be grilled salmon or chicken breast, crumbled or cubed cheese, steamed grains (e.g., quinoa or kamut), nuts, beans or a few of them together. The inherent flavors of the protein or the seasonings used in its preparation will help guide how many other ingredients you may want in your salad. A scoop of pulled pork with spicy barbecue notes doesn't need a great deal more, while a plain chicken breast would welcome the addition of sun-dried tomatoes or kalamata olives. Crunchy onion strings will pair well with a tender salmon filet.

For the dish in the photo, deep red beets and bright white feta cheese offer both visual interest and nutritional balance. But, calling them beets is a bit of a misnomer since the bulbous round structure is actually the root of the plant. Originally, only the leafy green tops of wild beets were eaten, and not the colorful roots. We have the ancient Romans to thank for bringing the root of the beet to the table.

In addition to the beet roots offered at the grocery or farmers markets, there's another type of beet that is cultivated for its high sugar content. Scientists in what is now Poland first mechanized the production of beet sugar. When Britain restricted access to sugar cane during the Napoleonic Wars, beet sugar surged in popularity across Europe and in the Americas.

Although beet sugar is still available today, most packages of sugar are labeled cane sugar. The primary applications for beet sugar are in the food manufacturing industry where it is used as a sweetener, and in craft distilleries where it's the basis of a rum-like alcoholic beverage. Both beet sugar and cane sugar are forms of sucrose, but the finer, lighter cane sugar is preferred by most bakers.

In addition to the white sugar beets and familiar reddish-purple beets, you can also find varieties in yellow, gold and variegated hues. Although they seem quite hardy, the highly nutritious beet pigments easily bleed if the root is punctured. Choose small or medium-sized beets with firm, smooth skins. Avoid any with soft spots, bruises or shriveled flesh. If you plan on eating the greens, make sure they're fresh, supple and bright green.

Now, back to our salads – I've included recipes for cannellini beans with sun-dried tomatoes, beets with feta cheese, and a pan-seared scallop salad. Shortcuts to consider for these include using canned beans, precooked beets (from the produce aisle) and substituting steamed shrimp for the scallops. Just remember your tender greens.

Arugula and Beet Salad

2 T olive oil
1 T white wine vinegar
1 T lemon juice
1 minced shallot
3 C baby arugula
4 steamed beets, quartered
4 oz feta cheese
salt & pepper, to taste

Whisk together olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice and shallot. Drizzle dressing over arugula and toss to combine. Divide greens evenly across 4 plates. Top each plate with beets and feta. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Arugula & Cannellini Bean Salad

2 T olive oil
1 T Balsamic vinegar
1 T lemon juice
1/2 t basil
3 C baby arugula
1/4 C sun-dried tomatoes, snipped
1 C cannellini beans
4 T shaved Parmigiano Reggiano
salt & pepper, to taste

Whisk together oil, vinegar, lemon juice and basil; drizzle dressing over arugula and toss to combine. Divide the greens evenly across 4 plates. Sprinkle each plate with sun-dried tomatoes, beans and cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Scallop & Spinach Salad

12 scallops
salt & pepper
3 T olive oil, divided
1 T Balsamic vinegar
1 T snipped chives
2 pressed garlic cloves
1 t minced tarragon
1 t honey
1 t Dijon mustard
3 C baby spinach
1 shredded carrot
1 chopped tomato

Pat dry scallops with paper towel; sprinkle salt and pepper on both sides. Heat 1 T olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Place scallops in the pan in a single layer and cook for 2 minutes. Turn and cook another 2 minutes; remove from skillet and keep warm. Add remaining 2 T olive oil to the same pan, along with vinegar, chives, garlic, tarragon, honey and mustard. Bring to a boil and cook until thickened, about 30 seconds. Drizzle dressing over spinach and toss to combine. Divide greens across 4 plates and top with scallops, carrot and tomato. Season to taste with salt and pepper.