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Pulling out all the tops

By Modesto Bee

Turn an "oh" at salad into "oh, wow" with a little imagination and not much effort.

Even the best-dressed leaves can benefit from a sprinkling of nuts or seeds. Just add them right before serving so they stay nice and crunchy.

Greens served naked or barely dressed in a splash of citrus and olive oil will gain greater appeal with a shake of dried fruit or a generous serving of fresh fruit.

Meat is a great salad topper, but don't overlook beans, wheat germ, granola and canned tuna. Then there's diced or shaved cheese and green or black olives, marinated or stuffed.

Dry ramen noodles sautéed in butter and sprinkled with the accompanying spice package are a nice change of pace from croutons.

Snipped herbs -- chives, mint, parsley, dill come to mind -- add bold notes. Leftover rice or lentils, meanwhile, can be added with abandon.

Need more ideas? Pile on fresh or grilled vegetables; onions are especially delicious. If going with fresh vegetables, shredding, chopping, slicing and shaving will all add to the texture of the finished salad.

And don't overlook sprouts and shoots.

Finally, remember that it's no crime to double up on salad. Top greens with a creamy macaroni or potato salad and forgo the dressing.

Green Salad with Corn, Peppers and Smoky Red Pepper Dressing

Serves 4 to 8; dressing makes 1 cup. Half a grilled red pepper, with skin removed, and a small handful of basil produced an especially delicious dressing. This recipe is from "Heather Christo's Generous Table: Easy and Elegant Recipes Through the Seasons" (Kyle Books, $29.95).

Dressing:

     1/4  cup olive oil

     1/8  cup plus 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

     2     ounces roasted red peppers (packed in water, drained)

     2     tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves

     1     peeled garlic clove

     1     teaspoon smoked paprika

     1/2     teaspoon salt

Salad:

     8    cups green lettuce, in bite-size pieces

     1    cup fresh corn kernels

     1    red bell pepper, small diced

     1     yellow bell pepper, small diced

     1     shallot, small diced

COMBINE in a blender the olive oil, vinegar, roasted peppers, cilantro, garlic, paprika and salt. Puree until the dressing is smooth. Pour into airtight container and refrigerate for up to five days.

COMBINE in a large bowl the lettuce, corn, red and yellow peppers and shallot and toss to combine. Add 1/2 cup dressing and gently toss everything to coat. Serve immediately.

Marinated Cucumber and Chili Salad

Serves 2 to 3. Habaneros are plentiful at Latino markets, but can be difficult to find at some supermarkets. Substitute another spicy pepper. The salad will be just as tasty. The longer the cucumbers marinate, the more tart the salad. This recipe is from "Fresh, Happy, Tasty: An Adventure in 100 Recipes," by Jane Loxwell (William Morrow, $35).

     1     cucumber, seeded, quartered lengthwise and finely chopped

     1/2     habanero chili pepper, seeded, finely chopped

     1/4  cup finely chopped red onion

     1     tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

     Squeeze of agave nectar

     Juice of 1 lemon

     Maldon or other flaky sea salt

     Freshly ground black pepper

PLACE the cucumber, chili and onion in a glass bowl. Toss with olive oil, agave nectar and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper.

REFRIGERATE from 1 hour to up to a day before serving.

Carrot and Citrus Salad

Serves 3 to 4. The recipe calls for grapefruits and pistachios, but oranges and raisins also make a delicious salad. Fresh limes are another good option when making barely dressed salads. If peppery watercress isn't available, try spinach. This recipe is from "Fresh, Happy, Tasty: An Adventure in 100 Recipes," by Jane Loxwell (William Morrow, $35).

     1/3  cup shelled pistachios

     2     grapefruits, segmented

     1     large handful watercress

     2     carrots, shaved on mandoline, placed in ice water

     1     handful fresh cilantro leaves, picked and roughly torn or chopped

Dressing:

     2     tablespoons grapefruit juice

     1     tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

     Small squeeze of agave nectar

     Pinch Maldon or other flaky salt

     Freshly ground black pepper to taste

TOAST pistachios in a small dry skillet over medium-low heat until evenly browned, 3 to 4 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and set aside.

COMBINE grapefruits, watercress, carrots and cilantro in a bowl and toss gently. Whisk the dressing ingredients in a small bowl. When ready to serve, add nuts and dressing to the salad.

Mixed Greens and Strawberry Salad

Serves 4. This recipe is from "The Artist, the Cook and the Gardener: Recipes Inspired by Painting and the Garden," by Maryjo Koch (Andrews McMeel, $26.99).

Dressing:

     1/2  cup mayonnaise

     1/2  cup frozen orange juice concentrate, thawed, and 1 tablespoon orange marmalade

Salad:

     1     small head butter lettuce, washed, chilled

     3    to 4 ounces mixed baby lettuces, washed, chilled

     2    cups strawberries, washed, hulled, sliced

     1/4  cup slivered almonds

     Sea salt, black pepper

WHISK together in a bowl mayonnaise and orange juice concentrate. Add the marmalade and whisk again until combined. Refrigerate.

RESERVE 4 large leaves for plating. Tear remaining leaves into bite-size pieces.

SPOON 1 tablespoon of dressing into the center of each of 4serving plates. Place a whole large leaf of butter lettuce off-center on the plate. Scatter a handful of torn lettuce and a handful of baby greens over the entire plate. Scatter 1/2 cup sliced strawberries and 1 tablespoon of sliced almonds over the greens.

DRIZZLE each salad with additional tablespoon dressing and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.


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