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Recent visits to two trendy Israeli restaurants in Los Angeles were a wake-up call to expand my salad selection at home. Although both eateries specialized in grilled meats, quite a few of the diners, including me, were enticed by the variety of salads. Both menus featured a popular formula - all-you-can-eat salad selections with fresh baked laffa (flatbread). Even though California is known to many as salad heaven, this is a novel way to many to enjoy fresh vegetables. These arrays of salads are nothing like the ordinary American salad bars; they feature an eclectic assortment of Israeli-style salads. In addition to the usual favorites - eggplant tehina salad, humous, roasted red peppers and Israeli diced tomato-cucumber salad, they include other Mizrahi menu items, like bright green parsley-bulgur tabbouli and slightly spicy Turkish tomato salad.
Some salads were new to our American friends at the table, like eggplant salad with mayonnaise, peppery Moroccan cooked carrot salad with fresh coriander, s'hug-flavored fresh tomato puree, mayonnaise dressed corn salad and mock chopped liver made from fried eggplant and browned onions.
There were also new twists on familiar salads. A roasted cauliflower salad was made with garlic and red pepper strips, and fresh mushrooms and dill were added to the corn salad. Another rich salad featured mushrooms as the main ingredients, dressed with mayonnaise and mint. A blend of mostly sweet spices called baharat, popular in Iraqi cooking, gave a warm eggplant and tomato salad a welcome touch. We all liked the warm chickpeas topped with tehina, our favorite presentation of the familiar humous ingredients.
Few of us are likely to prepare 20 salads for a meal at home, but as the weather warms up, setting out three or four salads for Shabbat or other festive occasions makes for an appealing appetizer course. Choose them with an eye to colors and a balance of textures - raw and cooked vegetables, chunky and smooth, and of dressings - one with a rich mayonnaise or tehina sauce, the rest with a lighter vinaigrette dressing of olive oil and lemon juice.
Many salads are so easy to prepare that they need no recipes, depending instead on top quality ingredients. To make a delicious cherry tomato salad I enjoyed at one of the restaurants, you simply cut ripe cherry tomatoes in half, mix them with chopped green onion, parsley and perhaps some slivered fresh basil, and drizzle them with fruity extra virgin olive oil. For a fresh mushroom salad, squeeze a little lemon juice over sliced mushrooms to prevent them from discoloring, then mix in enough mayonnaise to moisten them, and add thin slivers of mild onion and chopped fresh mint. Obviously, in both, you'll add salt and pepper to taste.
Fresh bread is central to the pleasure of eating many of these salads, especially the smooth, creamy ones. Make sure to have some on the table.
CORN AND MUSHROOM SALAD WITH DILL MAYONNAISE
In spite of the popularity of both corn and mayonnaise in the US, this type of salad is not common. I know it from Israel, where it's made in many variations. My Jerusalemite niece, Liora Kahn Taylor, recently made a tasty and nutritious version, adding cooked black beans, diced cooked carrots and fresh basil.
Benny Saida, author of What a Salad (in Hebrew), adds diced pickles to his corn salad, along with chopped black olives, green onions, diced hard-boiled eggs and chopped radishes. At a supper meal following a Sephardi synagogue service, the corn-mayonnaise blend was flavored with finely diced pickles and garnished with roasted red pepper strips.
In this recipe, dill and white mushrooms add a fresh note to the satisfying salad. Red peppers provide a colorful garnish; use either raw or roasted ones. You can mix the pepper strips into the salad or use them only for garnish. If you like, serve the salad on a bed of lettuce.
1 to 2 cups fresh white mushrooms
2 to 3 tsp. strained fresh lemon juice
3 cups corn kernels, frozen, cut from fresh cobs or canned,
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 to 5 Tbsp. mayonnaise, regular or low fat
1â„2 sweet red bell pepper, cut in thin strips
2 to 3 tsp. chopped fresh dill, or more to taste
Halve and slice mushrooms. Sprinkle them lightly with lemon juice and toss to combine.
Add fresh or frozen corn to a medium saucepan of boiling water and simmer uncovered over medium-high heat 1 to 2 minutes or until just tender. Drain well.
In a medium bowl, combine corn, mushrooms and half the pepper strips. Add most of dill and enough mayonnaise to moisten. Mix well. Taste and adjust seasoning. Sprinkle with remaining dill and garnish with remaining pepper strips.
Makes 6 side-dish or appetizer servings.
GRATED CARROT SALAD WITH RED PEPPER AND LEMON-MINT DRESSING
A touch of hot pepper sauce balances this colorful salad's sweet-and-sour flavor. It's a light and refreshing change from the familiar American carrot salad with raisins and mayonnaise, and is easy to make, especially if you use a food processor grating disk to shred the carrots. For a casual lunch or supper, the salad makes a nice accompaniment for smoked turkey or other cold cuts.
450 gr. carrots
1â„2 sweet red pepper, finely diced
1 green onion, finely chopped (optional)
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh mint
3 to 4 Tbsp. strained fresh lemon juice
3 to 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
pinch of salt
1â„2 tsp. hot pepper sauce, or to taste
Mint sprigs for garnish (optional)
Peel carrots and grate them on large holes of a grater. Mix carrots with sweet pepper, green onion, mint, lemon juice, oil and salt. Add hot pepper sauce to taste. Serve on a flat plate and garnish with mint.
Makes 4 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home and of Feast from the Mideast.