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Which of these new salad combos is best? It’s a tossup

Roasted pear salad is elegant, of the season and takes only 15 minutes to prepare.
Roasted pear salad is elegant, of the season and takes only 15 minutes to prepare. Special to the Star-Telegram

Forget everything you know about salads.

Sure, they can be just big bowls of lettuce, or a variety of different ones if you’re feeling fancy, but today, just about anything can be put together, tossed, layered, or presented any old way (deconstructed is terribly en vogue) and be called a salad.

It’s been like this in France for ages, which is how I broke down my own walls of what I believed salads to be. The question of what a salad was, I realized, was no longer important. It could be anything.

It could also be more than just a side to something else, or a downgrade from something more spectacular — a salad, served for lunch, dinner, as a side, a main course, or as part of a family-style gathering, can in fact, be the star.

The trick to assembling a salad that’s new and different from what you’ve had before is to first forget that it’s a salad. Don’t even call it that if you don’t want to. Then see what’s in season and build from there.

Often, what grows together goes together. Why not pair grapes with cauliflower? They’re available right now. Pears and walnuts are a classic, and there’s a reason for that — they’re both best at their shared, peak harvest times.

To me, these nontraditional salads are the inspiration for what I build around them. The very simple, classic French haricots verts vinaigrette can be served warm, cold or at room temperature (my favorite) and loves working as a side to chicken as much as it does fish.

The carrot, broccoli and tofu salad stands quite well on its own — I make a big batch of this and eat it for a day or two, because it only gets better with a little time in the fridge.

The red grape, cauliflower and Pecorino salad is light and unassuming and needs to be served with something that’s not too bold. The roasted pear salad will pair with practically anything, or works just fine on its own.

Imagine the possibilities.

Ellise Pierce is the author of “Cowgirl Chef: Texas Cooking With a French Accent” (Running Press). Read her blog (www.cowgirlchef.com), and follow her on Twitter (@cowgirlchef) and Instagram (cowgirlchef).

Roasted carrots, broccoli and tofu

Serves 6 to 8

  • 1 pound carrots, cut into 2-inch fingers
  • 1 pound broccoli crowns, cut into florets
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • Sea salt and pepper
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce or tamari
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 16 ounces firm tofu, cut into  1/2 -inch slices
  • Asian vinaigrette, recipe follows
  • 1 tablespoon sesame seeds, for serving
  • Small handful cilantro, chopped, for serving

1. Heat the oven to 450 degrees.

2. Toss the carrot batons and broccoli florets onto a large baking sheet. Add 4 tablespoons of olive oil (you may not need all of it), salt and pepper to taste, and toss. Slide into the oven for 30 to 40 minutes and cook until the vegetables are lightly browned, turning once. Let cool. Time saver: You may do this in advance.

3. Reduce the oven temperature to 400 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper — very important because the tofu will stick.

4. In a medium bowl, whisk together 1 tablespoon of the olive oil with the soy sauce and cornstarch. Add the tofu, toss to coat, and spread out on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes or until brown and crispy on all sides, turning once or twice, if needed.

5. Assemble salad. Put the broccoli, carrots and tofu in a large bowl. Pour on some of the Asian vinaigrette (if you don’t use all of it, it refrigerates well for several days), toss again and taste. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and chopped cilantro. I like this salad best at room temperature.

Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 6 (without Asian vinaigrette): 218 calories, 16 grams fat, 14 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams protein, no cholesterol, 216 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 61 percent of calories from fat.

Asian vinaigrette

Makes about  1/2 cup

  • 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice (about 1 lime)
  • 3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
  • Small handful cilantro
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons grapeseed, canola or another neutral oil
  • 1 teaspoon chopped jalapeño

Put everything in a jam jar and shake until combined. Taste for seasonings.

Nutritional analysis per 1-tablespoon serving: 50 calories, 5 grams fat, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace protein, no cholesterol, 45 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 88 percent of calories from fat.

Red grapes, cauliflower and Pecorino

Serves 6 to 8

  • 1 medium head cauliflower, cut into florets
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Sea salt and pepper to taste
  • Small bunch (about  1/2 pound) seedless red grapes, halved
  •  1/4 pound Pecorino (I like a mild, younger one as opposed to the very salty Romano.)
  •  1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • Small handful Italian flat-leaf parsley, chopped, for serving

1. Heat the oven to 450 degrees.

2. Put the cauliflower florets on a large baking sheet, drizzle with the olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, then slide into the oven. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes or until browned, turning once about halfway through. At the halfway point, add the grapes and let them cook along with the cauliflower. Note: Cooking time will vary slightly, depending on how much cauliflower you are roasting.

3. While the cauliflower is cooking, slice the Pecorino into  1/4 -inch cubes.

4. Make the balsamic syrup. Put the balsamic vinegar and brown sugar in a small saucepan over low heat. Let it cook until syrupy, about 20 minutes. Time saver: You may do this in advance and refrigerate it.

5. To assemble the salad, add the cheese to the cauliflower and grapes, either directly onto the sheet pan or into a bowl, drizzle with the balsamic syrup and garnish with chopped Italian parsley.

Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 6: 150 calories, 10 grams fat, 11 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams protein, 20 milligrams cholesterol, 235 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 56 percent of calories from fat.

Roasted pear salad

Serves 4

  • 2 large semi-firm pears (I like Comice pears)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 small handfuls arugula
  • Champagne vinaigrette, recipe follows
  •  1/8 pound Gorgonzola, cut into small pieces
  •  1/3 cup walnut halves, toasted and chopped

1. Heat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Core the pears and cut them into half-inch slices (they’ll shrink). Lay them on a large baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Roast for 10 to 15 minutes or until lightly browned on both sides, turning once. Time saver: You may do this in advance and refrigerate.

3. To make the salads, divide the pear slices among four plates, and top with a small handful of arugula. Drizzle with a spoonful of champagne vinaigrette. Scatter Gorgonzola pieces all around and finish with walnuts.

Nutritional analysis per serving, without champagne vinaigrette: 228 calories, 18 grams fat, 15 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, 13 milligrams cholesterol, 203 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber, 65 percent of calories from fat.

Champagne vinaigrette

Makes about  1/2 cup

  • 3 tablespoons champagne vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  •  1/3 cup olive oil

Put the first three ingredients in a jam jar and give it a good shake. Add about half of the olive oil, shake, taste and, if you need more oil, keep adding until it tastes balanced (not too vinegary and not too oily). Keep refrigerated.

Nutritional analysis per 1-tablespoon serving: 83 calories, 9 grams fat, trace carbohydrates, trace protein, no cholesterol, 25 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 98 percent of calories from fat.

Haricots verts vinaigrette

Serves 6 to 8

  • 2 eggs
  • 2 pounds green beans or haricots verts, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • French vinaigrette, recipe follows
  • 2 tablespoons almond slivers, toasted

1. Place two eggs into a small saucepan, cover with water, and put on to boil. When the water boils, reduce the heat to low and set timer for 10 minutes. Pour off the hot water and let cold water run over the eggs until you can handle them. Peel and set aside.

2. Put a large pot of salted water on to boil. When it boils, add the green beans and reduce the heat to medium. Let beans cook until they reach your preferred texture — some people like them squeaky; I like mine slightly tender, which takes about 10 minutes. Remove from boiling water into an ice bath or run very cold water over them to keep them as bright green as possible.

3. To assemble, put the green beans into a medium bowl, add salt and pepper to taste, and toss with as much of the vinaigrette as you need. Transfer to a serving bowl or plate and grate the eggs on top. Finally, sprinkle a few almond slivers on top.

Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 6, without French vinaigrette: 75 calories, 3 grams fat, 8 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, 53 milligrams cholesterol, 24 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber, 33 percent of calories from fat.

French vinaigrette

Makes about  3/4 cup

  •  1/4 cup sherry vinegar
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh herbs (basil, thyme, chives), optional
  •  1/2 cup olive oil

Put sherry vinegar, minced shallot, mustard, salt and pepper, and herbs (if using) in a jam jar, and shake until combined. Let rest for about 10 minutes — this softens the intensity of the shallots’ flavor and allows the salt to dissolve — then add the olive oil. Taste for seasonings.

Nutritional analysis per 1-tablespoon serving: 84 calories, 9 grams fat, trace carbohydrates, trace protein, no cholesterol, 5 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 98 percent of calories from fat.

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