Time to change things up for your July 4th celebration.
You know the drill. July 4th is the biggest picnic of the year and you need to bring something, preferably something good, that's unlike everything else at the potluck table.
No problem. I have several options, all favorites that I'll be making for many family gatherings over the next few weeks. These are so good, in fact, that each could be introduced in the same manner: "This is my favorite salad, and I make it for my favorite people." Should you be served any of these recipes by me, you'll know you're on my A-list.
First is Cabbage Salad With Spicy Lime Vinaigrette, adapted from an Alex Roberts recipe that he served at Brasa in its early days. I was so taken by his refreshing blend of cabbage, cilantro, mint, chile and lime juice that I would crave it around lunchtime and walk more than 2 miles round-trip to buy a takeout version to enjoy when I returned. I was eating so much of it -- and thinking of it as a partner in my 10,000-steps health plan -- that I finally asked Roberts for the recipe, which I then adapted for the home cook. You be the judge: Is this not the best salad ever?
Then there's the Jicama Cilantro Salad. My friend Kim Ode, whose work you see on these pages, brought it to a Mexican-themed dinner at which our newsroom cooks collaborated. As they say in text messages: "OMG!" Yep. It was that good. I didn't even know I loved jicama, but clearly I do and so did the others at our newsroom meal.
Jicama looks like a brown globe and has a crunchy interior. Nibble on it and you'll find that it hydrates you instantly; jicama may rival watermelon in the amount of liquid it contains.
Mix in cucumber, radishes and plenty of cilantro, then toss it all in fresh lime juice for a salad that tastes bright and fresh and looks lovely. It would not be a stretch for me to say, "This is my favorite recipe." At least many days.
Then there's my longtime favorite, the Chicken Feta Salad from D'Amico & Sons, which I acquired years ago under the premise that "Star Tribune readers would like this recipe." I did not mention in the request that the readers I was talking about were my sister, mother, kids and me. But, hey, all the rest of the Taste readers were introduced to the salad, too.
It's a variation on a pasta salad with a Mediterranean bent: bite-size chunks of chicken tossed in pasta with roasted tomatoes, kalamata olives, fresh basil and feta. Mmm. It makes me hungry just to think about it. This was my favorite salad for more than a decade, one I served at my daughter's high school graduation party.
From pasta to beans
I can't forget about the White Bean Salad With Feta and Basil, which for many summers went everywhere I did for outdoor meals. It's a variation on the traditional marinated bean salad that you find at every picnic, a dish that can often be too sweet or -- how shall I say this? -- too common.
My version takes Great Northern beans and tosses them with tomato, red or yellow bell peppers, feta (there does seem to be a theme here) and fresh basil. Wow. One taste of this and you'll never eat three-bean salad again. At least you'll never bring it to a picnic.
Then there's tabbouleh, the Middle Eastern salad that's been around for centuries, though the average Minnesota cook wasn't aware of it -- much less prepared it -- until a decade or more ago. For me, it shouts "summer" when prepared with flavorful tomatoes and cucumbers. I often add fresh mint to the bulgur wheat/vegetable mixture, and I never tire of this dish on the picnic table.
I love all these salads, and perhaps -- as with my children -- it's difficult, if not wrong, to pick which one I love best. Try them all this summer as you entertain or head to a communal gathering. You may find a new favorite in the mix.
And by all means practice the freshness factor when cooking in the summer (or for that matter, anytime). Use fresh herbs. Squeeze fresh citrus instead of reaching for the bottled stuff. The pop of those flavors makes the final dish sing.
Two of these recipes come from the Taste archive, and all (except the Jicama Cilantro Salad, which was new to me this year) can be found in my compilation of Taste recipes, "Come One, Come All/ Easy Entertaining With Seasonal Menus," published by the Minnesota Historical Society, where you will find many more picnic ideas.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @stribtaste