After one of the longest winters in Arkansas’ collective memory, March 20, the first day of spring, was a welcome sight. Even with the forecast showing below-average temperatures for the next few weeks, the longer sunny days inspire menus to evolve from hearty stews and pots of chili to lighter and livelier fare. Although Arkansas is not yet in full-on barbecue season, flavorful salads utilizing springtime ingredients such as asparagus, strawberries and peas of all varieties reflect the promise of the season of renewal.
The category of “salad” encompasses a wide variety of tastes and textures. No longer is a salad just a plate of iceberg lettuce with tomatoes and a glop of bottled ranch dressing. Whether presenting salads as a side dish or a main dish, homemade dressings are simple to make and add personality and freshness to the dish. Fresh herbs and a squeeze of citrus add tremendous flavor.
With Arkansas being an agricultural state, we are blessed to have access to the freshest vegetables of the season. Following are some tips for selecting the highest-quality produce, whether from the supermarket or a farmers market:
• Artichokes: Choose globes that have tight leaves and feel heavy for their size. The leaves should squeak when pressed against each other.
• Asparagus: Choose firm, smooth and brightly colored stalks with compact tips. Avoid limp stalks. Choose stalks of equal thickness to ensure even cooking times.
• Cucumbers: Choose cucumbers that are uniformly green (not yellow).
• Kale: Choose crisp, deeply colored leaves. Avoid yellowed leaves. Smaller leaves tend to be more tender.
• Lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens: Choose greens with fresh, crisp leaves. Avoid any that are wilted or slimy.
• Peas: Choose crisp, green pods. Avoid bulging, dried, yellow or white pods.
• Scallions: Choose scallions with crisp, green tops and firm, white bulbs. Avoid wilted or brown scallions.
• Tomatoes: Choose tomatoes that are fragrant, smell earthy at the stem end and feel heavy for their size. Avoid tomatoes with wrinkled skins.
CUTIE, KIWI, PINEAPPLE AND LIME FRUIT SALAD
1/4 cup orange juice with mango
1 tablespoon packed light-brown sugar
1 teaspoon lime zest and juice of the lime
1 pound Cutie oranges
1 teaspoon peeled and finely grated fresh ginger (from about a 2-inch piece)
1 pound kiwis (about 5 medium kiwis), peeled and cut into large dice
16 ounces pineapple (from about 1 medium pineapple), skin removed, cored and cut into large dice (pre-cut and trimmed pineapple from the deli is a great timesaving substitute.)
Whisk together the juice, brown sugar, lime zest and ginger in a large bowl until the sugar has dissolved; set aside.
Segment the oranges, removing any thick membrane, pith or tough ends. Cutie oranges are simple to peel and require little additional trimming.
Add the kiwis and pineapple to the bowl, and gently mix until the fruit is evenly coated. Serve immediately or chill in the refrigerator for up to 2 hours before serving. Squeeze the lime juice over the salad or toss it right before serving for extra freshness and flavor.
SPRING VEGETABLE ORZO PASTA SALAD
1 bunch asparagus
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup green onions, white and green parts, sliced thin
2 cloves garlic, minced
12 ounces orzo pasta, cooked to al dente and cooled
15-ounce can artichoke hearts
1 1/2 cups sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup olive oil
Bring a medium saucepan full of water to a boil. Turn off the burner, add in asparagus pieces, and blanch for 3 minutes. While the asparagus is in the water, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a small sauté pan. Sauté garlic for 1 to 2 minutes, just until tender. Add green onions to warm pan. Drain the asparagus, and rinse with cool water.
In a large bowl, add cooked orzo pasta, asparagus pieces and sautéed onions and garlic. Drain artichoke hearts and quarter them, adding them to the bowl. Add in sun-dried tomatoes with oil and lemon zest. Stir to combine.
In a small bowl or container, whisk together lemon juice, white wine vinegar, salt and pepper. Slowly pour olive oil into the vinegar, whisking continuously. Once the mixture is emulsified, stir the dressing into the salad. Move to the refrigerator for at least 6 hours for flavors to meld. Serve cold.
SPINACH AND STRAWBERRY SALAD WITH POACHED SHRIMP AND POPPY SEED DRESSING
One bag baby spinach, pre-washed
1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted
1 pint strawberries, hulled and quartered
1/2 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and finely diced
1 pound peeled and deveined shrimp, poached or sautéed
1 lemon, juiced
3/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/3 cup sugar or sugar substitute, such as Splenda
2 tablespoons poppy seeds
Bring a large saucepan of water to a roiling boil. Season with a large pinch of kosher salt. Add shrimp and lemon juice, remove from heat, and cover. After about 5 minutes, the shrimp should be opaque. Remove from hot pan and set aside. (Shrimp require very little cooking — no direct boiling maintains tenderness and flavor.)
Whisk all dressing ingredients together in bowl, and chill in the refrigerator. In a large salad bowl, toss together all the salad ingredients except the shrimp. Arrange greens on serving plates, top with shrimp, and dress just before serving.