A FEW YEARS ago we owned a small farm in Western Oregon where, on spring and summer mornings, we breakfasted our way up and down the rows of sugar snap peas, salmon-colored baby carrots, juicy little yellow pear-shaped tomatoes and crisp green beans. Then we filled our baskets with whatever was at its best that day and went back to the house to put a big pot of water on to boil.
I washed and trimmed the vegetables to similar sizes and plunged them into the boiling water. By the time the vegetables were blanched and cooling in a basin of ice water, I had whipped up a marinade inspired by the day's harvest.
The result of our early morning salad making was a supply of succulent, long-lasting snacks and the basis for cool quick suppers for the many summer evenings.
Blanching is the technique of briefly boiling or steaming something and then immediately plunging it into ice water to stop the cooking. Blanching partially cooks vegetables to the tender-crisp stage so they can absorb marinade. It also intensifies the color of green vegetables. The size and density of the pieces determine blanching times. As a general rule, before blanching I cut the vegetables to the sizes I intend for serving.
Use plenty of boiling salted water. Add small batches of vegetables at a time to maintain boiling temperature. Scoop the blanched vegetables out of the boiling water with a sieve or a Chinese mesh skimmer and immediately put them into a bowl of ice water. Repeat with remaining batches.
The following timetable is a brief indicator. For additional vegetables check a general cookbook such as Joy of Cooking. Asparagus: 1 minute for tips, 2 minutes for slender stalk pieces and 3 minutes for fat stalk pieces. Peel the lower stalks with a vegetable peeler before blanching. Green or yellow wax beans: 1 to 2 minutes, depending on how slender and tender they are. Mushrooms: Better used raw or lightly sauteed in oil, not butter. Onions: 1/2 minute for thin strips or slices or small pieces.
Peas: Blanch just to turn a bright green color. Only use peas that taste sweet when eaten raw. If they have turned starchy, blanching and marinating won't save them. In a pinch, you can use frozen peas for color. (You won't get much flavor.) Just thaw and drain them before adding to your salad. Snow peas or sugar snap peas: 1 to 2 minutes, depending on tenderness, or used raw. Blanching brightens their green color. Marinades are made up of 3 basic elements: an oil, an acid and seasonings. When you add a marinade to your blanched vegetables, the oil keeps them moist, the acid further tenderizes them and retards spoilage and the seasonings enhance their natural flavors.
A salad is only as fresh-tasting as the oil that dresses it. If you use olive oil, buy a high-quality imported one with good flavor. Peanut oil, corn oil, sunflower, safflower or vegetable oils are all relatively flavorless and all work fine; but again, buy good quality. There are several exotic oils available at gourmet shops, ethnic food stores and health food stores. Dark oriental sesame oil, almond oil or walnut oil, for example, will contribute distinctive and interesting flavor to a marinade. Try substituting an exotic oil for part of the vegetable oil in your marinade recipe.
The acid in a marinade is generally freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice or a vinegar. For best results use a good red or white wine vinegar or the more delicate rice wine vinegar. Experiment with some of the herbs and fruit vinegars available in gourmet food shops. Or better yet, make your own herb vinegar when fresh herbs are in season. Just pack a clean, sterilized jar about 2/3 full of fresh herb branches and fill with a good wine vinegar heated until it feels hot to the touch. Screw on the lid and store in a cool, dark place several weeks to allow flavors to develop before using. Shake occasionally. Keeps indefinitely.
When it comes to seasonings, fresh are best, but dried herbs and spices give a lot of flavor if they haven't been on the shelf (yours or the supermarket's) too long.
Experiment with flavorings such as lemon zest, toasted sesame seeds, nut butters, soy sauce, coconut milk, anchovies or capers, or just whip up a good vinagrette, toss with blanched vegetables and chill.
Following are a few guidelines to help insure your success in blanching, marinating and producing good salads:
* NEVER use onion powder, onion salt, garlic powder or garlic salt--not even in a pinch. They are sure to distort the fresh taste of your vegetables.
* NEVER use bottled lemon or lime juice. Squeeze your own.
* Avoid using pre-ground pepper, spices and herbs. When you grind your own, you release the flavors right into the marinade.
* Avoid using distilled white or "apple cider flavored" vinegars. They are harsh. Real fermented apple cider vinegar is acceptable.
* Avoid bottled or packaged salad dressings except in an emergency. Your own marinade will always taste better.
* Always use vegetables at their peak of ripeness and freshness. Blanching and marinating does nothing to revive old, worn-out produce.
* Mayonnaise, yogurt or sour cream-based dressings (preferably homemade) should be added shortly before serving so they don't have time to weep.
Here is a selection of marinated vegetable salads, plain and fancy: GINGERED JAPANESE VEGETABLES (8 to 10 servings)
When serving highly spiced Asian dishes, this cooling combination refreshes the tongue. It goes particularly well with fiery Korean barbecued beef, bulgogi. 1 sweet red pepper, julienned, blanched, cooled and drained 1 sweet green pepper, julienned, blanched, cooled and drained 1 medium onion, cut in thin vertical wedges and separated into strips, blanched, cooled and drained 3 carrots, scraped and julienned, blanched, cooled and drained 1 cup bean sprouts 1 small head Chinese cabbage, thinly sliced crosswise For marinade: 1 small onion, chopped 1 stalk celery, chopped 3 tablespoons fresh ginger root, grated 1/2 cup rice wine vinegar 1/4 cup water 1/4 cup soy sauce 1 1/2 cups peanut oil 1 tablespoon tomato paste 3 tablespoons lemon juice, freshly squeezed
Prepare vegetables. Combine marinade ingredients in a blender jar and blend thoroughly. Toss with vegetables. For additional zip, add 1/2 cup shredded radishes. Chill well and toss before serving. NORSE SLAW (10 servings)
This cabbage melange looks as if it belongs on a smorgasbord. Actually it goes well with cold meats and fish and is a wonderful change on your picnic menu from regular old cole slaw. 1 small green cabbage, cored and shredded, blanched, cooled and drained 1 small red cabbage, cored and shredded, blanched, cooled and drained 4 carrots, peeled and julienned, blanched, cooled and drained 2 medium onions, cut in thin vertical wedges and separated into strips For marinade: 3/4 cup sugar 2 cups white wine vinegar 2 teaspoons mustard seed 2 teaspoons celery seed Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Prepare vegetables. Combine marinade ingredients and bring to a boil. Simmer 5 minutes, strain and cool. Toss the vegetables with the marinade and chill. Refrigerated, this salad keeps indefinately and improves with age. THE SUNFLOWER (6 to 8 servings)
The name of this unusual salad comes not only from its ingredients but from its appearance on the platter. 2 artichokes, cooked until tender 1/2 pound asparagus, cut in 2-inch pieces, blanched, cooled and drained 1/2 pound green beans, snapped in 2-inch pieces, blanched, cooled and drained 1/2 pound baby carrots, scrubbed, trimmed and cut in half lengthwise, blanched, cooled and drained 2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut in strips 1/2-inch-by-2-inches, boiled al dente Mayonnaise for serving 1/2 cup toasted, salted sunflower seeds For marinade: 1/2 cup dry white wine 1/2 cup good chicken stock (don't substitute reconstituted cubes or granulated bouillon) 1/2 cup olive oil 1/4 cup white wine vinegar 2 teaspoons shallots, minced 1/4 teaspoon celery seed 1/4 teaspoon thyme 10 green peppercorns, crushed
Remove and reserve leaves of the artichokes. Discard the chokes and stems and slice the bottoms into strips. Combine marinade ingredients. Toss vegetables with the marinade and chill. To serve, place a small bowl of mayonnaise, preferably homemade, in the center of a large, round platter. Arrange the vegetables around the mayonnaise dish. Now arrange the reserved artichoke leaves in petal fashion around the vegetables with the fleshy, edible ends tucked under the marinated vegetables. Sprinkle with toasted, salted sunflower seeds. To make a main dish salad of the Sunflower, add cold, cooked strips of chicken, turkey or veal to the marinating vegetables before chilling. LAMB AND MACARONI SALAD A LA GRECQUE (6 to 8 servings)
This dish employs the flavors but not the method of the French vegetables a la Grecque. It serves well on a buffet or as a hearty main dish. 1 cup celery, sliced crosswise, blanched, cooled and drained 4 small zucchini, cut in 1/2-inch cubes, blanched, cooled and drained 1 small red onion, thinly sliced and separated into rings 2 cups cold cooked lamb 2 cups cold cooked macaroni 1/3 cup chives, chopped 1/2 pound sliced mushrooms 1 tablespoon lemon juice, freshly squeezed For marinade: 1/2 cup olive oil 1 cup dry white wine 1 cup good chicken stock (don't use reconstituted cubes or granular bouillon) 3 tablespoons lemon juice, freshly squeezed 1 bay leaf 8 peppercorns 1 clove garlic, crushed Salt to taste For garnish: Tomato wedges Lemon wedges 6-ounce jar marinated artichoke hearts Mediterranean olives 1/2 pound feta cheese, crumbled
Prepare vegetables. Bring marinade to a boil and simmer 8 minutes. Strain and cool. Combine all the vegetables, meat, macaroni and lemon juice with the cooled marinade. Toss and chill. To serve, toss again, mound in a shallow bowl and add garnishes. ASIAN PAISLEY (4 servings as a main dish, 6 to 8 as a first course)
Take a look at the shapes of shrimps, cashews and celery slices and you'll see what prompted the naming of this salad. 3 cups tender celery sliced in crosswise in 1/4-inch pieces, blanched, cooled and drained 1 pound small shrimp, 24 to 30 per pound, steamed, shelled and cooled 1 cup cashews, roasted and salted 2 scallions, minced For marinade: 1/3 cup cilantro leaves, chopped 2 tablespoons oyster sauce 1 tablespoon oriental sesame oil 1 teaspoon szechuan peppercorns, crushed 4 tablespoons rice wine vinegar 1/2 teaspoon hot oil, or to taste 3 tablespoons sugar 2 tablespoons peanut oil Salt to taste
Prepare celery and shrimp. Combine marinade ingredients and shake well. Toss marinade with celery and add the shrimp, 3/4 cup of the cashews and the scallions. To serve, garnish with sprigs of cilantro and remaining cashews. SWEET AND TART SUMMER SQUASH (6 to 8 servings)
This combination goes particularly well with poached fish or cold chicken. 3/4 pound small zucchini, thinly sliced, blanched, cooled and drained 3/4 pound small yellow crookneck squash, thinly sliced, blanched, cooled and drained 2 leeks, white part only, thinly sliced, blanched, cooled and drained Fresh dill for garnish For marinade: 1/2 cup tarragon vinegar 1/3 cup olive oil 2 teaspoons dijon mustard 2 tablespoons sugar Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Prepare vegetables and combine marinade ingredients. Toss vegetables with the marinade and chill. To serve, toss again and garnish with minced fresh dill.