Summer is upon us, bringing a proliferation of beautiful greens, soft lettuces, fresh herbs and edible flowers.

So when executive chef Aaron London seeks salad inspiration, he just steps outside Ubuntu, Napa, Calif.'s Michelin-starred vegetarian restaurant, to forage in the garden -- and his citrusy vinaigrettes change depending on what's most enticing at the moment.

So step away from the bottled salad dressings, with their thickeners and preservatives. Even the best ones lack the freshness, sparkle and whimsy of a freshly whisked vinaigrette.

It takes less time to make one than to drive to the store. And as London and his colleagues point out, you can have a different vinaigrette every day once you nail down your favorite ratio of acid to oil. After that, it's all imagination.

For Cynthia Sandberg, it's all about heirloom varietals. The plump heirloom tomatoes that grace the tables of Manresa, the Los Gatos, Calif., restaurant with two Michelin stars, hail from Sandberg's Love Apple Farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains. And those beautiful tomatoes -- which the French call pomme d'amour -- give her favorite salad dressing a sweet twist.

Sandberg makes her own addictive, sweetly tart jam from those tomatoes and whisks it, a tablespoon at a time, into a simple vinaigrette. (She prefers heirloom varieties, of course, but until this year's crop reaches its full glory, other well-ripened tomatoes will work. The results are so delicious, you may find yourself adding more than the tablespoon her recipe suggests.)

The finished vinaigrette is drizzled over arugula, baby lettuces and, of course, sliced heirloom tomatoes for a perfect summer salad.

And at Tender Greens, the very casual, farm-to-table restaurant that just opened in Walnut Creek, Calif., executive chef Charles Hechinger's take on a lively summer salad was inspired by local farmers markets, as well as visits to an area farm, whose lettuces are grown on acreage at the Sonoma-Marin county line. The former Claremont Hotel executive chef combines red-tipped Little Gem lettuces, endive and Treviso radicchio with some of his favorite local finds: toasted pecans, crumbled cow's milk cheese and strawberries -- roasted with a touch of balsamic vinegar.

Plus, of course, a perfect salad dressing -- a champagne-honey vinaigrette.


>Spring Harvest Salad


1 cup champagne vinegar

1 cup golden balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup raw honey

2 sliced shallots

2 cups extra virgin olive oil

Salt, pepper to taste


Little gem lettuces

Treviso radicchio


Organic strawberries

Cow's milk cheese, crumbled

Toasted pecans

Place the vinegars, honey and shallots into a blender and grind until smooth. Slowly add the oil until the mixture emulsifies. Season with salt and pepper to taste. This dressing recipe makes 1 quart, so refrigerate any portion you don't use.

Gently toss the lettuces, radicchio and endive with some dressing. Scatter strawberries, crumbled cheese and pecans on top and drizzle with additional dressing before serving.

-- Charles Hechinger, Tender Greens, Walnut Creek


>Love Apple Farm's Jam & Honey Dressing

3/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon tomato jam (see recipe, below) or other homemade jam

1 tablespoon honey

Whisk first 4 ingredients together. Drizzle over a salad of arugula leaves, baby lettuces and sliced heirloom tomatoes.


>Love Apple Farm's Tomato Jam

3 pounds fully ripe, heirloom tomatoes

1 gallon boiling water

1 cup apple cider vinegar

1/2 cup apple juice

2 cups organic sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon finely diced jalapeno

Quickly parboil tomatoes in the boiling water until skin slips off easily. Coarsely chop tomatoes, retaining their juice.

Combine vinegar, apple juice, sugar and salt in a large pot over medium heat; cook and stir until sugar dissolves. Stir in tomatoes and jalapeno. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer, stirring frequently, until liquid has reduced by half, 30-45 minutes.

Sterilize the jars and lids in boiling water for at least 5 minutes. Pour jam into the hot, sterilized jars, filling to within 1/4 -inch of the top. Wipe rims with a moist paper towel to remove any food residue. Top with lids, and screw on rings.

Place a rack in the bottom of a large stockpot and fill halfway with water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then carefully lower the jars into the pot using a holder. Leave a 2-inch space between the jars. Pour in more boiling water until the water level is at least 1 inch above the tops of the jars. Bring to a full boil, cover pot, and process for 30 minutes. Remove the jars from the pot and let cool. Once cool, press the top of each lid to ensure a proper seal.

Note: Use a mixture of colors, or opt for an all-orange or all-purple jam. If heirloom tomatoes are not yet in season, fully ripe Romas or other tomatoes may be used instead.

-- Cynthia Sandberg, Love Apple Farm


>Ubuntu Spring Garden Vinaigrette

1 shallot, minced

Pinch salt

2 tablespoons aged sherry vinegar

3 tablespoons lemon juice

Zest of 2 lemons

Zest of 1 orange

Fresh ground black pepper, to taste

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/2 cup chopped, mixed fresh herbs, such as mint, parsley and chervil

Salt to taste

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

In a mixing bowl, combine the shallots with a pinch of salt, vinegar, lemon juice, citrus zests and ground black pepper, and allow to sit at room temperature for 10 minutes.

Next, whisk in the mustard to form a loose paste. Whisk in the chopped fresh herbs.

Place your mixing bowl atop a damp kitchen towel that has been rolled to look like a doughnut, and whisk rapidly in a counterclockwise direction (if you're right handed) while slowly drizzling in the olive oil. Add salt to taste. Refrigerate until ready to use with a salad of hearty lettuces, or drizzled over grilled asparagus, English peas or artichokes.

-- Aaron London, chef, Ubuntu