The calendar may call for autumnal fare, but in many places, Indian summer has a different agenda. And our dinner tables seek a compromise.
We're not quite ready for the heartier fare of fall, but simple greens don't cut it either. No, what we need is something transitional, a series of salads that celebrates the harvest, but offers a little more heft -- arugula tossed with heirloom melon slices, prosciutto and ripe figs, for example, or last-of-the-season nectarines with haricots verts, cured ham and watermelon radishes.
Salads are perfect seasonal dinner fodder any time of year, says Oakland, Calif., food writer and pastry chef Romney Steele, author of two cookbook-memoirs about life at Big Sur and Nepenthe, the iconic restaurant owned by her family.
She's a self-described "big salad person," because salads are all about texture, color and flavor, and offer an anything-goes palette for the palate.
But great food means matching what's on your plate to what's in the garden, she says. In other words, leave the spring peas for April and turn instead to fall's abundant bounty.
This is peak time for melons, late-season figs and wild greens. Tomatoes are bursting off the vine, and fresh herbs are abundant. So Steele combines those vibrant purples, greens and reds in a composed September Salad, adding paper-thin slices of prosciutto and drizzles of olive oil and oloroso sherry.
"That is a delicious salad," she says. "It's really about the imagination and using things that are voluptuous."
Steele, who has a visual arts background, brings an artist's eye to her newest book, "Plum Gorgeous" (Andrews McMeel, 178 pages, $25). Many of her edible masterpieces -- and their recipes -- were composed on the plate, where colorful fruits, salads and even cured meats come together.
"People tend to think of fruit in fruit salad," she says. "But I like to do nectarines with ham, and figs for a late harvest salad. That little touch of sweetness -- the fleshiness of a peach -- makes everything so much more delicious, and you get all the local flavors."
That riot of colors and textures can evoke memories and places, as well as flavors. Steele mixes nectarines, for example, with thinly sliced, cured ham -- such as the Jambon Royale made by Niman Ranch -- watercress and Marcona almonds for an autumnal salad she calls "my ode to Spain." Serve it in the garden for a late-afternoon lunch, she says, with "gypsy music playing in the background."
There's also an artistic element to the sweet summer corn and diced zucchini salad favored by restaurateur Eva Longoria.
The "Desperate Housewives" star -- and author of the new "Eva's Kitchen" (Clarkson Potter, 224 pages, $29.99) -- took a series of classes at Los Angeles' ArtBites recently that combined culinary inspiration with art history. Each class began at a museum and finished in the kitchen, with a dish inspired by, in this case, an exhibit on the Aztec culture, for whom corn and squash were dietary staples.
This Aztec-inspired salad bridges the seasons with colorful flair. Add some crumbled feta or queso fresco, or serve it with crostini, spread with fresh ricotta and drizzled with olive oil, and that corn-zucchini salad can play an entree role, too.
> September Salad
1 ripe melon, preferably heirloom
1/3 pound thinly sliced prosciutto
8-12 ripe figs, halved
Handful of arugula leaves
Opal basil leaves
Handful of almonds, sliced and lightly toasted
1/2 cup vine-ripened cherry tomatoes
1/4 cup oloroso sherry (see note below)
Extra virgin olive oil
Coarse sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Peel, seed and thinly slice the melon (use just half, if it's substantial), then arrange the slices on a large platter. Drape the prosciutto over the top and scatter with the figs, arugula and a few leaves of basil and spearmint, torn or slivered if they are large. Sprinkle with the almonds and tomatoes.
Warm the sherry in a small pan over low heat for just a minute. (Tip: If you do not have sherry wine, you may substitute good-quality sherry vinegar, although less of it, and a pinch of sugar.) Transfer to a small bowl, and swirl in olive oil to taste. Drizzle over the salad. Season with salt and pepper. Serves 4-6 as a starter.
-- Romney Steele, "Plum Gorgeous" (Andrews McMeel, 178 pages, $25)
> Nectarine Salad with Haricots Verts and Cured Ham
1/2 pound haricots verts
1 small shallot, finely chopped
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
2 teaspoons champagne or rice wine vinegar
Few leaves each of basil and mint, finely slivered
Pinch sugar, optional
1 bunch watercress, rinsed and trimmed
2 to 3 nectarines, pitted and sliced into wedges
2 watermelon radishes, halved and thinly sliced
Several thin slices cured ham, such as serrano or Niman Ranch's Jambon Royale
1/4 cup Marcona almonds
Blanch the haricots verts in boiling salted water until tender to the bite, 2-3 minutes. Drain and rinse under cool water, then spread on a plate to cool.
Whisk together the shallot, olive oil and vinegars; add the herbs and season with salt and pepper. Whisk in 1 tablespoon of water and a pinch of sugar, if needed, to soften the vinaigrette.
Place the green beans in a bowl with the watercress, nectarines and radishes; gently toss with the vinaigrette. Arrange the salad on plates, tucking a couple of slices of ham into each. Scatter the almonds on top and serve. Serves 3-4.
-- Romney Steele
> Corn and Zucchini Salad
5 ears corn, shucked
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 cups zucchini, cut in 1/4 -inch dice
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
1 1/2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro or basil
Prepare a large bowl of ice water and set aside. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the corn to the boiling water, cover and remove from heat. Let stand 3-5 minutes. Drain and immerse the corn in the ice water to stop the cooking. When cool, cut the kernels from the cob, cutting close to the cob. Place the kernels in a large bowl.
In a small skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the zucchini and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring, until tender, about 4 minutes. Add the zucchini to the bowl with the corn.
Add the red onion, vinegar, oil, remaining salt and pepper. Just before serving, toss in the herbs. Taste, adjust the seasoning as needed, and serve cold or at room temperature. Serves 6-8.
-- Eva Longoria, "Eva's Kitchen" (Clarkson Potter, 224 pages, $29.99)