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Cooking for One: Stay cool all summer with salads

Thursday, June 08, 2000

By Marlene Parrish

Pulling together meals couldn't be easier for the solo cook in the warm months. While it's simmertime in the kitchen for many families, you can get away with summertime ease with only yourself to please. Learn to concoct six basic salads, throw in a loaf of bread, an occasional roasted chicken and a couple of swift desserts and you won't have to heat up the kitchen until Labor Day.

Good old tossed garden salad. Buy a bag of greens, buy a bottle of dressing. To that bare-bones concept, add rings of red onion, a chopped hard-cooked egg, halved cherry tomatoes, sliced cucumber, cubes of cheese, a few olives, broken nuts, grated carrots and whatever munchies appeal. Boost the dressing with olive oil mixed with a little mustard, salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar. Toss with the oil mixture to coat, then squirt the salad with lemon juice and toss again.

For a slightly Greek nod, lose the egg, meat and American cheese, and add crumbles of feta cheese and a good sprinkle of oregano.

Good old tossed fruit salad. The fruit isn't as important as the dressing. Chop, scoop or slice cantaloupe, watermelon, mango, banana, grapes, strawberries, blueberries and kiwifruit. You could add just add a bit of sugar and a squeeze of lemon to the mixture. Fruit salad is always one-up with Marilyn's Poppyseed Dressing. To make it, add the following to the blender: 2 cups vegetable oil, 1 1/2 cups sugar, 2/3 cup wine vinegar, 1 chopped medium onion and 2 teaspoons dry mustard. Whirl for about a minute. Add 3 tablespoons poppyseeds and whirl a bit longer. Pour the dressing into a jar and refrigerate for up to four weeks. Pour over fruit salad as needed. The dressing is also good over avocado slices.

Pasta Salad. The best shapes to use are short, forkable and full of crannies such as ziti, fusilli and small shells. Start with a cup or two of plain pasta, freshly cooked or left over. Then start adding tasty bits: cubed ham, cheese and veggies. Toss with a vinaigrette salad dressing for an Italian-ish flavor.

For a Thai-style pasta salad, keep the noodles, add a handful of bean sprouts, a couple of snow peas and a few chopped radishes and change the dressing.

This one is easy: Combine 1/4 cup peanut butter, 3 tablespoons water, 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice, 1 tablespoon white vinegar, 1 tablespoon dark sesame oil, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes.

Chicken, Tuna or Egg Salad. Use a formula to get the proportions right. For a classic chicken salad, try this: 4 parts chicken, 2 parts celery, 1 part mayonnaise. For example, for each 1 cup of chicken, use 1/2 cup chopped celery and about 1/4 cup of mayo, or just enough to bind. Add-ins will expand the volume. Try herbs, scallions, water chestnuts, chopped apples or nuts.

Customize the mayo. Open a jar of Hellman's finest and doctor it to taste with extra lemon juice, mustard, paprika, hot sauce or whatever flavor seems right.

Marinated vegetables. This works best if you have leftover veggies from another meal or if you thought to toss extras on the grill. To a bowlful, add olive oil and lemon juice with seasonings. Caponata, the Sicilian cooked antipasto melange of vegetables, is the queen of cooked vegetable salads. Deli counters often offer a quite acceptable one and it beats doing the cooking yourself. Either way, you'll need a "what-would-we-ever-do-without-them" rotisserie chicken from the supermarket to round out this dinner.

Another challenge to the solo cook is dealing with a sweet tooth. Most cakes and pies are just too much volume and too much trouble to make. I found this recipe on the back of a sugar sack that makes a small cake that is easy to make and a good keeper.

Marcella's Butter Almond Cake

1 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup melted butter
2 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
Sugar for garnish
Almond slices for garnish

Blend sugar with melted butter. Beat in eggs.

Add vanilla and almond extracts.

Add flour and salt. Spread batter into a greased 9-inch round cake pan (or cheesecake pan).

Sprinkle with sugar and almonds. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes.

Makes about 6 shortbread-like pieces.

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