Traipsing through the aisles of Safeway for a kitty food run the other day, I made a quick round through the produce department to check out selection and prices. I’ve become such a produce snob over the years that it can be difficult for me to shop for produce at certain stores (I blame farmers’ markets. Which is a GOOD thing.), but it’s good to keep an eye on what’s being offered to the masses now and then.
One of the produce department staff was busy stocking something near the packaged greens, and the gorgeous heads of butter and Romaine lettuce he was stocking caught my eye. Lettuce? LETTUCE! It occurred to me that I hadn’t had proper lettuce in months, such is my (and most of the food world’s) current obsession with dark, nutrient-rich leafy greens like kale, spinach, and chard. But I remember lettuce. I remember liking it a lot. Kale and spinach are fine and all, but why have I tossed lettuce to the wayside? There’s nothing wrong with lettuce at all. Unless it’s iceberg, hahaha.
So, I picked up a nice head of Romaine that was on sale ($0.99/head? Don’t mind if I do!), knowing exactly what I’d do with it. Big, crisp leaves of Romaine lettuce always take me back to childhood summers, when my dad would spend more time in our own kitchen than at work, treating my mom and me to fantastic dinners on the patio.
Because my dad’s birthday was in July (Fourth of July, to be exact), that was usually the time he’d take his long vacation, and oh, those were the greatest days for me. When you’re an only child, having both your parents at home rather than always at work is pretty special, so I treasured those family dinners on the patio. One of the dishes on regular rotation, especially when the temperatures got too hot, was this delicious beast of a salad.
Like most good salads or soups, it’s made from a little bit of this and a little bit of that, with no real rhyme or reason, just the promise of a delicious meal once everything is tossed together. Usually served as an entree salad, this one comes chock-full of veggies, and Daddy often made it with either tuna or chopped chicken mixed in. It’s a gorgeous salad to look at with its many bold colors, but it’s one of my favorite Dad meals because it was just so simple. He understood the beauty of simplicity when it comes to certain foods.
You know, it’s funny… when I think back to those balmy summer evenings with Mama outside tending to her bonsai and succulents, Papa in the kitchen, and me flip-flopping between them in the kitchen and patio respectively, I realize how much like my dad I actually turned out. Don’t get me wrong: I’m VERY much like my mom, especially the older I get (Mirror, mirror on the wall, I am my mother after all, hahahahaha). But in certain aspects, I am 100% just like my Papa. I am fabulously frugal, I love deliciously long naps, and I’m an absolute control freak in the kitchen.
My dad would never let me help him when he was cooking. He always looked perturbed at whatever he was preparing (I now realize that’s just a classic Chef Is Concentrating face), so it was just as well. I much preferred his big ol’ grin with the all the crazy dimple action and the mischievous twinkle in his eye. Turns out I make the same perturbed face (when I’m not telling my food how sexy it is), and I never let anyone help. In fact, I tend to kick people out of my kitchen unless I’ve specifically delegated helping tasks. Or unless they promise to stay put with a glass of wine in hand and just talk to me.
Maybe because there was no heat-related cooking involved and, therefore, not as much moving about the kitchen requiring ALL the space, I could be the designated talking companion when Daddy made this salad. Of course, there was no wine in my hand, but I remember being allowed to perch on a chair and chatter away while he just smiled, chopped, and said, “Uh huh” in all the right places (the endless chatter of an 8 year old can cause automatic tune-out after several hours, haha). Sometimes I was allowed to hand him a bowl of something or put something in the sink to wash later, but for the most part, I just sat there and twittered away happily under his warm loving gaze.
That’s what I think of whenever I have Romaine lettuce: summertime with Daddy at home, and those precious extra moments I could spend with him, watching him do his work with all the admiration and love that only a daddy’s girl can feel for him. Maybe that’s why writing this post has shredded me so much on the inside – every time I start to lose myself in memories, I break down into tears, stunned by the shock and pain that he’s really gone, even after all these months, wanting nothing more than to have him perch on a chair and talk to me while I cook him something from this blog… from my heart.
At least I’ll always have my memories, bittersweet as they can be. And I have meals like these to remember him by, like this salad which will be my dinner tonight. Simple meals, but always nutritious and filling, full of texture, color, and big flavor. And, most of all, love.
My Dad’s Summer Harvest Salad (makes 4 entree servings; average cost per serving: $1.95)
If you’re lucky enough to live near a good farmers’ market or have a garden of your own, be sure to get as many of your veggies from there rather than a conventional grocery store. You’ll not only save money, but the freshness of the produce will only add to the flavors of this salad. You can serve this as a side with no proteins mixed in, but if you’re looking for a good entree salad, adding chicken or tuna (or even some black or kidney beans for your non-meat eaters out there) will turn this into the perfect summer dinner.
1 head Romaine, green leaf, or butter lettuce (4-5 cups chopped)
1 c sweet corn kernels
1 c chopped or julienne beets (canned are just fine, but home roasted taste even better)
2 large tomatoes, chopped into 1″ chunks
1/2 c shredded carrots
1-2 medium avocados, cut into 1″ chunks
3-4 large scallions chopped
1/4 c chopped cilantro
2 cans tuna, drained OR 1.5 c shredded chicken (optional)
1/4 c homemade or bottled dressing of your choice (I love a good homemade vinaigrette or my classic favorite from childhood, Wish Bone Italian.)
1. In a large salad bowl, combine the lettuce and all the veggies except the chopped scallions and cilantro. Toss together until well mixed.
2. If making an entree salad, add the tuna or chicken. Add the dressing, then toss everything together again until all ingredients and dressing is evenly distributed.
3. Lastly, sprinkle the chopped scallions and cilantro atop the final masterpiece. Place extra dressing in a bowl for those who need a little more of it on their salad. Serve this as an entree salad, or as the perfect accompaniment to grilled meats or seafood, and enjoy!