Summer Salad: Spinach, Strawberries, and Sunflower Seeds

Sunday, June 24, 2012

It’s Finally Strawberry Season, and It Doesn’t Last Long

Strawberry and Sunflower Seed Salad | PK NewbyGiven that, I hope you can understand why I’m on a strawberry kick. First came the post about my favorite summertime go-to beverage, wild berry sun tea. Then I wrote about strawberry mojitos. Still to come is strawberry ice cream and you bet I’ll be making strawberry bourbon lemonade soon, too. There may be other strawberry concotions yet to come. It’s a very short season, after all, and it should be savored – as with all seasonal produce. Truth be told, I actually have several quarts in my fridge at present, no exaggeration.

Today strawberries are starring in one of my big salads for dinner, which we all know is one of the foundations of my diet. I recently acquired this recipe from my cousin. She served this elegant salad alongside lobster rolls and a gorgeous rosé at a spring luncheon; I begged her for the recipe once I saw strawberries finally reach our famers’ markets here in Boston. (And here’s my recipe for lobster rolls and lobster bisque.)

Berry Salad + Strawberry Vinaigrette

Big Salad, Meet Beautiful Berries

Salad Ingredients. Well, the title says it all, really: spinach (baby or whatever), strawberries, and sunflower seeds. The original recipe also includes cucumbers and chèvre (goat cheese). Substitutions and additions can be to your liking, but in these types of salad, less is more. You want the individual components to shine and complement each other, not upstage the stars. In other words, this is not a kitchen-sink-type big salad where you’re trying to include a whole bunch of veggies, grains, nuts, and other healthy things to make up for all the crappy food you ate earlier in the week.

Strawberry Vinaigrette.Man, do I ever need to do a video post on salad dressings soon! They are so easy to make and much healthier – and tastier. You really should never spend money on store-bought dressing again. (Although I freely admit there’s a time and place and plenty of good ones out there, but watch the sodium content.) This recipe has more steStrawberries & Sunflower Seedsps than most due to the strawberries and blending.

Nonetheless, it’s wicked easy. (My cousin is from Maine, home of Moxie, and I live in Boston. Hence my use of the word “wicked”; I feel I must justify its use.) All you need to do is blend 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, 10-15 strawberries (or so, depending on their size, about 1 cup), 1-2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, and a pinch or two of dried tarragon or thyme; fresh would be delightful. Season to taste with a hint of honey (agave or sugar works just fine), salt, and freshly ground pepper.

Salad Assembly. A good way to serve individual salad is to put the vinaigrette at the bottom of the bowl and then toss the greens to coat them evenly. Believe it or not, this actually often leads to less dressing on your salad – thus fewer calories consumed – than pouring it later. Next, place some greens on each plate and top with the strawberries (and cucumbers, if you are using them). Crumble the goat cheese on top and finish with a sprinkle of sunflower seeds. Generally speaking, you never want to mix greens and goat cheese together, as it will get messy and occasionally cause leaves to stick together and whatnot. Alternatively, you can plate everything in the same order (spinach-strawberries-goat cheese-sunflower seeds) and pass the dressing around in a lovely cruet. This method also allows people to behold the vibrant color of the vinaigrette, exclaiming “Ooooh!” and “Aaaaah!” as you blush and bathe in the compliments. (As well you should. Go you!)

Cook’s Notes

About the vinaigrette. Do not be fooled. Despite all the strawberries, this is not a sweet dressing. It’s a balsamic vinaigrette with a beautiful pink hue but it’s surprisingly savory given its olive oil and vinegar base. Start with the basic recipe, but alter accordingly to suit your own taste, as people like different proportions of sweetness and acid in their dressings. I found myself adding a bit more balsamic to increase the zing. (Too late to decrease the oil, which I’d do next time; you might consider this as well.) I also found myself wanting just a spot more strawberry flavor, so I dropped in a few more berries and included ~1/2 tsp strawberry balsamic vinegar, which it just so happened I had on hand.  It is not at all necessary, so don’t go out and buy it unless you feel like it. 

About the salad. I based my version of this salad on the original recipe given it’s the first time I made it. And, of course, its oh-so-alliterative title, which we all know I love. (Thanks for continuing to read despite my arguable overuse of alliteration.) It is quite a lovely salad indeed, and one that I’m pleased to add to my repertoire. Dinner party worthy, absolutely. That said, next time I prepare it I will likely make some adjustments to suit my own tastes and – in my view – boost the flavors. I’ll first substitute toasted nuts for the sunflower seeds. Almonds or pine nuts were my initial thought, but walnuts or pecans would work as well. Choose whichever you like, just remember to toast them as that’s what brings out their nuttiness. Toasting is key. Second, I would probably make (or buy) herb-encrusted goat cheese and cut in rounds, and use those to decorate the salad to uplift the herbaceous note given the tarragon in the dressing. (Gorgonzola would be a great substitution, too.) Third, although I love spinach and don’t feel the need to change it, especially for color contrast, adding arugula (aka rocket in the UK) would be a nice complement, or exchanging it altogether. Finally, I might consider adding a few raspberries, or swapping them completely. Lots of options to keep things interesting. Here’s my second take on this salad, which features three different berries and gorgonzola; it is sensational.

Is this post ever going to end?Yeah, I hear you, this got long. Shocking, I know. But I wanted to share these notes with you to tell you what actually happened the first time I made it. My hope is that my own real-life experiences will help guide you in your cooking journey, even if just a salad. Ultimately, the more you cook, the more creative you become, and the more fun it gets. This summer salad is a great starting place and the vinaigrette and seasonal berries are the stars. Once you’ve got those, the rest is up to you.

Happy Cooking!

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Dr. P.K. Newby is a nutrition scientist, speaker, and author with expertise in all things food, farm to fork, whether preventing obesity and other chronic diseases through diet or teaching planet-conscious eating. As a health expert and food personality, she brings together her passions for food, cooking, science, and sustainability to educate and inspire, helping people eat their way towards better health, one delectable bite at a time. Healthy Hedonism (TM) is her philosophy: Because healthy food shouldn’t suck.

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