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Value Guru Seeks Composure in a Salad

No matter what was else was on the table, my grandmother served an iceberg lettuce salad at every evening meal. As a sometimes visitor, it was one of those things I looked forward to as a familiar part of visiting my grandparents and I enjoyed helping to make the dressing. She had one of those glass carafes with the measurement lines on it for filling with oil and vinegar, and then you added the packet of dressing mix and shook it up. Thing was, if I had grown up with that-vs. being a visitor-I think I would have rebelled against being served the exact same salad and dressing every night! Now that I'm all grown up (relatively) with the responsibility of shopping and preparing meals, I rely on entrée salads about once a week for dinner. With warmer weather it happens even more often and I have figured out how to prevent my household from rebelling by changing up the ingredients and making every plate a work of art that one cannot resist eating. I'm talking about a composed salad, where one arranges a variety of ingredients in an attractive fashion on individual serving plates. Salad Niçoise is the classic composed salad, but no need to get stuck in that rut, either. This is another one of my (in)famous ways of using up bits and pieces of things, and also how I get to enjoy every new organic or local fresh vegetable as it comes into season or goes on sale. You can pick up a few special tiny potatoes, a single perfect zucchini or a handful of bright green beans and you're well on your way to a meal. Because a composed salad is all about featuring a little bit of several individual components for each uniquely wonderful flavor, here's the ideal opportunity to get a small amount of fantastic ingredients: a few ounces of wild Alaska salmon for poaching, a little piece of exceptional cheese, a few local eggs or the freshest, most tender fiddleheads. Then dig in your pantry or fridge for roasted red peppers, olives, canned tuna, anchovies. And maybe you've got a garden to dig into, too, perhaps for tomatoes. If they're still green, slice thick and grill or broil with salt and pepper…something my other grandmother taught me. The basic instructions are to steam your veggies and quickly chill them in ice water. Gather together whatever else you're going to use-small boiled potatoes and halved hard-boiled eggs are classic elements. And then arrange everything in small colorful heaps or rows on your prettiest big flat plates, with or without a bed of baby or torn greens. I like arugula, spinach, Boston or leaf lettuce. Each item need only be 2 or 3 bites worth. Drizzle with a simple vinaigrette and serve with crusty multi-grain bread. So that's how I keep my composure as I tackle salad boredom, warmer days and enjoying the best of fresh local and organic produce on a budget. My latest discovery is when I had no olives for the plates, I added olive tapenade to the vinaigrette and realized a minced sundried tomato or a spoonful of pesto would work the same way. What tricks do you have in your budget toolkit when it comes to salads?