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Warmer Days Bring on Lighter Fare

By Nani Steele

THERE’S NOTHING QUITE LIKE THE FIRST HINT OF SPRING to make a salad lover like me happy. Just about everywhere you look, nature’s vibrant colors are illuminating farmers markets and grocery stores with an abandon seemingly muffled in months past.

You might assume a salad is just a salad; but a really delicious one can tell a story. It also can set the stage for a lovely dinner, cleanse the palate after a rich meal, or when combined with a protein, be the meal itself. In fact, a salad is one of my favorite go-to meals. A large bowl of interesting lettuces tossed with a little extra virgin olive oil, a splash of lemon juice and a pinch of sea salt usually does the trick. Yet come springtime I rarely stop at that. I might add a sprinkling of nuts or seeds, tender snap peas or a little goat cheese with papaya and avocado. The beauty of a salad is that it can be simple or extravagant, offering many tastes on one plate.

From baby arugula to Japanese mizuna or Manoa lettuce, it’s hard to go wrong when putting together a salad in Paradise. It can be as uncomplicated as local greens with coins of cucumber and radish to something heartier made with red kale or amaranth, or simply a pile of young leaves and herbs, soft and petal-like, with just enough body to mound on the plate. Composed or tossed in a bowl, laden with fruits of land and sea, or piled with meat or cheese; in some cases, it can even be a dessert.

Long ago, in a now defunct Honolulu restaurant (where I worked for a stint), there was an impeccable Caesar (first created by Caesar Cardini of Tijuana, Mexico) that was tossed tableside in a large wooden bowl, with a fresh egg cracked on top, the runny yolk melding with the dressing and clinging to the leaves in just the right way. It was an ordeal, but a perfect one at that, and more than 20 years later I still hanker for it. Theatrics aside, that salad had everything going for it-crisp romaine leaves, freshly grated Parmesan cheese, garlicky croutons, and a rich, unctuous dressing with just the right ratio of salt, acid and fat.

About town, a chef from San Francisco’s Palace Hotel is credited with inventing the “Green Goddess,” while the Waldorf-penned after the namesake hotel in New York City-was inked after it was created for a society dinner.

And yet what about the Hawaiian Salad? It’s neither macaroni nor plate lunch fare, but rather seems to be an offshoot of the Ambrosia or Candle Salad, a garish fruit and mayo-laced concoction fashioned in the 1920s with pineapple as its star.

In my mind, a Hawaiian salad would exude a little more aloha, and tell a different story. It would make me think of the first time I swam in its warm waters, ate papaya with a squeeze of lime. It would remind me of watching over the shoulder of a local boy making poke with roasted kukui (candlenuts) and sea greens, and marveling at the complexity of tastes in that one single dish. Or planting lettuce seedlings in a home hyrdroponic farm off Pali Highway; a moment in the sun eating Kula strawberries, and the smooth, buttery pulp of ripe avocado with a sprinkling of sea salt. A Hawaiian salad would combine just the right mixture of things, and like the islands themselves evoke a fusion of tropical flavors, and the beauty and bounty of place.

Hawaiian Salad
With Ginger Lime Dressing

Serves 4

Use the tender, center leaves of Manoa or butter lettuce for best flavor, or make your own mix with locally grown baby lettuces, spinach and tatsoi. A grilled chicken breast or a handful of lime-poached shrimp would make a nice addition.

Dressing

1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
1-2 teaspoons honey
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/3 cup grapeseed or olive oil, or a blend of both
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Salad

5 cups Manoa or butter lettuce (About 2 small heads), torn
1/2 Maui onion, thinly sliced
1 small seedless cucumber, peeled and diced
1 large avocado, halved, pitted, peeled and diced
1 papaya, peeled, seeded and sliced
1/2-2/3 cup sliced hearts of palm
4 ounces fresh goat cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup macadamia nuts, lightly toasted and chopped

For the dressing, whisk together the mustard, ginger, honey, cilantro, lime juice and oil until well blended. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Arrange lettuces on four plates. Divide the onion, cucumber, avocado, papaya and goat cheese among each salad. Drizzle with the dressing and scatter with macadamia nuts.