The weather has finally gotten warmer and my thoughts have turned from stews to salads.
So I was thrilled to judge a salad competition in my community. The opportunity gave me a chance to sample a number of creative plates and gave me a wealth of ideas to consider when creating my own summer salads.
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The contest, sponsored by food service provider Sodexho, challenged fourth and fifth grade students in Barrington Unit District 220 to create a healthy, kid-friendly salad. Around 90 students answered the call, submitting recipes that contained everything from shrimp to macadamia nuts, jicama to watermelon. Sixteen students were selected as finalists and asked to prepare their salads for a panel of judges on a recent Saturday morning.
The winning salad, composed by fourth grader Sanjiv Bhogaraji, contained crisp romaine, chunky cucumber, sweet mango, crunchy jicama and red onion topped with a flavorful dressing made of olive oil, lime juice and salt and pepper. The combination was colorful and most of all, tasty. Congratulations to Sanjiv, a true future chef!
As an inquisitive foodie I asked the students how they developed their recipe and a common theme emerged -- they all selected ingredients they liked to eat themselves. Some of them arrived at their competition submission by blending components they enjoyed from other recipes and others combined individual ingredients until they were happy with the outcome.
I left the competition with many new flavor combinations and felt reaffirmed that many of us "submit" new and unique recipes to finicky judges -- our families -- with great success every day.
I also left the competition thinking about one of my favorite salads, California Roll Salad. I first tried the salad during a Japanese-themed gathering of my Hungry Chef cooking club and it's been in my recipe rotation every since.
This salad tastes great and travels well, and, as usual, I've tweaked it over the years based on convenience and flavors my family likes.
The salad features everything you would find in a regular California roll: slightly sweet and sticky rice, cucumber, carrots, avocado, nori, ginger, soy and wasabi. That all gets tossed with crisp romaine lettuce into a cool and tasty way to experience sushi flavors without rolling it yourself or using chopsticks. I also like to add tamago, a Japanese omelet available prepared at Asian stores, but I have also made something very similar at home after finding recipes online.
Some members of my family like the salad with sushi grade tuna, which I frequently purchase at my favorite Asian store, Mitsuwa Marketplace in Arlington Heights. I dice the tuna and serve it on the side to be added to individual servings. Also note, fresh tuna should not be stored mixed with any leftover salad.
I like the salad with cooked shrimp, which I also serve on the side. You could add your family's favorite seafood.
Chopping all the vegetables takes a bit of time, but the effort is well worth it when you taste the final product.
I hope my California Roll Salad inspires you to explore your inner Future and Hungry Chef, too.
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the 2011 Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge.