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Sharpen up your salad skills

Summer is the perfect time to experiment with fresh vegetables and herbs

Pesto Cauliflower and Potato Salad. Illustrates VEGGIES (category d), by Joe Yonan (c) 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Monday, July 28, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey)

Pesto Cauliflower and Potato Salad. Illustrates VEGGIES (category d), by Joe Yonan (c) 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Monday, July 28, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey)

Salads aren’t just for summer, but summer is when they hit their stride. Seasonal vegetables overflow from your farmers market basket and herbs pop out of your container garden, demanding to be made into dressings. Summer’s pace – not to mention heat – compels you to cook quickly (if you cook at all).

Vegetarians who don’t have their salad making skills down would be wise to remedy the situation, because salads can showcase vegetables, grains and legumes like nothing else.

They can make use of ingredients that you’ve cooked or prepped days earlier; they can usually last for many more days in the refrigerator (particularly if you leave them undressed); they pack well for brown-bagging; and they are most often perfectly happy being served at room temperature.

That means they’re flexible, which means they’re invaluable.

For salad inspiration, I can think of few sources better than the new cookbook Salad Samurai, by Terry Hope Romero. Co-author of the mammoth Veganomicon, Romero brings her fun-loving sensibility and unerring palate to the table.

Her recipes, with their brilliant combinations (grilled kale and spicy lentils; hazelnuts, shiitakes and butternut squash), span the seasons, but the biggest chapter concentrates just where you would expect: on summer.

That’s where I found a new favorite salad: cauliflower and potatoes with a pesto dressing.

My definition of pesto includes cheese. Romero is a vegan, so hers doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean her pesto tastes like an omission. It tastes like a salad dressing, and a really good one at that.

Pesto Cauliflower and Potato Salad

8 ounces cauliflower (from half of a small cauliflower)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

8 ounces waxy yellow or white potatoes

1 cup fresh or frozen/defrosted green peas

11/2 cups lightly packed fresh basil leaves

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest and 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (from half a lemon)

3 cloves garlic

1/2 teaspoon sea salt, plus more as needed

1/4 cup chopped, toasted walnuts (see note)

Preheat a cast-iron grill pan over high heat.

Remove/discard the thick inner stem from the cauliflower; slice the cauliflower into 1-inch-thick slices. Use 1 tablespoon of the oil to coat them on both sides. Arrange the slices in a single layer in the pan.

Grill until charred on the outside and crisp-tender inside, 4 to 5 minutes, flipping the cauliflower halfway through.

Transfer the slices to a cutting board and chop into bite-size pieces, transferring them to a large mixing bowl as you work.

Peel and dice the potato into 1/2-inch pieces. Transfer them to a large saucepan, cover with 4 inches of cold water and bring to a rolling boil over high heat.

Reduce the heat to medium and cook the potatoes until almost tender, 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in the peas and cook another minute, until they are barely tender.

Reserve 1/4 cup of the cooking water, then drain the potatoes and peas and rinse with cold water. Transfer the vegetables to the bowl with the cauliflower.

Combine 2 tablespoons of the reserved cooking water, the remaining tablespoon of oil, the basil, vinegar, lemon zest and juice, garlic and salt in a food processor; puree until smooth. Add some of the remaining cooking water as needed. Taste; add salt, if desired.

Let the dressing sit for at least 10 minutes to allow the flavors to blend, then pour over the vegetables and toss to coat.

Divide the salad among plates or bowls and top with the walnuts. Serve right away.

Serves 4.

NOTE: Toast the nuts in a small, dry skillet over medium- low heat until fragrant and lightly browned, shaking the pan to avoid scorching. Cool completely before using.

EQUIPMENT: You’ll need a cast-iron grill pan.

Make Ahead: The salad can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.

Adapted from Terry Hope Romero’s “Salad Samurai”

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