A Trio of Refreshing Salads: Pasta; Cucumber & Fennel; Lentil

I had a cucumber fennel salad at our friends Astrid and Roger's house and it was a revelation in simplicity.  Light, refreshing and very cooling on a hot summer night.  It made me think about simplifying my cooking.  Not so much taking short cuts but using less ingredients and finding ways to maximize those ingredients.  The Holy Trinity, a Mire Poix, three or four essential aromatics that boost any dish; carrots, onions and celery or bell peppers.  With this in mind I decide to make a basic and healthy pasta salad; cucumber, fennel, fennel fronds and onion; lentils with sautéed carrots, onions and celery, paired with toasted pumpkin seeds and a Dijon vinaigrette.  The recipes are easier than you think and can all be constructed in less than two hours time, feeding you for several days.

The pasta salad is a stripped down summer version of macaroni salad - without the fattening mayonnaise,  trading out boring white pasta for whole wheat and adding more veggies and a non-fat dressing.   No recipe really needed here - I used whole wheat rotini pasta, diced carrots, celery and bell peppers; chopped pitted oil cured olives, a sprinkling of dried Italian Herbs and a good bottle of non-fat or light balsamic or Italian salad dressing.  It's a variation of so many pasta salads I've made in the past.  For the other two salads, here are the recipes:

Cucumber and Fennel Salad Ingredients:

  • 1 Large Cucumber - Peeled in strips, cut in half & seeded and cut into small dice
  • 1 Small/Medium Fennel Bulb with Fronds - cored and cut into small dice, 1/4 fronds reserved for garnish (if the fronds are not attached, substitute 1 Tablespoon Dried Dill)
  • 1/2 White Onion (about 1/2 cup) - cut into thin, half moon slices
  • 2 Tablespoons White Wine Vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar or Apple Cider Vinegar
  • 1/2 Tablespoon Kosher Salt
  • 1 Teaspoon Freshly Ground Black Pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons Light Olive Oil
  1. Clean and prepare the cucumber and fennel.  Peel the cucumber, leaving some peel on the cuc for color. Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Dice the seeded cucumber into 1/4 inch diced pieces.  Place the diced cucumber in a mixing bowl and set aside.
  2. Core the root from the fennel bulb and cut the bulb into 1/4 inch pieces - roughly diced.  Place the diced fennel in the bowl with the cucumber.  
  3. Roughly chop the fennel fronds and add to the diced cucumber and fennel
  4. Slice the white onion into thin half moon slices and add to the cucumber/fennel
  5. Pour the white wine and rice or cider vinegars over the cucumber/fennel.  Season with the kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Let this sit for about 5 to 10 minutes, then drizzle over the olive oil and toss to combine thoroughly.  Refrigerate and serve chilled.  Taste and adjust seasonings as needed with salt, pepper, vinegar or olive oil.  Makes 6 servings.

Lentil Salad with Toasted Pumpkin Seeds in a Dijon Vinaigrette Ingredients:
  • 1 Cup Dried Lentils - picked over and rinsed
  • 2 Medium Carrots - Peeled, Rinsed and cut into small dice
  • 1/2 Medium Red Onion - cut into small dice
  • 2 Medium Celery Stalks - cut into small dice
  • 1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
  • 1/2 Cup Toasted Pumpkin Seeds (or you can substitute Walnuts)
For Vinaigrette:
  • 1/4 Cup White Wine Vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon Apple Cider or Rice Vinegar
  • 2 Tablespoons Prepared Dijon Mustard
  • 1 Teaspoon Kosher Salt
  • 1 Teaspoon Freshly Ground Black Pepper
  • 1/3 Cup Olive Oil
  1. Pick over and rinse the lentils.  Place them into a pot and cover with 2 inches of cold water. Bring the water to a boil and then reduce to a simmer.  Cook, keeping the lentils at a bare simmer and frequently taste the lentils until they are tender to the tooth but not mushy.  This could take 15-20 minutes, depending on the freshness of the dried lentils.  Immediately drain the lentils in a fine mess strainer and rinse under cold water; set the lentils aside in a mixing bowl.
  2. Heat the tablespoon of olive oil in a non-stick saute pan over medium high heat.  When the oil is shimmering, sauté the carrots, celery and onions until the onions and celery is translucent and the carrots are slightly tender, about 6 minutes.  Allow the mixture to cool and then add to the cooked lentils.
  3. Toast the pumpkin seeds - it's easiest to do so in a microwave, on a microwave safe dish, in 30 second increments up to a minute and a half.  Allow the seeds to cool and then add them to the lentil and sautéed vegetables. 
  4. Meanwhile, whisk together the vinaigrette, combining the vinegars, Dijon Mustard, salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Slowly drizzle in the olive oil until the mixture is emulsified.  Taste and adjust the seasonings as needed.  The dressing should be tart but not too acidic.  Pour the dressing over the lentil/vegetable mixture, refrigerate and serve well-chilled.  Makes 6 to 8 servings.  


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