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Serious salads meant to be centerpiece of meal

"Salad as a meal" sounds like a menu for models, a repast only those struggling toward size O could love.

But veteran cookbook author Patricia Wells, a former restaurant critic who runs a cooking school in France, wants salads reconsidered. Instead of pale diet plates made primarily of wispy greenery, their very lack of substance their chief selling point, Wells wants you to think of salads as a dinner-table centerpiece.

Toward that end, Wells has crafted a guide to serious salads -- every detail considered and handcrafted for maximum satisfaction.

However, if your salad desires are ably met by bottled vinaigrette and field mix from a bag, "Salad as a Meal" will probably come off as culinary overkill, like swatting a fly with a howitzer.

If you would like to construct the sort of salads you can proudly serve guests as the star of a summer dinner party, this book will guide your hands. Dressings are just the beginning; Wells adds flavors by having you make your own polenta croutons, flavored salts and fig chutney, plus a host of breads to go with your salads.

Veal, lamb, beef and oxtail all provide foundations for these hearty salads. Wells explains how to cure your own beef for Carne Salada, and smoke chicken breast and mackerel for other salads.

After her own versions of classics like Caesar Salad, Salade Nicoise and Frisee aux Lardons -- that's curly endive with hunks of bacon and a poached egg -- Wells adds some meals of her own design.

There are towers of eggplant, tomatoes, goat cheese and tapenade; thickets of asparagus, peas, beans and fennel; and an eclectic assemblage of figs, sheep cheese, pomegranate seeds, arugula and kumquats.

There's no denying that many of Wells' recipes tend toward the extravagant, even for confident cooks. Wells' Salmon and Halibut Tartare with Fennel, Chives, Avocado and Pistachio Oil looks like it would stun sophisticated diners. It should, after you manage to gather sushi-grade salmon and halibut, and top-quality pistachio oil.

Even one of the simplest salads here, Penne Salad with Tuna and Spicy Mustard, a sort of tuna-mac, comes with a pedigree. Wells calls for only four ingredients, but she would prefer you use coarse sea salt, jarred best-quality tuna packed in oil, and French Espelette pepper mustard.

"Salad as a Meal" takes salads seriously. Even if its ingredients aren't well within reach, it can provide a full helping of inspiration.



>Salad as a Meal: Healthy Main-Dish Salads for Every Season

By Patricia Wells

William Morrow

360 pages, $35

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