When summertime's heat begins to drag you down, no main course does a better job of making you feel refreshed and lightened than a main course salad. A plateful of fresh greens and other vegetables, combined with some chilled protein and a flavorful dressing, can excite and satisfy you without sending you into a stupor. And, of course, it may also help you continue to look good in your bathing suit.
One of my favorite summer main course salads is a classic known as Crab Louie, which you'll also sometimes see spelled as Crab Louis. The difference in spellings is a tipoff to the fact that varying accounts exist of how this popular salad came to exist. Some trace it all the way back to the late-17th/early-18th-century court of French King Louis XIV, renowned for his patronage of the arts and his opulent lifestyle at the Palace of Versailles. Others credit the origin to more recent times, variously placing its birth in the early 20th century to restaurants, hotels, or clubs in San Francisco, Seattle, Spokane, or Portland -- all West Coast establishments with access to premium Pacific crabmeat.
After at least 100 and possibly more than 300 years, the salad's preparation has developed in many varied ways. There are constants, of course: the crabmeat, lettuce, tomato, and a so-called Louie dressing that's really a variation on mayonnaise-based Russian or Thousand Island dressing. Some versions may include hardboiled egg, or asparagus, chopped cucumber, or other vegetables.
Over time, I've developed my own favorite version. In place of the usual Romaine or iceberg lettuce, I like to use spears of Belgian endive that guests can use as scoops for the crabmeat mixture if you serve the salad as an appetizer; and mixed baby lettuces add more color and flavor to the presentation. I leave out the cooked egg, but add diced avocado for its own rich flavor and luxurious texture. In place of plain tomato, I make a relish-like chopped tomato salad. And rather than spooning prepared dressing from a bottle, I make my own simple version, which I also share with you here.
Try this salad for your own warm-weather lunch or, in smaller portions, as a starter for a casual summer party. Then, in the spirit of Crab Louie's ever-evolving nature, start coming up with your own variations -- including other vegetables, for example, or adding different kinds of cold cooked seafood to the mix.
CRAB LOUIE WITH HOMEMADE THOUSAND ISLAND DRESSING AND FRESH TOMATO RELISH
Serves 4 as a main course, 8 as an appetizer
FRESH TOMATO RELISH:
2 medium-sized sun-ripened organic tomatoes, halved, stemmed, seeded, and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 medium-sized red onion, finely diced
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
1/8 teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound jumbo lump crabmeat
6 tablespoons Thousand Island Dressing (recipe follows)