Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Layered Black Bean & Corn Salad with Cilantro-Citrus Dressing

There are a variety of potential influencers when it comes to deciding what I might make for dinner. Certainly if I'm cooking for others, then I think of them... what they might like. Sometimes it's a factor of how much energy or time I have. And many days it's simply just a function of what's in the fridge or pantry.

And then... it can be... something entirely random... like the meticulous, artistic, creative abilities of a produce manager I don't even know. I wasn't even at on airy, outdoor farmers market dotted with rough-hewed, whimsical wooden stands billowing with ripe, colorful produce plucked from the soil just hours before. Nope, this display of work was at a brick and mortar market... a supermarket.

This particular market just opened in our neighborhood. Though relatively large and well-stocked, as most supermarkets go, it's kind of a little oasis of a setting. It's managed to present its largess in an aesthetically beautiful manner in what many in this region of the country might define as rustic-modern Northwest architecture. When you approach it doors you are first greeted by a large outdoor patio sprinkled with tables, chairs, and a lounge-y sofa setting area all tucked under a roof canopy and dotted with heaters to keep you cozy against our oft times cool, damp weather. It's an area where you can sit for a bit... enjoy a morning coffee, some lunch fare from the market... or even dinner. The patio is nestled between the market's main door and its floral department... an exquisitely merchandised, European-inspired, stand-alone shop with bountiful bouquets of fresh-cut flowers colorfully spilling out onto the sidewalk and gracefully framing its doors. I kind of feel like I'm on a mini vacation when I visit this place... not at all what you'd expect when your expectation was simply a quick journey for bread and milk.

Whoever planned this market's logistical layout should get special kudos as there is but one way in... through this one set of doors that pretty much guarantees you take note of the inviting patio and bountiful florals as you enter. And yet, while I've gone on and on about this uniquely brilliant welcome, it is what first greets you upon entry into the actual market that is the real piéce de résistance... the produce department.

Yep... it's vegetables, herbs, fruits... what you'd pretty much expect. And yet, it is so beautifully arranged that you immediately think who is the little leprechaun that produced this magic? There are all the regulars you'd expect yet they are brilliantly positioned, color-blocked and nestled like an intricate mosaic wall... heady colors of cauliflower in white, purple and orange boldly stacked next to vibrant, green leafy lettuce, positioned with its leaves flowered out and partnered against heads of romaine that have been tucked with their bulbous, white-tinged ends facing out to provide a perfect contrast of hue and texture. It's nothing short of an incredibly thoughtful, artistic display of produce.

And... it was this particular display that got me to thinking about this salad. It's really just a play on a bean and corn salad that I've made before but thought would look quite lovely stacked in a clear vessel with each colorful layer defined... engaging in its bit of precision... a little like the magical land of produce I witnessed. There's a kaleidoscope of ingredients... romaine, peppers, olives, corn, black beans, avocado, cilantro... that play wonderfully together with a drizzle of cilantro-citrus dressing. Depending on what's in your fridge (or at your market), the layers can be few or many. Add cheese, marinated artichokes, fresh tomatoes, the last of summer's bounty. Apart from great, fresh flavor, it's a satisfying little salad that allows for a much welcomed element of artistic expression.

Layered Black Bean and Corn Salad with Cilantro-Citrus Dressing
makes 4 generous servings

My visit was to our local Zupan's market. Though I've found all locations nice, the produce department at Zupan's Lake Grove location is particularly eye-catching and well worth the visit. When layering this salad, I found that beginning with the soft layer of chopped lettuce provides a good base, followed by most of the ingredients that are most plentiful. Once you get to the onions, olives, and such, the measurements don't really allow for a full layered affect, so you achieve the layer by simply rimming the inside of the vessel with the ingredient, carefully stacking them atop one another. These last layers will result in a bowled out area at the top of the salad that you simply fill with the remaining lettuce held aside.

4 to 5 cups chopped romaine lettuce, divided
2 cans black beans, rinsed and drained
2 ears cooked corn kernels
3/4 cup diced red pepper
3/4 cup diced green pepper
1/2 cup diced red onion*
1 avocado, diced
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1/4 cup fresh squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons fresh squeezed orange juice
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
3  tablespoons honey
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste

In a large glass vessel with straight sides (I used a large, round flower vase), layer salad ingredients beginning with 4 cups of chopped romaine, followed by black beans, red pepper, corn, and green pepper. Then begin arranging remaining ingredients, except cilantro, by rimming the inside of the vessel to achieve the layered look. Fill void at top with remaining cup of lettuce mixed with cilantro.

To make dressing, combine lime juice, orange juice, cilantro and honey in base of food processor or blender and pulse until just combined (you could also whisk these ingredients, if preferred, but I wanted to break down the cilantro). Transfer mixture to a bowl, whisk in olive oil until well combined. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Dress salad, to taste.

Note: Honestly, the beauty of this salad is worth its presentation but it's not easy to dress and mix as presented. I placed the layered salad on the table and, when ready to serve, transferred it to a large bowl to dress and mix, then returned it to the glass dish. It might also be fun to consider individual servings that could be popped into bowls by guests and individually dressed with their own serving of dressing.

* to mellow the onions' flavor a bit, place onion in a bowl and cover with cold water; let stand for approximately 10 minutes. Drain and rinse, before using.

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