Celebrate the close of summer with a Labor Day picnic

August 31, 2018

If Memorial Day is the unofficial opener for summer, then Labor Day is the grand goodbye. Well, sort of. There are plenty of reasons that the essence of summer eating outdoors continues as we slip into the rhythms of fall (more picnics, hikes, Oktoberfest, apple harvest and football games come immediately to mind).

So no need to pack away the proverbial picnic basket yet as we gather around an outdoor table for an array of updated favorites, to keep the cook and the diner, too! happy. (You can only make the same dish so many times before the cook cries uncle.)

Consider these variations on the traditional standby salads, all very portable. Author and Food Network host Amy Thielen of Two Inlets, Minn., puts her own spin on the classic make-ahead Seven-Layer Salad, with a twist using (Spanish) Basque and Russian flavors. Think potatoes, carrots, beets, hard-cooked eggs and tuna (though the frozen peas and mayo keep it familiar).

Or elevate the familiar cabbage slaw with a vinaigrette spiked with serrano chile and fragrant with cilantro, mint and lime. Definitely not so predictable when it comes from the kitchen of chef/owner Alex Roberts (Brasa, Alma and Cafe Alma of Minneapolis and St. Paul), as this one does.

Then again, the quintessential Minnesota combo with wild rice makes a comeback with chef/owner Brenda Langton (Spoonriver of Minneapolis) as she tosses the state grain with sweet corn, dried cranberries and smoked trout.

Whatever your weekend plans, keep these salad variations at your fingertips for autumns upcoming revelries. The potluck season has only begun.

Seven-Layer Russian Salad

Serves 8 to 10.

Note: This lovely variation on the classic recipe, best served in a glass bowl, can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. From The New Midwestern Table, by Amy Thielen.

2 medium (10 oz.) unpeeled beets

Fine sea salt

2 small (8 oz.) Yukon Gold potatoes

2 large carrots, halved

8 eggs

1 1/2 c. frozen peas

2 c. good-quality mayonnaise (Kraft Homestyle or Hellmanns are especially good, or make your own)

2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

6 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

2 (5-oz.) cans tuna packed in olive oil

3 tbsp. red wine vinegar, divided

Sweet paprika, for garnish

Chopped fresh parsley for garnish


To prepare beets: Put the beets in a saucepan and add water to cover by a couple of inches. Generously salt the water and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Partially cover and simmer until the beets are tender, about 45 minutes, depending on size. Drain, and when cool enough to handle, twist them one by one in a paper towel to rub off the skin.

To prepare potatoes and carrots: Fill another saucepan with water and add the potatoes. Season with salt, bring to a simmer over medium heat, and cook just until easily pierced, about 25 minutes. Lift out potatoes with slotted spoon. Add carrots to hot water and simmer until theyre just tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove carrots.

To hardcook eggs: Add 8 whole eggs to the water and simmer for 3 minutes. Remove pan from heat and let them sit in the water for 10 minutes. Drain, crack eggshells and cover again with cold water. Peel eggs underwater.

To prepare peas: Place peas in a bowl and let thaw.

To prepare mayo: Whisk together mayo with lemon juice, olive oil and a hefty pinch each of salt and pepper. Set aside.

To assemble salad: Drain off any excess oil from the tuna, put in small bowl and mix with 3 tablespoons the mayo and a good pinch of black pepper. Arrange tuna in bottom of glass bowl.

Peel potatoes and cut into very small dice. Dice carrots the same size, and combine both in a bowl. Add 6 tablespoons mayo, 1 tablespoon vinegar, and plenty of salt and pepper to taste, and mix together. Smooth carrot and potato mixture over the tuna.

Mix peas with 3 tablespoons mayo and season with salt and pepper to taste. Smooth peas over the potato mixture.

Slice beets thinly and lay them out on a plate. Season well with salt and pepper, and drizzle with remaining 2 tablespoons vinegar. Arrange beets in overlapping concentric layers over the peas.

Roughly chop eggs and mix with 6 tablespoons mayo and salt and pepper to taste. Arrange the egg salad over the beets.

Thickly dust top of salad with sweet paprika and sprinkle with parsley before serving. (There will be leftover mayo to use for something else.)

Cabbage Salad With Spicy Lime Vinaigrette

Serves 6.

Note: To toast sesame seeds, warm them in a dry saucepan over low heat for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, until they lightly brown and become fragrant. Adapted from a recipe by chef/owner Alex Roberts (Brasa, Alma and Cafe Alma in the Twin Cities). From Come One, Come All: Easy Entertaining With Seasonal Menus, by Lee Svitak Dean.

1 tbsp. coarsely chopped shallots or onion

1/4 c. fresh lime juice (about 2 limes)

1 tsp. sugar

1/2 tsp. salt

1 serrano chile, seeded and coarsely chopped, if desired

1/3 c. grapeseed oil (or other neutral oil)

1/3 c. sour cream, at room temperature

1/2 head green cabbage (or a 10-oz. bag of finely shredded cabbage)

1/4 c. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1/4 c. chopped fresh cilantro leaves

1/4 c. chopped fresh mint leaves

Salt and freshly cracked pepper

Sesame seeds, toasted (see Note)


To make vinaigrette: Mix shallots with lime juice, sugar and salt. Let stand for 10 to 15 minutes. In a blender, pure shallot mixture with chile, oil and sour cream until smooth; set aside.

To prepare cabbage: Using a mandoline or grater, shred cabbage as finely as possible (unless using bagged shredded cabbage).

In a bowl, toss cabbage with parsley, cilantro and mint. Add about 1/2 cup vinaigrette, or to taste, and toss. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add more vinaigrette, if desired. Garnish with sesame seeds. (There will be extra vinaigrette leftover that can be used with something else.)

Wild Rice, Vegetable and Smoked Trout Salad

Serves 6 (as main course).

Note: Sweet corn and smoked trout give this a nice twist. From The Spoonriver Cookbook, by Brenda Langton and Margaret Stuart.

1 c. uncooked wild rice


1/2 c. diced red onion

1 rib celery, diced (1/2 c.)

3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1 c. sweet corn, fresh or frozen

1/4 c. dried cranberries

2 tbsp. white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar

2 tsp. soy sauce

Freshly cracked pepper to taste


9 to 12 oz. smoked trout, deboned and broken into medium-size pieces

Toasted pecans, nectarines or berries for garnish, if desired


Cook wild rice according to package directions, or as follows: Wash 1 cup wild rice in a colander and place in a covered saucepan with 1 teaspoon salt and 3 cups water. Bring water to a boil; turn down heat and let rice simmer for 20 to 50 minutes, until tender, depending on variety of wild rice. Lake rice is generally 20 minutes, paddy rice is close to an hour.

Saut onions and celery in 1 tablespoon olive oil for a few minutes, then add corn and cook a few more minutes until vegetables are tender. Mix wild rice, sauted vegetables and dried cranberries in a bowl.

In a small bowl, combine remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, soy sauce and pepper; stir well. Gently fold dressing into the salad.

Put lettuce leaves on a platter or individual plates. Spoon salad onto lettuce and arrange trout and any optional garnishes (toasted pecans, nectarines or berries) on top of salad.

Jicama Cilantro Slaw

Serves 6.

Note: The English cucumber is seedless, which makes it a good fit for this salad. No need to peel it; the green will add some nice color.

1 large jicama

1 English cucumber (see Note)

A few radishes, optional

Juice of 2 limes

1/2 c. chopped fresh cilantro, plus additional for serving

1/2 tsp. salt

Pinch of cayenne pepper


Peel jicama and cut first into thin slices, then into matchsticks. Cut cucumber into matchsticks, and do the same with the radishes, if using.

Combine vegetables and toss with lime juice, cilantro and salt. Cover and let marinate several hours in the refrigerator, or overnight.

Before serving, add pinch of cayenne pepper and some fresh chopped cilantro. Check seasoning; add more lime juice if you prefer.

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