Not too many years ago, the word salad had only one definition: chunks of the ubiquitous iceberg lettuce, a few slices of tomato and a radish or two, all weighed down with a generous glop of creamy salad dressing; "gourmet" salads included a few slices of cucumber. Thankfully, times have changed. Today, a tremendous variety of salad greens are available and by themselves provide many tastes and textures — bitter, sweet, minty, spicy, peppery, delicate or earthy.

Nowadays, when we talk about salads, it's all about freshness and health benefits. Straight from the garden (or your natural foods store), salads can be low in fat and calories, rich with vitamins and minerals, and high in dietary fiber.

As for care, salad greens should always be handled gently because they bruise easily. Discard the outside leaves that look thick or leathery, and gently tear or cut leaves that are too large to eat whole. To wash greens, plunge them into a large basin of cold water, gently swishing with your hands. If they are very dirty, soaking them for a few minutes is helpful. Greens such as spinach or escarole may need to be rinsed a second time to make sure all the fine sand and dirt is removed.

If a salad isn't dried well, you'll water down the delicate vinaigrette and lose its flavor. A salad spinner is one way to dry greens; or simply dry the lettuce between two towels or swing it outdoors in a perforated bag. Drying greens is also necessary if you plan to store them, as it will prevent spoilage. Store greens loosely in a plastic bag in the refrigerator; placing a damp kitchen towel in the bag will help maintain moisture.

Although most people are used to salads as first courses or appetizers, summer is the perfect time to experiment with main-course salads. Putting a scrumptious, healthful, green-leafed dinner on your table can be as easy as tearing, chopping and mixing — but you may find that the following recipes inspire you to take salads to a new level.

Provencal Potato & Shrimp Salad

Serves 6

Just tossing this salad rewards you with pleasure. A kaleidoscope of flavors, from delicate to assertive and peppery to tangy, makes it a great summer lunch or light dinner.

Prep time: 25 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes

1 pound thin-skinned potatoes (about 3 medium)
1/2 pound green beans, ends removed and cut into 1-inch pieces
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 pound medium shrimp
1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1. Cook potatoes in a medium-size saucepan until softened, about 20-25 minutes. If you prefer the green beans to have a softer cooked texture or if they are larger in size, add them to the pan the last 3 minutes of cooking. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and the lemon juice to a large skillet and sauté the shrimp, about 5 minutes, or until they turn pink.

2. Add the vinegar, mustard, shallots, salt and pepper to a blender or food processor. Blend, slowly pouring in the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil until smooth.

3. Cut cooled potatoes into bite-size pieces and add to a large salad bowl along with the green beans, tomatoes and parsley (or basil), drained shrimp and salad greens. Add salad dressing and toss lightly. Add additional salt and ground pepper if desired.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:

Calories: 234

Fat: 8g

% fat calories: 32

Cholesterol: 115mg

Carbohydrate: 22g 

Protein: 18g

Basic Herb Vinaigrette

Today's salads, made with more delicate greens, do not stand up to heavy, creamy salad dressings. Experiment with a variety of vinegars and herbs to make your own signature vinaigrette. Save your best-quality extra-virgin olive oil for salad dressings where its flavor will stand out. Lesser-quality olive oil can be used for cooking.

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 heaping teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon minced fresh herbs (a combination of thyme, lemon thyme, marjoram, basil, savory and/or parsley)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Generous grinding fresh black pepper

1. Combine the vinegar, garlic, lemon juice, lemon zest (if using), herbs and salt in a medium-size bowl.** Let stand for 10 minutes. Whisk in the oil, adding it in a slow, steady stream. Season with pepper to taste. To test the flavor, dip a lettuce leaf into it, taste and adjust accordingly.

** Most professional cooks will make a vinaigrette in a bowl using a whisk, but for those of us who have less time, making it in the blender or food processor is entirely acceptable. You can also put everything in a jar with a lid and shake until it's quickly blended. Shake again before serving if it separates.

Warm Spinach & Basil Salad

Serves 6

With a great loaf of bread, this full-flavored salad makes a meal in itself — or serve it with a bowl of fresh tomato soup.

Prep time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 4 minutes

6 heaping cups fresh spinach leaves (a small bunch)
1 heaping cup fresh chopped basil
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup pine nuts
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt and a generous grinding of fresh black pepper to taste
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Wash and dry the spinach thoroughly. Tear apart the spinach leaves and toss together in a large salad bowl with the chopped basil.

2. Over medium heat, warm the oil in a small skillet. Add the pine nuts and sauté 3-4 minutes until the nuts begin to brown slightly. Add the garlic when nuts are almost finished. Add vinegar and lemon juice just to warm through. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper.

3. Toss the spinach and basil with desired amount of the warm dressing. Sprinkle with freshly-grated Parmesan and serve immediately.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:

Calories: 93

Fat: 7g 

% fat calories: 64

Cholesterol: 5mg

Carbohydrate: 4g

Protein: 5g

Bitter Greens, Pear & Gorgonzola Salad

Serves 6

This salad combination, often served in finer restaurants, is ambrosia of the gods. And it's easy to make in your own kitchen. The blue cheese may crumble more easily if you place it in the freezer for a few minutes.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 5 minutes

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons orange juice
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/8 teaspoon salt
Generous grinding black pepper
5 ounces mesclun salad greens
2 ounces torn red leaf or butter lettuce
1/3 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
2 medium pears, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 ounces crumbled Gorgonzola or other blue cheese

1. Add the olive oil, orange juice, vinegar, salt and pepper to a blender and blend. Wash and dry the greens and lettuce. Toss desired amount of dressing with the greens and lettuce in a large salad bowl.

2. In a small saucepan on low heat, dry-roast the walnuts, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. (You can also add them raw.) Add pear, crumbled blue cheese and walnuts to the salad. Serve immediately.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:

Calories: 181

Fat: 14g 

% fat calories: 64

Cholesterol: 13mg

Carbohydrate: 11g 

Protein: 5g

Arugula and White Bean Salad With Rosemary Dressing

Serves 6

This nutritious combination will satisfy without weighing you down. Rosemary, a Mediterranean native whose Latin name means "dew of the sea," is perfect to unite the flavors of this robust salad.

Prep time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes

2 cups dried white northern beans, soaked in water overnight (or 2 cans organic white beans)
2 cloves garlic
1 3-inch stem of rosemary (leaves removed), or 3/4 teaspoon dried
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/3 cup olive oil
1 bunch arugula, washed, stems removed, and chopped fine
3-4 Roma tomatoes, finely diced
1/4 cup chopped kalamata olives

1. Drain and cook beans in simmering water until tender, about 40 minutes. (Beans have better flavor if you add 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and garlic powder or a spoonful of miso and a sprig of marjoram the last 15 minutes of cooking.) You can also use precooked, organic canned beans.

2. In a blender or food processor, add the garlic, rosemary, vinegars, salt and pepper. Blend while slowly adding the olive oil.

3. Add the beans, arugula, tomatoes and olives to a large salad bowl. Pour desired amount of the dressing over and mix and combine. Serve at room temperature.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:

Calories: 294

Fat: 9g

% fat calories: 26 

Cholesterol: 0mg

Carbohydrate: 42g

Protein: 14g

Quinoa & Pecan Salad with Dried Cranberries

Serves 10

This hearty salad has a zesty combination of textures and contrasting flavors. Plus, it's loaded with fiber and nutrients.

Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 25-30 minutes

3 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups quinoa
1 bunch green onions, finely sliced
1/2 cup dried cranberries, diced
1/3 cup cilantro, finely chopped
3/4 cup celery, finely diced
3/4 cup coarsely chopped pecans
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1/2 tablespoon sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper

1. Bring water to a boil. Add quinoa; stir, cover, and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until quinoa is soft and water is absorbed — about 25-30 minutes.

2. Add green onions, dried cranberries, cilantro and celery to a large salad bowl. Toast the pecans in a small skillet and add to the salad bowl (optional). Add the olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, sesame oil, salt and peppers to the bowl. Stir to mix.

3. Stir in the quinoa when it has cooked and cooled slightly. Set aside for an hour if possible to allow flavors to marry; serve at room temperature.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:

Calories: 197

Fat: 9g 

% fat calories: 42

Cholesterol: 0mg

Carbohydrate: 25g

Protein: 4g

Patti Bess is a freelance writer and avid gardener from Grass Valley, Calif. Her articles have appeared in Country Journal, Fit, Weight Watchers and Better Homes and Gardens. She is the author of Vegetarian Barbecue (NTC Contemporary Publishing).

Photography by Rita Maas