How to build a picture-perfect trifle salad

Built on a layer of savory cornbread, the summer trifle salad is made with shredded romaine lettuce, sweet corn, mini peppers, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes. (Tribune News Service)

Trifles are terrific. They don’t require hard-to-find ingredients and draw lots of accolades for barely any work. They look the part whether it’s a laid-back family get-together or a soiree on the patio decked with string lights.

We are not just talking about the sweet British import with layers of boozy spongy cake, jelly, fruits and custard. There also is the savory trifle, which has more oomph than a mere layered salad of lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream and grated cheddar cheese. The bread at the bottom makes the salad a lot more heartier, too.

A mixed veggie trifle is more about construction than cooking. It will embrace just about any type of raw vegetable, sliced, diced or grated and assembled in a clear glass bowl over a layer of bread and drizzled with a delicious dressing.

The bread is the Atlas of the trifle, shouldering the multiple layers above it. It can be homemade croutons tossed in butter or flavored with garlic and herbs. Or you can tear flatbreads like focaccia, naan or pita into pieces to cover the bottom of the bowl. My favorite is a Southern-style cornbread made with yellow cornmeal and eggs. It can have a wee bit of sugar or be studded with jalapeños for a more punchy note.

There is no set formula for the vegetables, but it’s good to have a range of colors and textures. Any sort of greens will work, but I prefer something crisp like shredded romaine or iceberg or peppery baby arugula.

To make an elegant and pretty trifle, layer the greens with kernels from freshly boiled corn; thinly sliced radishes and cucumbers; pitted olives; juicy cherry tomatoes; and red, yellow and orange peppers. Mix in herbs like cilantro, dill or basil, and no one will call it boring.

For protein, add halved hard-boiled eggs, pancetta cubes, sliced salami or cooked bacon strips between vegetable layers. But if you want to continue on a vegetarian route, use canned pinto, garbanzo or black beans that are drained, rinsed and tossed gently with salt and ground cumin. You also could add a layer of crumbled feta or goat cheese or cubes of mozzarella or grated cheddar or Monterey Jack if you are a cheese fanatic.

A vegetable trifle without dressing would be like a fruit trifle without custard. It’s just not right. Unlike custard, the dressing should not be thick and sit on the top or even between the layers. Instead, it should be slightly runny so it can dribble down through the layers to the bread at the bottom. Herb-laden green dressings are wonderful, and so are the orangish ones that get their kick from paprika or Sriracha. But creamy white or colorless olive oil-lemon juice dressings are fine, too.

So pull out that glass bowl, add layers of bread and vegetables, and drizzle the dressing on top or serve it on the side. Now wait for the applause as you have the ta-da moment.

DRESS IT UP

A few dressing suggestions that take under 10 minutes to make:

Buttermilk dressing: Whisk together 3/4 cup buttermilk, 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, 3 tablespoons mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon hot sauce, 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon onion powder and 1 tablespoon fresh chopped chives. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Chipotle cream sauce: In a blender, combine 4 or 5 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (from a 7-ounce can), 1/4 cup whole milk, 1 teaspoon ground cumin and 1/2 teaspoon paprika. Blend until the peppers are puréed. Add 1 tablespoon and 2-plus teaspoons fresh lemon juice, 2 cups sour cream, and salt to taste, and blend until smooth.

Garlic mayo dressing: Smash 3 garlic cloves with a knife, and finely mince them. Transfer to a bowl, and whisk together with 1/3 cup mayonnaise and 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice. Slowly add 1/4 cup olive oil and 1/4 cup canola oil, and whisk again. Add 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese, and combine. Season with salt.

Balsamic vinaigrette: Whisk together 1/2 cup avocado oil or any other neutral oil, 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning, 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, and 1 teaspoon garlic powder. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Basil-dill cream sauce: Add 1 cup chopped basil leaves and 1/4 cup chopped dill to a blender. Add 1/3 cup yogurt, 1/4 cup mayonnaise, 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice, 1/4 cup olive oil, 2 teaspoons ground white pepper and 1 smashed garlic. Add salt to taste, and blend until smooth.

SUMMER TRIFLE SALAD

This salad looks dramatic when served in a trifle or large clear glass bowl. If some of the produce are from your garden, you have one more reason to brag. The salad can be assembled the night before. Just cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Servings: 6-8

Savory cornbread (recipe follows)

1 small red onion

1/2 teaspoon sugar

4 cups packed shredded romaine lettuce, divided

2 1/2 cups boiled corn kernels

3 cups mini peppers, deseeded and sliced into coins

4 mini cucumbers, sliced into coins

16 ounces cherry tomatoes

Dice the red onion into small cubes. Dissolve the sugar in a bowl of cold water. Add onion, making sure the cubes are covered with water. Let them sit for 15 minutes. Drain the water, place diced onions on paper towels and pat them dry. Set them aside.

In a trifle or glass bowl, place the cornbread wedges in a single layer, cutting pieces to fill the gaps.

Top with 1 cup of the shredded romaine lettuce.

Evenly spread the corn kernels on top of the lettuce, followed by a layer of the diced onion.

Top with another cup of shredded lettuce.

Arrange the sliced pepper along the side of the bowl, alternating colors, and spread the rest evenly on top of the lettuce.

Add the third cup of shredded lettuce on top of the peppers.

Arrange cucumber slices along the side of the bowl, and spread the rest evenly on top of the lettuce.

Add the last cup of shredded lettuce on top of the cucumbers, and lightly press down,

Arrange cherry tomatoes on top of the lettuce as the final layer.

Serve with your desired dressing.

SAVORY CORNBREAD

The question whether cornbread should be sweet or savory often leads to spirited discussions. But for a trifle salad, the savory version is the definite choice.

1/3 cup canola oil, plus some for greasing

1 cup yellow cornmeal

1 (14.75-ounce) can cream-style corn

1/4 cup pickled jalapeños, diced

2 tablespoons minced shallot

1 teaspoon garlic salt

3 eggs, lightly beaten

1/3 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

1 1/4 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese, divided

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a deep pie dish with oil.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, corn, jalapeños, shallot and garlic salt.

Add the oil, eggs and cilantro, and whisk again until fully combined. Add 1/2 cup of the cheese, and gently stir.

Pour into the prepared pan, and top with remaining cheese. Bake for 33-40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center shows moist crumbs.

Let the cornbread cool and then slice it into wedges.

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