July 18, 2012
Florida Today
By Maria Sonnenberg


 Alex Litras and his wife, Pam, operate Cafe Margaux in Cocoa Village. She is holding the Margaux Chicken Sunflower Salad. / Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY


Pam Litras of Café Margaux looks at a salad plate the way an artist considers a canvas: an opportunity to emotionally move the viewer. Litras has one up on other artists, however, for in addition to the visual impression that her well-crafted salads can make, she has the additional advantage of wowing with taste.

“It’s all about the texture, the taste and the colors,” she said.

Litras and Margaux’s Executive Chef Erol Tugrul are almost obsessively passionate about salads, particularly summer salads, when the bounty of the Earth serves as their palette.

Litras even delights in fine-tuning the ubiquitous house salad — in most places little more than lettuce and a slice of tomato — into a dish that reflects the season. Tugrul often digs deep into his roots to create salads such as his marinated eggplant salad with roasted red peppers and toasted pine nuts over field greens. To him, salads aren’t just another dish. They are a trip back in time.

“I spent a lot of time with my grandparents in Germany,” the chef said. “They had a lot of land and grew their own food. Of course, Grandmother always made rustic salads. That was probably the start of my love and appreciation for salads, and certainly, for my appreciation of using fresh ingredients.”

With summer salads, fresh and refreshing are key words.

“Summer salads should be more refreshing than winter salads,” said Alex Litras, Pam’s husband and the other half of Café Margaux. “They certainly should be able to stand alone as a meal, but they also should be light.”

For home cooks, the laid-back nature of summer salads provides the opportunity to go casual yet still serve a stylish meal.

“Summer salads have to be just that,” said Toni Elkhouri of Cedars Cafe in Suntree.

“They don’t need to be time-consuming. People don’t want to spend a lot of time in the kitchen in the summer, and appetites seem to be lighter during the hot months. Summer salads should be fun and unpretentious.”

Two of Cedars’ most popular summer salads are simple but impressive. Elkhouri’s watermelon, feta cheese and mint salad is coolness on a plate. Cedars’ spinach and sorrel salad succeeds with breezy and locally grown hydroponic sorrel and spinach, plus tomato, toasted walnuts and feta dressed with a garlic and balsamic reduction.

“You want something that will cool you down, and these salads do that,” said Elkhouri.

Although she agrees that summer salads don’t typically conjure images of cooking, Elkhouri also likes to grill fresh veggies as a main dish for warm-weather company.

“It holds really well, and all you need to do is add feta and toss with vinaigrette before serving,” she said. For Elkhouri, feta cheese is a given for most salads.

For Pam Litras, it’s hard to go wrong with zucchini.

“It looks beautiful and has consistency,” she said. “I also like to use a lot of fruit such as kiwi, grapes, blueberries and strawberries, because they are so visually appealing.”

Tomatoes always offer a pop of color, as do interesting combinations such as carrots with purple cabbage.

To create her salads, Litras scours flower books for inspiration.

“I like my salads to look like flowers from a garden,” she said. “It is important that the food look vibrant. Don’t just toss a clump of stuff together. You really don’t have an excuse not to have your salad be attractive, because there is so much to work with.”

Chef James McGuinness, dean of Keiser University’s culinary school in Melbourne, is a devoted carnivore, so his summer salads also employ meats, or at the very least, seafood. His chickpeas/mussels/smoked paprika salad is the stuff of summer salads: light, sweet and tart. To keep with the less-is-more attitude, forego heavy dressings.

“Instead of traditional dressing, use Greek-style yogurt or crème fraiche so you don’t add those unwanted calories,” McGuinness said.

Alex Litras will tell you that salads may look easy, but they actually can serve as benchmarks for a true chef.

“Any chef worth his salt can season and cook that ostrich or that venison or that fresh king salmon, but how well your salads, sauces and soups taste is the key to creativity and innovation,” he said.