Vegetables, fruits lend balance to heavier food

Lemony Couscous Salad is a light side dish that combines quick-cooking couscous and a zesty dressing with Wisconsin feta, tomatoes, parsley and pine nuts.

Ah, summer — sizzling brats and hearty steaks and burgers on the grill.

And on the side: rich potato salad, beans studded with bacon and — well, adjust your belt. Prepare to nap.

Or, you could lighten up, especially considering those traditionally heavier main dishes are likely to stay on the menu.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to keep things light at the summer picnic table. Farmers markets are lush with heirloom tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant and lots of other things that are not a potato and can be tossed with something other than mayo.

Here’s a road map for going light on the side.

Lighten up Sarah Carey gets it — that fondness for potato salads and such.

“I think that people have a comfort level with classic things,” says Carey, editor-in-chief of Everyday Food magazine and host of the online video series “Everyday Food with Sarah Carey.”

There are some tried-and-true ways to lighten up those beloved dishes, she says.

You can cut some of the full-fat mayonnaise and replace it with yogurt or low-fat buttermilk, or dress salads lightly with vinaigrettes. These and other tips can be found in the new cookbook, “Everyday Food: Light” from the Kitchens of Martha Stewart.

But that’s just the beginning of Carey’s arsenal. When you take out fat, you need to “amp up” the flavor, she says.

“Fat is a flavor conductor in many ways,” says Carey. “Fat holds flavors really well.”

Key ingredients: Citrus zest: “Lemon zest is something we use a lot. Anything that makes your mouth a little more excited makes you forget there isn’t as much fat.”

Herbs and spices: Use them in unexpected ways. For instance, use cilantro instead of the classic basil with tomatoes. “It’s nice to mix it up and change the expectations maybe,” she says.

Grainy and Dijon mustards: They add some bite and tanginess.

Choose the right cheese: Use feta or Parmesan rather than milder cheeses such as mozzarella. You can use less of it. “We’re always looking for more bang for your buck,” says Carey.

Flavors, texture For Wisconsin food writer Terese Allen, it’s about assertive flavors and texture.

“I love to make what I call ‘chop and go’ salads,” says Allen, whose new book is “The Flavor of Wisconsin for Kids” (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2012). These quick salads are mixtures of “assertively dressed, finely diced raw veggies,” she says.

“They’re salads you can really sink your teeth into, so to speak, because they have a lot of crunch and vigor,” Allen adds.

“They go with most barbecue foods, and they’re absurdly easy to make.”

When choosing what goes into her salad bowl, she goes for “really decisive ingredients.”

Some of her standards: “Crisp broccoli, sweet onions, licorice-y fennel, stinky cheese, chewy dried cherries — all from the farmers market, of course.”

She thinks a fine chop is key. “To make the salad look integrated, and to give it good ‘mouth feel,’ I chop the ingredients into very small, evenly cut pieces — no chunks!”

Allen loves what she calls “herb-blasted veggies” — barely cooked vegetables soaked briefly while still warm in chopped fresh herbs, vinegar or citrus, and olive oil.

“They can be served warm or cool, and come in endless international variations (think South American chimichurri or a Southeast Asian combo of mint, basil and cilantro),” she says. “The one I use the most is chermoula, the Moroccan sauce that combines chopped parsley and cilantro with garlic, lemon and spices like cumin and paprika (see recipe). I brush it on grilled asparagus, zucchini, onions. I toss it with chopped tomatoes or steamed green beans. My very favorite way to use it is on chunks of barely tender carrots.”

Carey’s favorite summer side dish is something simple, requiring no recipe. It’s a chopped salad of tomatoes, peaches and corn (raw or lightly cooked in boiling water), tossed with a bit of olive oil, salt, vinegar and either basil or cilantro.

“I do a variation of that almost every weekend in the summer,” she says. “I just love the juicy freshness of the tomatoes and peaches.”

Carey’s best advice: “Go to your farmers market and find what looks most delicious and fresh. That’s what’s going to inspire you.”

The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board came up with this recipe, with fresh, lemony notes and seasonal produce.

Lemony Couscous Salad With Feta Cheese

Makes 10 servings Ingredients 2 cups chicken stock

2 tablespoons unsalted butter 1½ cups couscous (one 10-ounce box)

¼ cup pine nuts 8 ounces Wisconsin feta cheese, diced

2 scallions, sliced 1 large tomato, diced

¼ cup finely chopped fresh parsley

1/3 cup olive oil 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon ground black pepper 1 teaspoon sea salt

Directions Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In medium saucepan, bring chicken stock and butter to a boil. Add couscous and stir. Cover, remove from heat and let stand until all moisture is absorbed, about 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork. Chill. Toast pine nuts on an ungreased baking sheet for 3 to 5 minutes in preheated oven, until golden. When couscous has cooled, add all remaining ingredients and mix. Serve immediately or refrigerate.

Tester’s note: For an intensified lemon flavor, add zest from the lemon to the salad.