I was talking to a friend recently who cooks often and likes to try new recipes (at least I think this is true), and she was saying that she would like more ideas on how to make a good salad. I had never thought of salad as being something anybody thought all that much about. There seem to be a few famous salads out there that continually get slightly tweaked. Restaurants will have their own versions of the common “house” or “garden” salad, the spinach and fruit (usually strawberry) salad, the Caesar salad, and maybe a Cobb or chef salad, which here in the Midwest often ends up being a Southwest salad. The exception to this being Italian restaurants which will have an “Italian” salad, as if that’s a thing. Something tells me that if you ask Italians what goes in a salad you’re going to get a lot of different answers.
What makes a great salad? I’ve been thinking about that a lot since my talk with my friend. We’re talking regular lettuce salads here, not potato, pasta, fruit, jello, or whatever other weird things people call “salad,” like the pretzel-cream cheese-strawberry jello stuff which is obviously a dessert. Typically I end up throwing a salad together at the last minute, pulling random things out of the refrigerator and tossing them together without much thought. Last weekend I was having a few people over for a lunch meeting and I actually sat down and created a salad intentionally. My first thought was that I wanted to use some ingredients that were seasonal. From there I started to think about how I approach a salad from scratch.
I think of salad as being a bit more removed from the rest of the meal. Even though I was serving this salad at the same time as the rest of the meal, and it was also my main vegetable dish, I wanted it to stand on its own as a complete experience. While meat and other side dishes are often designed to compliment each other, the salad typically comes before the meal (in Europe the salad will sometimes be served after the main course, especially in very formal meals). Like an appetizer or amuse bouche, the salad can be used to wake up the palette. I’ve often used salads and desserts as sort of bookends for a meal, maybe using a lemon vinaigrette on a salad with a lemon-based dessert. Dishes in the main part of the meal will usually feature one or a few different flavors, with dessert focusing mainly on sweet or possibly sour. Salads are best when they incorporate a range of different flavors and textures:
- Bitter: lettuce is naturally bitter, so this one is easy. Of course they range from mild butter lettuce to more potent ones like radicchio.
- Tart/sour: This will usually come from the dressing. Dressings typically have a vinegar base, or a citrus juice can be substituted. Even Ranch dressing is usually made with buttermilk which gives it a bit of a tang. Dried cranberries or other fruits could also lend some tartness to a salad.
- Sweet: Fruit, candied nuts, or a little honey in the dressing will give a salad a nice touch of sweetness. You want just enough to mellow out the acidity of the dressing, depending on how acidic your dressing is. Many bottled dressings have lots of sugar in them already.
- Salty: There should be some salt in the dressing. Nuts, croutons, bacon, and cheeses can also add saltiness, or perhaps some nice flaky sea salt (gasp!).
- Savory: A creamy dressing will add savoriness to a salad. Certain vegetables can add savoriness, such as asparagus, avocado, carrots, peas, and corn. I also like to add fresh herbs such as parsley, thyme, or savory either to the dressing or mixed in with the greens. Black pepper also adds savory.
- Crunchy: The lettuce should be fresh and crisp. Add more crunchiness with fresh vegetables, croutons, or nuts.
- Creamy: Creaminess comes down to the feeling of fat molecules in your mouth. A vinaigrette dressing will have some of this texture, especially if made with a good extra-virgin olive oil, but an egg-based dressing (a.k.a. mayonnaise based) will take it to the next level. Cheese can also add creaminess.
- Juicy: Tomatoes, fresh fruits, cucumbers and other juicier vegetables can provide a nice contrast to the more fibrous lettuces and carrots.
Consider the super standard American salad that you would get in almost any steak restaurant. It will likely consist of lettuce (probably mainly iceberg), carrots, tomato, maybe some cheddar cheese, cucumbers, croutons, and your choice of dressing, the most popular dressing in America being Ranch. These are all mild ingredients, but they still get the salad variety job done. The lettuce is crisp and slightly bitter; the carrots are crisp and slightly sweet; tomatoes are acidly tart and juicy; cheese is creamy and salty; cucumbers add another crisp, juicy, savory dimension; croutons are crunchy and salty; and Ranch dressing is creamy, slightly tart, and savory. Maybe they will offer you some freshly ground black pepper to add another layer of spice and savoriness.
Now it’s easy to build a more exciting salad:
- Greens: I love arugula for its tenderness and peppery-ness. Something fun I recently learned is that it is also sometimes called “rocket” or “garden rocket.”
- Dressing: A simple honey vinaigrette tossed with the arugula. A tablespoon of honey, 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar, 6 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, and a dash of salt and pepper. Whisk these together in a bowl, add the arugula and toss, then transfer to a serving platter (or add the rest of the ingredients to the bowl and serve it out of there).
- Fruit: Stone fruit is in season. Sweet peaches and nectarines, tarter plums, apricots and cherries. Juicy, colorful, sweet, sour, healthy, and delicious.
- Cheese: crumbled goat cheese is creamy, salty, and mildly tangy.
- Nuts: Cashews have a sweet, buttery savoriness to them and a delightful crunch.