(Pardon the photography above. I really must stop being so lazy and shoot more with my camera than my phone!)
I was out with a friend the other night and we had an amazing salad and she asked me why it's so hard to make a good tasting salad. It really isn't. Salads should have many layers of texture and flavors to completely satisfy. The freshest of ingredients should be used and in addition to your fresh greens you need a certain amount of protein so that the salad can act as a meal and adequately sustain you. A salad is much more than a leaf of lettuce. It starts with the leaf, and we can build it up from there.
Stay away from the icebergs as they have no nutritional value whatsoever.
Romaine offers a great crunch.
Baby spinach is mild and tender and pairs well with others.
Boston, red leaf and Bib lettuces are softer in texture.
I prefer the mixed lettuces that you can get at the grocery store. If you can try to get the non-bagged organic varieties. They taste fresher. If you have access to a farm or farmer's market get your lettuce there as you'll taste unrivaled freshness.
Heirloom tomatoes are summer's best bounty and come in a wide array of flavors and shapes. Naturally imperfect, don't let their shapes worry you. They are beefy and so incredibly sweet. Tomatoes are a fruit after all, aren't they?!
Grape tomatoes, small and bite sized these offer a great crunch.
Cherry tomatoes are smaller and less sweet than the grape.
Campari are small and full of flavor and what I tend to get off season.
Beefsteak. Bland for the most-part. I stay away!
In the summer get your tomatoes from farmer's markets, farms and farm stands. The season is so short but these tomatoes are out of this world.
If a tomato is so-so don't even bother to put it in the salad!
I prefer English cucumbers as they have small seeds and thin skins. I wash the skins and leave them on for the additional fiber. Sometimes I slice them super thin and sometimes I cut them into bite-sized chunks for a great crunch.
Scallions and onions:
I always add scallions or finely diced onion to my salads. A great salad has a nice bite and zest to it.
Adds a nice depth and dimension. Fennel is super raw and can be used in so many ways. I think it is best shaved thinly as it can be tough to chew.
I adore carrots in salad for their crunch. My salads have to have crunch!I cut them into small pieces. Better yet try the heirloom, multi-colored carrots for an incredible sweetness. But it's about the crunch. Have I mentioned that?!
I adore beets. I love their color and their natural sweetness. They complement so many other flavors and textures and are a natural salad add-in. You can buy them pre-cooked in the produce aisle but They're really easy to cook. Just place in boiling water for 40 minutes or so and their skins peel off really easily. I wait to add them in until the last minute so the entire salad doesn't turn purple!
When was the last time you had a radish? They add a lovely sharpness and are great thinly sliced or chopped for that crunch factor.
I was never a huge nut person until fairly recently. In attempt to watch my carbs, in which I indulge once or twice a week, I no longer eat bread with my salad or use croutons which I sometimes liked for the crunch factor. Enter the nut. But not just any nut... Well yes, any nut you wish, but the secret to making the nuts stand out and the zing to your salad is by toasting them before using them. Stay away from the packaged flavored varieties. They are LOADED with salt and often sugars. Take any nut you wish, almonds, pecans, walnuts (I prefer chopped or slivered) and place a small amount - about 1/8 of a cup in a sauce pan and toast until lightly golden. I usually turn the heat high and then off and shake the pan until they start to turn brown. They can burn in a jiff so watch carefully! Once the nuts are cooked, remove them from the heat and add them to your salad when they cool back to room temperature.
A little cheese goes a long way. We don't want to turn our healthy meals into a calorie-laden dish, so I use cheese sparingly - more for taste than anything else. Sprinkle on Parmesan, Feta, Goat, Blue or Gorgonzola for some added flavor. I always have crumbled Feta on hand and if I don't have shredded Parmesan, there's often a block that I can shave from onto the salad.
I think protein is the key to a filling salad. Whenever I grill up chicken or fish I make extra. I love salmon tossed into my salad. But I often use chickpeas or edamame as my protein.
I think the salad dressing is the single most important ingredient in a salad. And it's imperative to use the right amount. Too little leaves you with a bland salad and too much can overwhelm and flood your ingredients. I like to make my salads in big bowls and I use tongs to toss. I then transfer to smaller bowl(s) if need be. Another way to ensure perfect salad dressing to salad distribution is place your salad in a plastic bag, add your dressing and shake well! This method is completely fool proof - but it can get expensive and is somewhat wasteful!
Another thing I will tell you about salad dressings is to DITCH THE STORE BOUGHT DRESSINGS. Home made is the way to go. The flavors are so much more natural tasting and less strong. Freshness is key here. My foolproof vinaigrette recipe is here. I make a ton (fill an old wine bottle!) so that I have it on hand whenever I need it!
I think the trick to creating well balanced and delicious salads is to keep them varied and filling. If you make something you like particularly, write it down so that you can repeat it. Keep a list of salads you enjoy and that inspire you. Create a Pinterest board for salads. There are so many options with salads that you can eat them every day, all year long!
Over the next few weeks I will be sharing some of my favorite lettuce and non-lettuce salad recipes. I hope they inspire you to eat well and perhaps you'll share some of your favorites with me!