build a better salad

Posted by on January 30, 2012 in cook | 1 comment

I am a pretty good salad maker. I don't mean a little afterthought side salad as part of a meal, little more than a way to add a few extra vegetables to the table. I'm talking about a meal in itself, one that will keep you going for hours. Most days, I eat a late breakfast and then have a late lunch/early dinner. When I went into an office every day, I kept a stockpile of salad ingredients in the communal fridge and made a meal that was the envy of my co-workers. I've missed my salads, and while we've been craving warm and comforting meals lately, it's sunny and almost warm today, so I'm going to make a salad.

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Saturday's haul from the farmer's market: lots of salad ingredients!

I thought I'd share my salad formula, because salad is good for everyone, and no one should have to suffer through another boring salad.

Obviously, get what is fresh and looks good. We're lucky to have decent tomatoes year-round here, but when I've lived elsewhere, I didn't buy them this time of year. They will only taste like cardboard and bring your salad down. But root vegetables and greens are fresh, delicious, and readily available right now, so build your salad around them and wait until summer for those tomatoes. 

I like to think of my salad ingredients in categories, and then assemble a salad by using one or more items from each category. First up, of course, is the greens category. 

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Of course there all the usual lettuces: romaine, baby greens, red leaf, even iceberg is good for some kinds of salads; I also like arugula, and of coarse, baby spinach. Raw cabbage makes a nice crunchy backdrop. Kale is a sturdy green that I most often cook to eat, but it makes a hearty salad green when raw and paired with a warm bacon or sausage dressing. Sometimes I stick with one kind of green and just let it be the background for the other ingredients, or sometimes I'll mix and match several different greens. 

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 After the greens, what most often determines the direction I take a salad is the protein. This is a meal, and it's protein (and fat) that keep me full. I've used every kind of protein you could imagine in a salad. Grilled or poached chicken or fish, leftover steak, eggs, various types of charcuterie, kofta kebabs or gyro meat, canned tuna. Whatever your preference, it will make an excellent salad ingredient.

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Next up, I fill up my salad bowl with vegetables, raw and/or cooked. This is where salads really become seasonal. The farmer's market was full of root vegetables this past weekend, so I got radishes, beets, and small, sweet carrots. Roasted, the beets and carrots will add an earthy comfort. Raw carrots and radishes will add freshness and crunch. Vegetables really allow you to add texture and color, which I think is the secret to a good salad. 


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I also like to finish off a salad with an extra flourish (or two). Maybe some nuts for crunch, and dried fruit for chewy sweetness, or salty olives and capers. These are especially nice in a salad with salmon or tuna. Sun-dried tomatoes are an excellent solution for a winter salad. A few crumbles of a strong cheese like feta or gorgonzola make a salad feel just a little more special. Fresh herbs are another way to add an unexpected flavor. 

As for dressing my salads, I stick to simple vinegarettes, and most of the time I'm super lazy and just drizzle everything with olive oil and vinegar or lemon juice. If I'm feeling more ambitious, I'll shake the ingredients up in a jar, and add some herbs and spices and maybe a little dijon mustard.

I also often go with ethnic ingredients and let the cuisine of a country influence what I put in a salad. Here are a few examples of some favorite salad combinations, if you get stuck: 


Arugula, artichoke hearts, prosciutto and/or salami, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh mozzerella, with olive oil and balsamic vinegar


Romaine and/or iceberg lettuce, grilled chicken, cilantro, fresh corn, tomatoes, jicama, red or yellow bell peppers, thinly sliced jalapeno, avocado. Top with salsa and a drizzle of crema or sour cream for dressing and sprinkle some cheddar or queso freca on top.

Turkish/Middle Eastern:

This is a chopped salad, dice everything roughly the same size: fresh tomatoes, cucumbers (I love the little Persian ones), bell peppers in assorted colors, a little onion, if you dare! Add some good olives, and toss with olive oil and lemon juice and sprinkle with sumac and chopped, fresh parsley. I like this with any kind of kebab, particularly kofta kebabs (seasoned ground lamb and beef), and a dollop of thick, Greek style yogurt.


Mixed greens, grilled salmon or canned tuna, blanched green beans and boiled or roasted new potatoes, nicoise or kalamata olives and a hard boiled egg, quartered. Sprinkle with capers and dress with a lemon vinegarette. And imagine you are in the south of France.


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Sometimes, I even have salad for breakfast (roasted beet greens and an egg, over-easy).

What do you like to include in your salads? 

1 Comment

  1. This post just made me sooooo hungry!

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