Anatomy of a salad

When someone says salad what do you picture? I picture a colorful variety of tastes, textures, and shapes. I bet many of you picture the old American standard of some crunchy but mild flavored lettuce like iceberg or romaine plus cucumbers, some very firm and flavor light tomatoes and crunchy/salty white croutons with either a creamy dressing like ranch or blue cheese or a super salty and sweet vinegar dressing. Are you delighted by that old faithful salad? With slight twists like red onion rings (italian restaurants), raw mushrooms (pizza places) , shredded mozz cheese or cheddar (pizza places or chain restaurants, creamy ginger dressing (sushi joints) or bell pepper rings (diner types)? With a salad like this, it is no wonder that so few of us truly can fetishize salad and take full advantage of the ingredient bounty that is available. I am not surprised that I hear so often “I like salad but I never stay full”. Thats because there are no proteins, no grains, no fats and not much nutrition or fiber to fill you up!!

I want to change the American standard and raise the bar! We deserve health! We deserve to enjoy food that fills us but won’t kill us! Oh jeez that came dangerously close to vegan propaganda. I will take a deep breath and slow my roll.

I am the salad lady. I am the salad queen. I always have been and always will be because I truly love salad. I really want to teach you how to make salads that are easy to make, will titillate you with every bite and will keep you full for hours without weighing you down. People look at my salads and think that they are too many ingredients or are tough to make but its all about improvisation! Honestly most of my food takes 15 to 30 mins to make. You can throw it on a plate and inhale the dang thing. I just set mine up all pretty because I am an artist and I love food. Once you understand the basics of salad making and the basics to have on hand you will be throwing your own gorgeous and tasty salads together on the dilly.

Lets’s talk base…Greens to be specific. Start slow as you begin to appreciate the unique flavors and textures and learn how to pair them with other ingredients. In order of mild and common to most unusual and flavorful- Baby Spinach, Romaine,Green Leaf, Red Leaf, Bibb, Gems, Chicory Endive, Frisse, Escarole, Arugula, Kale, Mizuna, Chards, Mustard. Always add something hearty and colorful like red or green cabbage, endives, radicchio or treviso. You can buy whole heads and wash/butcher them or go convenience and pick up big boxes of spring mix, power greens etc. Or at Trader Joes you can pick up their cut slaws and really simplify your life! Whole Foods and Wegman’s has that convenience salad prep also, I am just too poor to buy that stuff plus I freaking love chopping colorful things myself!.

If you must do cucumbers, go persian. The persian cukes are the best, never bitter, great price point, the peel tastes good and they last well. I am not a fan of the giant English cucumber, it’s peel is not pleasing to me and they get horribly slimy. The regular garden variety is only good when it’s out of a garden. In the store it can be bitter and the seedy center is a textural aberration. My Persian pals also can be called mini cucumbers and I get them everywhere produce is found.

Tomatoes…to tomato or not tomato that is my question..When I do, my favorites are the ones from Intergrow Greenhouses out of New York, Backyard Farms out of Maine or the local Sugar Bomb variety. These tasty little cherry tomatoes on the vine are the closest to garden fresh I have found. Everyone sells them and they are divine. I also like coctail tomatoes on the vine from Trader Joes or Market Basket or Compari tomatoes from anybody. Other than those, take a pass and wait for a summer farmer’s market or better yet your own garden to do the tomato thing. Never buy the light flesh, firm, tomatoes you see most of the time that are mealy, flavorless and are guaranteed to turn you off salad forever.

Protein. I am vegan so I keep as staples: Tofu, tempeh, chick peas, hemp seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, peanuts. FYI Trader Joe’s is the mecca of Vegan Proteins at a cheaper price. You can also keep veggie burgers, veggie balls, veggie sausages, veggie bacon etc at your fingertips. I prefer the first list because they are less processed but I have been known to dabble in the others for convenience sake. If you are not Vegan, eggs, chicken, turkey are preferable to red meat, pork and processed sandwich meat in regards to your health. My recipes will not be including the animal proteins but you may feel free to sub any animal product for my preferred plant based foods and use my same spice recommendations while cooking. Proteins are really just great vehicles for flavor, they do not carry much on their own IMO and usually need spices, sauces and dressings to make them pop. I am no dietician, but I have read a lot over the years and I can guarantee that most people think they need way more protein than they actually do. Keep in mind that all vegetables have some proteins and when added up, there is a decent amount in most food even without something that is labelled a protein source.

Grains. Grains get a bad rep. There is nothing unhealthy about consuming grains as part of a healthy diet except an individual’s ability to portion control properly. Please add grains to your salad! They will add texture, flavor and fiber and help transform your salad from a side dish to a meal. The options are endless. Peruse the rice aisle at your local market and you will see dozens of different grains. I cannot sing their praises enough, just be wary of overeating. I love quinoa, brown rice, black rice, pasta, rice noodles, soba noodles, farro, cous cous, millet, kamut, really the possibilities are endless to transform your salad from basic to brilliant. I will talk about grains as a base on another day but just to be clear, grains are a healthy eater’s best friend. Start basic and then get adventurous by getting accustomed to adding cold pasta to your salad and making your way to one of the big guns like black or wehani rice. You will not regret it.

Veggies. I like to really pack veggies into a salad. I enjoy adding both raw and cooked varieties. For raw, I love radishes, carrots, baby bell peppers, any and all the crunchy veggies.Make sure to vary the shapes and sizes of your raw cut veggies to keep it interesting. For cooked I love roasting sweet potatoes, cauliflower, asparagus and even mushrooms. It is easy to roast a vegetable to perfection, just cut into bite sized pieces, drizzle with olive or avocado oil, lightly salt and pop them on a sheet pan for 20 minutes in a 425 oven. The more colorful the better.

Fruits. I actually do like to add fruit into my salad although I def used to pooh pooh it. I prefer raw fruits like apples, oranges, even strawberries but most people also enjoy dried cranberries, dried apricots, and raisins. An amazing fruit to throw in is grilled peaches or nectarines. Throw a little fruit in, you will enjoy the flavors and they make adding sugar to your dressing unnecessary. Of course my favorite fruit to add to salad is avocado which brings me to my next category.

Healthy Fats. Any salad needs a bit of fat to keep you satiated and also because your body needs healthy fats to function properly. My favorite fat for a salad is avocado, but I also love nuts and seeds. You can add nut butters to your dressings to make them delicious and creamy. A fave of the healthy set is Tahini which is a sesame seed paste which is most familiarly used in hummus. Hummus is an example of a fat and protein food since it is made by blending chickpeas and tahini with lemon and garlic. Hummus is an excellent addition to a salad! Another example of a fatty addition to your salad is our next category.

Dressing. Novice salad eaters usually show up for the dressing. When I was a youngster, I poured the vinaigrette liberally and although I enjoyed the salad, it really was more of a vehicle for all that salt, vinegar and sugar. As a chef, I watched people drown their salads in creamy ranch and bleu cheese dressing which literally were 200 calories per tablespoon! When considering most used about 3x the serving recommendation, the health aspect of salad eating was pretty much negated. You can learn to dress your salad like a pro very easily. All you need is a fat like olive oil, yogurt or nut/seed butter, an acid like citrus or vinegar, some spices like dry Italian seasoning or fresh herbs like basil, cilantro, dill or mint, a sprinkle of salt, and a sweetener that you use sparingly like maple syrup, honey or turbinado sugar. The best way to dress a salad is in a huge bowl where you can toss it all with a minimum of dressing and keep it light, fresh, and crisp.

As you can tell, I am passionate about salad. The old Simpson’s episode with Lisa being chided “Ya don’t make friends with salad” always annoyed me because most friends that I have had over the years have always enjoyed sharing my colorful creations. Nowadays I get messages from friends asking for dressing ideas and recipes and it warms my heart. Thank you to the beautiful and zany Zoe for inspiring this post!