Earlier this week, Glamour Magazine’s Storked! blogger Christine Coppa asked readers what they like in salads. The responses were plentiful with ideas. Me? I like lots of veggies, a bit of cheese and usually a protein. Mmm. But that got me thinking about how my salad style has really changed. I used to think that salad was an afterthought — something that you tossed quickly into a bowl and hope people eat. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, it shouldn’t be that way.
Obviously, it’s easy to toss lettuce from a bag in a bowl, sprinkle cheese and dressing and call it a salad. I’ve done it many, many times. When you are busy, bagged salad seems like the perfect option for a quick side or a speedy lunch. But what you gain in speed from a salad like that is lost in taste. The lettuce in bagged salad tends to have a harsher, more bitter flavor than fresh lettuce. Often, you will find a fine, white coating on vegetables in a bagged salad too … not exactly appetizing.
I implore you: if you want to make a good salad, buy real heads of lettuce. I love Boston bibb lettuce, personally, and romaine hearts have a delicious flavor. But try out different lettuces until you find one that appeals to you. There are so many options out there from red leaf to iceberg to mesclun.
Also, invest in a good salad spinner. The salad spinning thing has an inner basket, perfect for tearing lettuce into and rinsing to remove any dirt or whatever. Then you stick the basket inside the contraption and spin, spin, spin until the lettuce is dry. It literally takes no time and you can even enlist help from your little sous chefs, assuming you have one like I do.
Next, add the veggies. Choose vegetables that are in season, fresh and that you like and then cut them into smaller pieces. For instance, you can use a vegetable peeler to shave long, smooth, sweet shards of carrots from full sized carrots (which really are tastier than baby carrots). Chop up some fresh mushrooms into bite sized pieces. Dice some peppers or roasted peppers. Keep pomegranate seeds in the fridge for easy sprinkling. Have sweet grape or cherry tomatoes and toss them on top. Have leftover corn or peas? Toss it in! Pickled beats and other vegetables add a tasty dimension. And for a creamy, dreamy addition, toss on some diced avocado.
You’ll probably want a protein too. If you have leftover roasted chicken or steak, slice it thin and cut it into bite size pieces (after heating, of course). If you are feeling industrious, generously sprinkle a small steak with salt and pepper and broil it to perfection (flipping once, of course). Or you could quickly cook up some delicious shrimp or even a poached egg to top it.
For an extra tasty salad, you will want 1-2 other toppers such as cheese (gorgonzola is a favorite here, but cheddar, parmesan, blue, romano … pretty much most kinds … can work too), homemade croutons, sunflower seeds, candied almonds or tortilla strips. Be careful not to go overboard and add too much though, because these items are where a salad can go from healthy to fattening.
Finally, choose the dressing. I typically avoid premade dressings as they are often filled with unpronounceable ingredients and even high-fructose corn syrup (YUCK!). Instead, choose a really good vinegar (I love balsamic from Villarina’s) and some extra virgin olive oil. Use both sparingly and sprinkle with freshly ground sea salt and pepper. Or substitute lemon or lime juice for the vinegar.
Finally, make sure that everything is in bite sized pieces before mixing it up, serving and devouring. There is nothing worse than trying to bite into a salad with gigantic pieces of lettuce flapping off your fork.
Sarah Walker Caron is a cookbook author, freelance writer and founder of Sarah’s Cucina Bella. Her latest cookbook is The Super Easy 5-Ingredient Cookbook, published by Rockridge Press, which focuses on quick, easy, from-scratch cooking for busy people. A single mother to two kids in middle school, Sarah loves nightly family dinners, juicy tomatoes plucked fresh from the vine and lazy days on the beach. She also adores reading and traveling.