Every year about this time, there’s a flurry of interest in fresh and easy meals — which translates to, “Let’s just have a salad.” (It happens on January 2, too!) I’m all for that, but I’d skip the word, “just,” and shout out, “SALAD!” Out of all the cooking classes I’ve taught over the last 12 years, there are the most questions about salads: what goes in them, how to make a vinaigrette, what kind of oil to buy, the sort of salt I like, and how to make salad a meal. In fact, I taught a two-hour class about making salad a couple of years ago and the fun we had together still resonates whenever I think about it. Folks want a great salad; they want easy and fresh, healthful meals, but they’re often a bit stuck in their I-buy-this-every-week greens and goodies. This summer, I decided it’s time to organize an online lesson on salad savvy and give you the skinny on how to bring it all together. As the information I wanted to share was entirely too much for one blog post, I’ve divided it into three (simultaneously published) posts so that you can read them all in a row if you like–or not– and then it’s off to the farmer’s market, the deck, the store, or backyard garden for you to get started! Click on the red links below and come chopping with me to make your newest stellar salad!
- SUBSTANCE — Part 1 (This post–all about ingredients.)
- SEASONINGS — Part 2 (Next post on blog–spices, herbs, oil, vinegar, dressings, balance, etc. )
- STYLE! — Part 3 (The last post in a row of the 3 — what makes you say, “Wow, that looks good!”)
While this class is pretty much do-it-yourself, I welcome comments, emails, photos, etc., to keep us in closer touch — even when we’re all in our own kitchens!
“No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.”― Laurie Colwin
So read and drool along with me. Soon you’ll be making stunning, mouth-watering, healthful salads guaranteed to put a big smile on your face, a bounce in your walk (I’ll just mention fiber here once), and maybe even a few coins into your health bank. I won’t promise anything, but you could even improve your nightly rest. There’s an old saying, “Eat light, sleep tight.” Try it.
Ok, let’s begin with SUBSTANCE or how and why to get top shelf ingredients for your special meals.
1. SUBSTANCE: Fresh, Top Quality, and Varied. Local as possible. Your own garden is your best choice. Your neighbor’s is a close second!
Salad is roughage and a French idea. (MFK Fisher)
QUALITY INGREDIENTS: Always start right here. There are no substitutes for the freshest vegetables and herbs (organic, local, and varied as possible), artisanal cheeses or the best you can buy, organic local meats or the finest you can afford, and top shelf oils and vinegars. If I were considering budget, I’d concentrate on the oil and vinegar. (Scroll down for buying suggestions.) One more thing. Think about salads as a main part of your diet, of your shopping, and of your table–not just a little something before or to the side of the meal. By giving these great dishes their due in your life, they are certain to become tastier and improved.
- FRESHNESS AND VARIETY OF VEGGIES AND FRUIT: Grow what you can yourself. So many people have planted victory gardens this Covid-Time spring and summer; I hope you have. Herbs are simple to grow in pots and will gin up your salad and other dishes like nothing can–on top or mixed in the greens. Buy everything else making sure of the best quality you can find within the season. Think about a larger variety of greens, herbs, and veggies for greater nutrition, color, texture, and taste. For greens and herbs, check out arugula or watercress for peppery values, basil, mint, tarragon, and dill for “spice,” escarole or radicchio for bitterness, tarragon for a licorice zing, and maché for sweetness. Scroll down for a chart to show the nutritional value of some greens you might not have on your grocery list. Don’t bring home more than you’ll use before wilt and slime sets in and don’t buy strawberries in January because June is coming!!! Ewwww! Store everything properly–scroll down for info. (Bags of greens have a wretched reputation for recall and smell like it. Leave them at the store whenever possible.) For veggies and fruit, grab something bright or that you don’t usually buy–think fennel, eggplant (grill it!), fresh peas, purple carrots, jicama, romanesco, kohlrabi, roasted Brussels sprouts, tangelos, mangos, papaya, figs, Asian pears, and ______________. Scroll down for a list of 100 salad ingredients!
- TIP: Try using the green Debbie Meyer produce bags for longer storage times.
- COOKED/READY INGREDIENTS: Here’s the place to use up a few vegetables from the other day (sautéed mushrooms? steamed asparagus? fried onions? grilled sliced potatoes?), but it’s also a spot for cooked beans of any sort (canned white or pinto or kidney are fine, too), meat, poultry, fish, seafood, cheese, eggs, lentils, rice, pasta, homemade croutons, or toasted nuts or seeds for taste, crunch, and a little extra protein. Don’t forget store-bought olives, capers, pickles, pickled peppers or pepperoncini, or other briny bits for the perky-piquant factor. How would tuna salad be without pickles?! I keep the crushed bits of Triscuits from the bottom of the bag to sprinkle on green salads. What could you use?
- VINEGAR: For this exercise, begin with buying two vinegars you like and if you’re unsure, make them red wine vinegar and sherry vinegar +/or balsamic vinegar as last third. For red wine vinegar, my first choice is FINI. For less expensive choices, check out this list; I prefer the Lucini here. I suggest sherry vinegar because it’s almost always lovely, isn’t as expensive as a good balsamic (which usually can’t be had at the grocery store), and because it pairs with almost anything. A mix of red wine vinegar and sherry vinegar also makes a tres-tasty vinaigrette; try it! Sherry vinegar, which comes from Spain, is also exactly what you need to make GAZPACHO! I’ve never had a sherry vinegar I disliked (and some are pretty inexpensive) but I currently buy El Majuelo Vinagre De Jerez. Balsamic has become the grocery store vinegar of choice, much to my dismay. Much of what’s on the shelf isn’t worth buying for salad, though grab a big bottle there for summer marinating or cooking. Top quality balsamics are pricy, but worth it; they’re often aged, made on estate, and are used only for vinaigrettes or drizzling on meat or salads like caprese. You can order them or pick them up in speciality shops or even at Williams-Sonoma. I buy my fave, Masserie Di Santeramo, at WHOLE FOODS when available or order from amazon. A small bottle lasts a good while and can be all you need on grilled vegetables; skip the oil and the calories! Here’s a list of “The Best Balsamic Vinegars You Can Buy at the Grocery Store” from BON APPÉTIT.
- TIP: Fresh lemon juice is another delicious choice to pair with oil to make vinaigrette. Keep lemons on the counter for easier juicing. Note: a lemon vinaigrette is much less acidic than one made wine vinegar.
- TIP: Recipes for basic and lemon vinaigrettes in Part 2, SEASONINGS. I include there an easy blue cheese dressing that also makes a pungent and snappy veggie dip.
- OIL: If you’re going with only one oil, make it extra virgin olive oil. If you want a second, buy a walnut oil, which is perfect for salads with berries and nuts and goat cheese! There has been much discussion about which olive oils are best, so that’s a long messy road for me to get on. I’ll just tell you what I do. I buy a big bottle of inexpensive olive oil for cooking; it’s the COSTO Kirkland Signature sort–whatever’s the best buy on the end cap (I also keep Trader Joe olive oil spray for nonstick pans.) For salads, I often grab what’s in the sale bin at Williams-Sonoma and it’s usually an Italian oil of some sort, though sometimes it’s Spanish. I also buy Olio Santo, a smooth California oil worth its price, if you like to buy American. If I must get something at the regular grocery store, I buy California Olive Ranch Olive Oil, which is reasonable, tasty, and a good value. (They are now sourcing some olives from South America due to climate change issues in California.) If I run out of Kirkland Olive Oil, I’ll cook with California Ranch Olive Oil, too, whereas the Italian, et al bottles and Olio Santo do not get poured into sauté pans no matter what. Right now, I’m about out of the last Italian oil I bought and have ordered a French brand recommended by Patricia Wells — Jean LeBlanc Pure Extra Virgin Olive oil off amazon. I’m not fussy about staying with the same olive oil, you see; it’s a kick to switch things up or get a good buy. If you find one you like at a great price, stick with it! (Don’t care for olive oil? Try sunflower, canola, or corn oil for a more neutral vinaigrette.)
- TIP: Store oils in a cool dark place away from the stove. Some oils, if you’re not using them too often, are better off stored in the refrigerator. Haven’t used your oil lately? Try the sniff test. Any rancid notes indicate it’s time to toss. Don’t pour oil down your sink unless you want a hefty plumber bill in the near future. Read up here about how long to store olive oil
above and below: one night’s sautéed vegetables become the next night’s salad toppings
Up your nutrition, interest, color, and texture by swapping in different greens:
|Salad greens by the numbers|
|Nutrient levels shown are for one cup of raw greens. Remember: it takes two cups of greens to make the nutritional equivalent of one cup of vegetables.|
|Vitamin A (IU)||237||1,598||4,094||2,813||2,202||1,085|
|Vitamin C (mg)||1.5||19||2||8||11||14|
|Vitamin K (mcg)||11||113||48||144||299||85|
|Note: g = grams; IU = International Units; mcg = micrograms; mg = milligrams.Source: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.|
FOOD FOR THOUGHT QUESTIONS:
- What are two different ingredients you’d like to incorporate into your salad? Why?
- Do you have a garden or pots of herbs? If so, what do you grow? If not, what would you like to grow or find fresh in a market/store nearby?
- When you order a salad for a meal at a restaurant, what is it and what do you like best about it? Might you consider trying to replicate that dish at home?
- How do you create a dinner that promises satisfaction or satiety (fullness)? What are the factors involved?
Take a look at the following salads and gather a few ideas to get you started. I’ll use a few of these as examples in the upcoming two posts.
A NEW SPIN ON POTATO SALAD: Two different grilled potatoes add texture and form, while a mix of fresh and cooked vegetables provide mouth-candy color. An herby tarragon vinaigrette finishes the dish with a summer flourish. I made this using a stovetop grill pan. What catches your eye here?
FETCH UP A FILLING FRUIT SALAD by layering ripe mango, avocado, and fresh mozzarella with basil. Recipe here, but I’m guessing you can do this all by yourself!
STYLE BRIGHT GREEK FLAVORS like olives, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers with sliced chicken breasts for a big serving of lean protein. Don’t forget the oregano. Leftovers make yummy salads, so consider grilling an extra chicken breast or two next time to serve salad similar to this another day. The briny olives and the fatty avocado help create the change of taste from bite to bite that keeps this meal interesting as you eat. Pickles and cheese might accomplish a similar profile in another meal. It helps for a salad to not be all about the crunch factor, though you can’t really overestimate its importance!
HOT NIGHT SPECIAL: Avocado Salad.
Avocados, cilantro, tomatoes, red onion, cucumber, bell peppers, garlic, lime, etc. Not quite, but almost guac!
I make this with many a southwest meal, but sometimes we dine only on Avocado Salad and some bread with cheese. Don’t make more than you can eat in a day; avocados love to be in the moment.
Recipe here. Temper it to suit your own tastes. Parsley instead of cilantro? Addition of zucchini or greens for a larger meal? Served on grilled sourdough bread or toasted thin cornbread slices? A little cooked rice stirred in?
above: The night before we ate this salad, we grilled 2 bacon-wrapped pork tenderloins and cooked some vegetables — so this is a salad from leftovers. You might guess fresh basil makes this dish sing, but the visual attraction of red against green against white is the big draw– or is it the varied sautéed veg at the center? A huge platter is key here. Try thrift stores for good buys.
below: a simple green salad teases the taste buds and starts with ultra fresh greens, continues with red onions for taste and crunch, red tomatoes for color and brightness, and finishes with sliced pepperoncini for a piquant pop. Seasoned liberally with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, I also added a very little crushed red pepper to keep our mouths interested, amused, and wanting more. Don’t forget to toss gently, but throughly, to ensure every leaf has a bit of dressing without any dripping when you lift a fork to your mouth.
TIP: Watching salt? Decrease salt and increase herbs, alliums, and pepper as possible. A bit of extra vinegar is another idea, as is a larger variety of vegetables or some low-sodium cheese.
below: SALMON SPECIAL. Note the color pops of purple kalamata olives, coral salmon (small piece from night before), red tomatoes, fresh green thyme, carrots, and celery. Protein-filled lentils cook in 20 minutes, so this is a fast meal that will feed 2 or 3 using just a little bit of fish. Sliced pork tenderloin or shrimp could sub for the salmon.
below: HERE’S YOUR NEW GO-TO FOR TUNA. Tuna-Cado Salad: Tuna, avocado, greens and white beans with olive oil and vinegar. No mayo. No sweat. Note impact of one sprig of parsley.
Last, the salad (from the top of the post) of basic greens from our garden for the centerpiece. A few cooked vegetables are added for health, wealth, and happiness and a light drizzle of good vinegar and oil is all you need if the food itself is fresh, fragrant, and delicious. We only want to get a salad dressed, not covered all up from head to toe, so I might only use a tablespoon each of vinegar and olive oil here for a large salad so the ingredients shine. (The other consideration is there’s already olive oil on some of the cooked ingredients.) One of the things that makes your mouth happy here are the shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano around the edges on the greens. A potato peeler will whip these out tootie sweetie. I had cooked green beans left from another night (I warmed them in a skillet with a little olive oil and salt and pepper) and then sautéed fresh quartered button mushrooms, garlic, and cherry tomatoes from our garden with garden for the centerpiece. Sautéed cherry tomatoes on a salad are the bomb–especially if they’re a little before or past their prime, but also even when they’re fresh and perfect. What makes you want to dig into this bowl of goodness? Your answer might lead you to understand your own tastes for fresh fare.
FRESH GREENS WITH GREEN BEANS, GARLIC, MUSHROOMS, TOMATOES AND PARMIGIANO-REGGIANO. I didn’t bother writing a recipe for this as it’s so straight forward.
Now it’s your turn. Can’t wait to see what you’ll do. Make salad tonight! Hope you’ll read the following two posts on SEASONING and STYLE.
Want to buy a book on salad? There are lots, but these are favorites from well-known and long-trusted authors:
Patricia Wells’ SALAD AS A MEAL: HEALTHY MAIN DISH SALADS FOR EVERY SEASON.
LIFE GOES ON…
Tried the Pork Steak recipe from this month’s Bon Appétit. Totally on my summer menu from now on. (We skipped the Nori sheet/didn’t miss it.) These pork steaks are just cut from a pork shoulder. Inexpensive and luscious. Where’s the beef? (not)
We celebrated our 46th wedding anniversary at home this week a day late as I was struck by a nasty bug for the actual date. So happy to share my life with this man. We married young and married right.
Copyright Alyce Morgan, 2020. All rights reserved.