A well-made salad is a beautiful thing. We frequent a local restaurant that mixes interesting lettuces with fresh cheese, house dressing and a piece of roast salmon or tender shreds of chicken. Homemade crispy onions and roasted pumpkin seeds make the dish crave-worthy. Especially on a hot summer evening.
At home, a fridge drawer filled with a variety of lettuces and crumbled cheeses motivates a one-dish miracle salad on weekdays. Especially when there are leftover grilled chicken, fish or steak. Salads never have to be boring; they are infinitely flexible.
Let’s start with the lettuces. I believe that every lettuce in the supermarket deserves a spin in the salad bowl. Sure, tearing in a plastic bag saves time, but try making your own mix. I enjoy a mix of crispy iceberg, or romaine, with spicy arugula, tender lettuces, and tender butter lettuce. Burgundy red radicchio leaves and/or endive stems impart bitter notes that balance out the soft, bright greens.
Rinse green vegetables in cold water and drain or pat dry. Store them in a covered container or a plastic bag lined with a piece of paper towel in the refrigerator. Lettuces on hand means less waste.
Cool, crisp lettuces tossed with freshly cut dill or cilantro, good olive oil and a little lemon juice make a great side salad.
For a nutritious main course, add proteins, such as beans, cooked meat, poultry and fish, cheese, pan-fried tofu or cooked eggs, to green vegetables. Crispy fresh bites, such as shredded radishes and diced cucumbers, complement buttery croutons, rich avocado, fried onions and toasted walnuts.
Go easy on the bandage. Nothing ruins a salad more than too much dressing. Add small amounts of dressing to the salad placed in a large bowl and toss with tongs to very lightly coat the greens.
A simple blend of oils and vinegars, with a dollop of mustard and a generous mix of black pepper and salt tastes better than any commercial bottled salad dressing. Consider mild-tasting vegetable oils, such as safflower or sunflower to lighten the fruity olive oil. A splash of balsamic vinegar adds plenty of sweetness, and red or white vinegar (or fresh lemon juice) provides an acidic kick. The combination keeps for a week or two in the refrigerator and only takes a few minutes at room temperature to warm the oils to a liquid state.
Main Course Salad Tips
1. Make your own salad dressing — it’s so much fresher; buy premium chilled creamy or yogurt dressings.
2. Clean and refrigerate leafy greens ahead of time so they are cold and crispy.
3. Add at least one protein for nutrition and satisfaction.
4. Cut crisp vegetables, such as peppers, radishes, celery into pieces no larger than 1/2 inch for easy consumption.
5. Add a rich filling, such as avocado, cheese or boiled eggs; the fat helps satisfy hunger and adds a luscious mouthfeel.
6. Garnish with a custom crisp mix, such as store-bought croutons, crispy onions, toasted nuts and seeds
Three lettuce salad with roast chicken and crispy pieces
Makes 3-4 servings
Note: You will need a total of 8 cups of loose mixed salads.
- 1/2 head of iceberg lettuce or 1 small head of romaine lettuce
- 3 to 4 lightly packed cups of assorted salad greens
- 1-2 cups torn radicchio leaves or thinly sliced Belgian endive spears
- 4 radishes, trimmed, halved, thinly sliced, about 1/3 cup
- 1/2 seedless cucumber, halved, thinly sliced, about 1/2 cup
- 1/2 cup drained canned chickpeas
- 1/2 pound (about 3 cups) large shreds, slices or pieces of roast chicken
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan or crumbled fresh goat cheese
- 1 small avocado, halved, pitted
- 1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh chives or green onions
- Coarse sea salt, freshly ground pepper
- 2 tablespoons each: extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar
- 1/4 cup bottled Caesar dressing (or ranch dressing)
- 1/2 cup spicy and crunchy salad pieces (see recipe)
1. Line a large, covered container or food-safe plastic bag with a piece of paper towel. Use a sharp knife to cut the iceberg or romaine lettuce into large chunks. Place in salad spinner basket; rinse under cold water then wring. Transfer to the prepared container. Repeat the operation to rinse and spin the small lettuces and the radicchio or endive. Add to container with iceberg lettuce. Refrigerate covered until very cold, at least 30 minutes or up to 2 days.
2. Arrange the salad leaves in a large, shallow serving bowl. Garnish with radish and cucumber slices. Top with beans, then chicken pieces and cheese. If desired, refrigerate covered with a damp towel for up to one hour.
3. To serve, thinly slice the avocado and arrange the slices on the salad. Sprinkle with chives, salt and pepper. Drizzle with oil, then vinegar. Drizzle the Caesar dressing in small amounts over the salad. Sprinkle with spicy and crunchy salad pieces. Use tongs to gently moisten everything with the oil, vinegar and dressing.
Spicy and crunchy salad pieces
Makes 1 generous cup
- 2 tablespoons pressed canola, safflower, or sunflower oil
- 1 large or 2 small pita breads (3 to 4 ounces total), finely crumbled by hand or in a food processor
- 1/4 cup sliced almonds
- 2 tablespoons chopped pine nuts or pecans, optional
- 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
- 1/2 to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt (kosher)
1. Heat a large, well seasoned cast iron or nonstick skillet (10 inches) over medium heat. Add oil and crumbled pita bread; Cook and stir until bread begins to brown, about 4 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients. Cook and stir until almonds are golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes more. Remove from heat and let cool. Store in a covered container for up to three days.
(JeanMarie Brownson is a James Beard Award-winning author and recipient of the IACP Cookbook Award for her latest cookbook, “Dinner at Home.” JeanMarie, chef and authority on home cooking, Mexican cuisine and specialty foods, founding partners of Frontera Foods. She has co-authored three cookbooks with chef Rick Bayless, including “Mexico: One Plate at a Time.” JeanMarie has enjoyed developing recipes and writing about food, travel and dining for over four decades.)