This week I’m just going to give you some guidelines and let you make up your own meal. I’m going to run through the basic requirements for the perfect summer food: cool, healthy, refreshing salad. With these simple categories of ingredients, you can mix and match to create your own great summer salad, and won’t have to leave to stove on for very long.
1) Greens: 2-3 different kinds, because all-iceberg or all-romaine salads are boring! Get a few different kinds in there and you can play with flavour, texture, colour, and also add a little more nutrition. Kale, beet, mustard, dandelion, endive, frisee, spinach, chard, all are great tasting greens you can pick up at the average grocer for pretty cheap, and all bring different flavours into the mix. Herbs like parsley, basil, cilantro, and mint also count as greens.
2) Crunchy: Things like toasted almonds, sunflower seeds, baked croutons, radish, jicama, julienned carrots, snap-peas, sliced shallots or onions, crisped bacon or pancetta. Anything with crunch, snap, and resistance.
3) Creamy/Soft: Crumbled or grated cheese, raw walnuts, hazelnuts, or pine nuts, cannellini beans, soft ripe tomatoes, earthy beets, dried or fresh fruit, poached/fried egg (esp. egg yolk). Anything soft, smooth, creamy, lightly chewy, or mouth coating.
4) Protein: Sliced meats are great, flaked fish, shrimp, nuts, eggs, beans, lentils, cheese, tofu (it works but can add a lot of extra water to your dish). Whatever your choice, protein is a requirement for life so make sure to include it in any salad meant for a meal.
5) Carbs: From croutons to couscous, you’ve got lots of options here. Fruit, rice (wild, brown, or white), pastas or beans are all great options as well. Carbs can help mellow the acid in your salad as well as provide some caloric value to your meal.
6) Dressing: The most controversial of categories. You need something to bind everything together, but people often use too much, use far too heavy a type, or just reach for the nearest store bought kind (full of preservatives, dyes, additives, empty calories, and processed to death). I never buy dressing, and I try to keep my dressing simple and light — you don’t need to overpower your food. You can never go wrong with a basic vinaigrette (some kind of oil/fat and some kind of acid, whisked until thick). Olive oil and lemon juice/red wine/cider/white/balsamic vinegars are all classic versions, but try whisking fresh orange or grapefruit juice (acid) and sunflower oil together for a light, fresh, summery version with a hint of sweetness. I’ve also used pan drippings from a fried steak or chop (oil/butter/rendered fat and tons of roasty meat flavor) mixed with vinegar for a more robust dressing.
You can use these categories to make just about any salad — sweet or savoury — and you can mess with proportions and make any one of the categories into the foundation ingredient, but I think it’s important to include some quantity of all of them for contrasting texture and flavor. Fruit salad is mostly all carbs, but there’s soft melon, banana, and berry along with crunchy apple and green mint leaves. Tabbouleh is built on soft, carby bulgur or couscous and green parsley, but it has crunchy cucumber and sometimes nuts. These are all broad categories, and some ingredients will fall into multiple sections. This gives you lots of room to experiment and makes for a more versatile salad, and can also help keep things simple — you don’t want to overwhelm people with too many ingredients, after all.
Notes: Always remember to add salt to counter any bitterness in your greens, and bring out their flavour. Seeds and nuts can go into crunchy, creamy/soft, and protein, so here’s some explanation. Raw nuts are in creamy/soft, toasted ones fall into crunchy, and all count as protein.
Best of salad making luck to you! If you have any questions post them in the comments section, I’ll be happy to troubleshoot with you.