Building a Tasty Salad
Building an exciting salad means thinking outside the bowl. What would work well? To figure out what you want to toss into the mix, stroll the produce aisles, and get creative. Salads can contain almost any ingredient and can become an international dish by varying flavors and textures.
Other Salad Greens and Colors
When creating your salad, make it interesting by combining several lettuce varieties—this adds color and texture to your bowl. You might also want to include other non-lettuce greens, such as endive, sorrel, spinach, watercress, arugula, fennel, and radicchio, as well as parsley and a host of vegetables such as sprouts, radishes, and celery.
And what about flowers? Ever had marigolds, nasturtiums, pansies, or rose petals for true flavor and visual excitement? Of course, with flowers, you must be certain to use only edible ones and non-sprayed petals.
One exciting addition to the lettuce aisle is the packaging of greens called mesclun, which really means a mix of young salad greens. Apparently, this idea originated in France, where cooks wanted to serve salads with a variety of tastes and textures. The typical mesclun mix may contain chervil, chicory, dandelion, and mustard greens, and additionally, spinach, radicchio, and kale.
Cooking with flowers has a long kitchen pedigree; food historians point out that early Romans, Chinese, and Indians had favorite blooms for their culinary creations. Americans, too, have enjoyed flowers in their recipes. In an 1891 newspaper recipe article, M. Sherwood suggested using bright nasturtium blossoms in a buttercup lettuce salad. Want to try your hand at cooking with flowers?
The newest salad superstars are the microgreens, which are really some of the same greens varieties sold as mesclun, but microgreens are cut and harvested when much smaller plants, perhaps only one to two inches high. Restaurant chefs delight in garnishing fancy dishes with a handful of micro-greens, but as of this writing these greens are not readily available for the consumer, except at some farmers’ markets.
Using Cooked Vegetables
You can definitely expand the boundaries of your salad fixings by selecting colorful vegetables, such as beets, carrots, snow peas, broccoli, peas, asparagus, and green beans—to name just a few. Ready them for the salad bowl by trimming and blanching. Even leftover veggies can add an unexpected texture to the salad bowl.
Cooked or canned beans are obvious salad choices as well, and here you have so many alternatives in the supermarket that you can turn the whole salad bowl into a mix of beans, using greens as a garnish and onions or other vegetables for crunch.
Using roasted peppers in the salad bowl adds both color and a certain drama. Select a very firm, ripe sweet bell pepper and rub it all over in olive oil. Put it on a baking sheet, and broil it, turning it often, until the pepper’s skin is charred on all sides. Remove the pepper from the broiler, and place it in a paper bag or in a heatproof bowl covered with plastic wrap or foil. When cool enough to handle, slice off the stem end, and rub off the charred skin. Discard the seeds and ribs. Preserve it in olive oil until ready to use. Do not run the pepper (or peppers, as you can do several at a time) under water as this washes away their flavorful juices.
Potato Salads and More
Thanks to a surge in consumer interest, many markets now stock a range of potatoes in varying sizes, shapes, and colors. But not every variety is destined for the salad bowl. Best for cutting and dicing are the waxy potatoes, such as the red-skinned, low-starch varieties, because they hold their shape well. Read up on different varieties to make the correct potato selections.
Grains and Pastas
Both grains and pastas provide a mild flavor profile for salad greens and vegetables, but they also add texture, color, and nutrients. Of the grains used in a salad, perhaps the most famous is the wheat that goes into the Middle Eastern tabbouleh, or bulgur salad, made with abundant parsley and an olive oil dressing. For salads, select grains that stay intact after cooking and don’t turn to mush, especially after you dress the grains.
As for pastas, consider both the Western and Asian pastas, which can add a subtle taste and texture to your salad bowl. Italian pastas come in so many different shapes—and some colors—that they can provide a visual feast. But you must take care to cook them properly so that they don’t clump together after cooking. Asian rice, buckwheat, and wheat noodles, while not formed into appealing shapes, still offer a different flavor and texture background: thin rice noodles, for example, can be crisped with deep-frying or made into tender lengths after boiling and draining.
As you look at your salad bowl, you worry that something is missing. Do you want to add something quirky like scallion brushes, rose petals, or cutup fruit? Emphasize flavors with a sprinkling of fresh herbs? What about softening the crunch of grains with avocado cubes? Enriching the salad with shredded cheese? Or adding texture to soft lettuces with a toss-in of seeds, nuts, or croutons? As you can see, what you add to the salad bowl is really limited only by your imagination—and common sense.
How do I make my own croutons?
For homemade croutons: Select a textured sourdough bread—or other textured loaf—trim off the crusts (or leave them on for more texture) and slice the loaf into ½- to 1-inch cubes. Toast them in a skillet with 3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat, reduce the heat to medium-low, and continue cooking and turning them until the cubes are browned on all sides. You can heighten their flavor by add crushed garlic to the oil. And when the cubes are browned, toss them in a bowl with grated Parmesan cheese, if you wish.