By Jessica, Pure Matters
The salads I grew up with didn’t exactly set the stage for my becoming a salad lover later in life. With every dinner came a bowl of unseasoned iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and canned black olives, and an array of bottled salad dressings. The option of whether or not to eat it was only available to those over 30. Actually, I’m 37 now and am still forced to eat that salad when I visit my family, so I think those that were given a pass early on must have been grandfathered in.
When I started getting serious about healthy eating in my late 20s, I discovered that salads don’t have to be bland and boring. They can even be exciting! There are really only three components to a salad: the base, add-ins, and dressing, but the possibilities for each are endless. Try these tips for building a tastier, more satisfying, summer salad.
When it comes to salad greens, my philosophy is the more, the merrier. All salads benefit from a variety of colors and textures, and that includes the base. Instead of one kind of green or lettuce, try a combination of two or three. Mix mild lettuces, like Bibb or Boston, with bitter greens like mustard or arugula. Endive or radicchio can add color and crunch. And don’t forget the herbs! Herbs are plentiful and cheap in the summertime, and a little bit of torn basil or chopped cilantro or chives mixed in with your greens goes a long way.
Greens aren’t the only base, of course. Grains like pasta, wild rice and quinoa can also serve as the foundation for a delicious salad, or you can use them as add-ins. And speaking of add-ins…
Once you have your base, there’s no end to what you can add to your salad. Leftover roasted or grilled vegetables can add a lot of flavor to a raw salad -- some of my favorites are mushrooms, red peppers and asparagus. And don’t forget the fruit! Tossing in some grapes, berries or sliced apple can add sweetness to salads without the need to add sugar to dressings. The more seasonal produce you can use, the better, as fruits and vegetables at their peak taste best and require less in the way of dressing. Lean protein like poached chicken, grilled shrimp or baked tofu can turn a side salad into the main event; nuts and seeds can add crunch and texture; and strongly-flavored ingredients like bacon, blue cheese and brined olives can add a ton of flavor in relatively small quantities.
When deciding on salad add-ins, try to think of the five basic tastes: sweet, bitter, sour, salty and “umami,” a Japanese word that means “pleasant, savory taste.” The more of the tastes you can hit with one salad, the more satisfying it will be.
When I discovered how much better homemade salad dressings taste than the bottled versions I grew up with, it was a revelation. The easiest way to build your dressing is by starting with the basic vinaigrette ratio: Three parts oil to one part acid, seasoned to taste with salt and pepper. Basic extra virgin olive oil works great, but there are so many other options: sesame oil for a more Asian flavor; avocado, flaxseed, coconut, or hemp oil for extra nutrients; or nut oils like walnut or hazelnut for a unique taste. As for the acid, any type of vinegar or citrus will do the trick.
Once you have your basic vinaigrette, you can experiment with add-ins. Chopped fresh herbs, minced shallots and garlic, and Dijon mustard are all classic additions. Yogurt, avocado, sour cream or pesto can turn vinaigrette into a creamy dressing. And pureed vegetables, like carrots or red peppers can add both flavor and nutrition. Try this trick: mix your salad dressing right in the bottom of a large bowl, and then layer the salad ingredients on top of it. Right before serving, toss together. You can do the same thing in a mason jar to bring to work for lunch, and then give it a good shake before eating. That way, the salad doesn’t get soggy, and you don’t have to pack an extra container with dressing.
Here are some of my favorite homemade dressings, and ideas for serving them:
In a blender, blend 2 chopped medium carrots, 1-inch peeled, chopped fresh ginger, 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil, 2 teaspoons unseasoned rice vinegar, 1 tablespoon chopped shallots and 1/4 cup water. If dressing is too thick, add more water 1 tablespoon at a time. Season with salt and pepper. Use as a dressing for a side salad of greens, tomatoes, cucumber, red pepper and red onion. To make it a meal, add cooked tofu, shrimp or chicken. Top salad with sesame seeds.
Basic Balsamic Dressing
Whisk together 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar and 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard. Season with salt and pepper. Use a dressing for a side or main dish salad of baby spinach, basil, strawberries, goat cheese and walnuts.
Greener Goddess Dressing
For a lighter take on the traditionally mayonnaise-laden, blend 1/2 cup yogurt, 1/2 of an avocado, 1 chopped clove garlic, 1 teaspoon chopped parsley, 1 teaspoon chopped tarragon, and 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice. If dressing is too thick, add water 1 tablespoon at a time. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with a simple side salad of greens, cucumbers and hearts of palm, or for a main dish, use it to dress a Cobb salad.