Salads aren’t very sexy. I mean, they’re kind of in a revival stage, but when you tell someone you’ve just had the best salad, you’re usually met with (at least I am) a blank uninterested face. Start talking about barbecue or a pasta dish though, and all of a sudden they perk up and listen attentively. I get it, I really do. Salad is some thing people take for granted. It’s there, sometimes people eat it, sometimes they don’t. Really though, you should eat the salad. Especially if it looks like it’s going to be a good one. Trust me, there are good ones out there.
Hi, I’m Stephanie, and I’m kind of a salad snob.
This is my (non-exhaustive) set of criteria for how to make a really good salad.
1. Greens: generally, all salads have greens. In the case of my peach and corn coleslaw, I have reds, but really, it’s a leafy vegetable, so it counts. I’m open to all types of greens: arugula, frisée, endive, lettuce (butter, romaine, iceberg, red leaf, green leaf, spinach, cress, cabbage, radicchio…I could go on, but I’m going to stop now). I like my salads to have a couple of different kinds of greens for texture contrast and I’m a sucker for baby anything. I know baby greens are probably some sort of marketing trick, but I love tender baby leaves cause I like ’em young.
Greens should always be washed and throughly dried. Wet greens are horrible: the dressing gets watered down and the leaves look wilt-y. My preferred way of washing greens: get a big bowl (the biggest you have) fill with cool water. Put all of the leaves into the bowl and use your hands to swish them around, kind of like you’re a salad washing machine. Scoop the leaves into another bowl, check out how much dirt is in the bottom of your first bowl, dump out the water, and repeat as needed depending on dirty your leaves are. Usually I find that produce has more dirt on it when it’s rainy season, so I tend to wash my greens a lot when it rains.
Dry the leaves throughly, either using a salad spinner or clean, lint-free kitchen towels.
2. Texture: salads need texture. Usually I try to hit up crisp (that’s the greens), creamy, juicy, and crispy-crunchy. Creamy things have got to be one of my favorite textures for salads. Think: eggs, avocados, baby potatoes, soft tofu, and soft cheeses. Creamy can also be incorporated into the dressing, but we’ll talk about dressing later on.
If I do something creamy, sometimes I’ll skip out on the juicy component, because too much of a good thing can be too much. Juicy textures come mainly from fruit, especially perfectly ripe fruit. I love that little bit of sweetness in a savory salad. Some of my favorites: papaya, mango, berries of all kinds, pears, figs and tomatoes.
After the juice, you need to bring on the crispy-crunchy. These bits are the fun ones like giant homemade croutons, roasted nuts or seeds, crispy shallots, toasted rice, even potato chips. The sky’s the limit for crunchy things on salad. I don’t ever think I’ve had a crunchy thing that wouldn’t taste good in a salad.
And then we come to a bonus texture, if you’re looking for brownie points. I call this dry/chewy, which isn’t really the best way to describe it, but I’m talking about dried fruits and hard cheeses. You don’t need much of this category, it’s more of a garnish than an actual component. And speaking of garnishes, that brings me to my next point.
3. Fresh herbs: they elevate a regular old salad to Salad, capital S, please. Even a sprinkle of roughly chopped cilantro adds an immense amount of freshness to a salad. I usually have a bunch of herbs in my crisper and this is an awesome way to use them up before they get all gross. Cilantro is good, as I’ve mention, but also, mint, dill, green onions, chives, parsley, thyme and basil. If you’ve got some edible flowers on hand the add a very pretty punch of color.
4. Dressing: to dress or not to dress, that is the question. Dressing is a personal preference and everyone has their favorite. Usually I tend towards vinaigrettes, but I’ve been known to whip up some homemade ranch to dip my salad greens in. Most people, when serving salads dress them before hand because, let’s face it, it’s hard to toss a salad on a plate. But since one of my top pet peeves is overdressed salad, I usually serve dressing on the side (unless it’s a noodle salad). I’m going to leave this one up to you, but this is one of those cases where it’s best to underdress rather than overdress.
Dressings are where you can really fool around with flavor profiles. Start with a neutral oil, or maybe a flavored oil, if that’s what you’re going for: olive oil, walnut oil, toasted sesame oil, pistachio oil, the list is endless. As is the type of acid you could use. Vinegar is very classic, as are citrus juices. I favor rice vinegar or freshly squeezed lime.
And, lastly, don’t forget the salt and pepper! Or, of course, you could use some fish sauce, soy sauce, ponzu, hot sauce…really, there are so many things you could use to add a big punch.
5. Presentation: save some of the things that are in the salad, to put on top. I like my salads undressed, but tossed. That’s so I don’t accidentally eat all the toppings before I get to the meat (greens/lettuce) of it. I find it deceptive when I get a gorgeously topped salad that’s hiding a big mass of greens. Especially if it’s one of those pass the salad bowl situations. Sometimes, just sometimes, you’re at dinner with someone you don’t know very well who picks all of the good things out of the salad and then leaves you with a bowl of wilted overdressed greens. So please, do everyone a favor and toss your salads. Hold a couple components back before tossing so you can dress up your salad once it’s plated. You want a visual cue for people to know what’s in the salad, but you don’t want to give it all up at once. Salad’s should have depths. Depths in which you might find an errant piece of cheese or perfectly ripe peach.
Whew. That’s a lot of words about salad. I mean, I knew I was obsessive, but I never knew I was that obsessive. Go forth and salad, friends! And please, tell me if you have any cardinal salad rules and what your favorite salad combos are.
Peach and Corn Coleslaw Recipe
prep time: 20 minutes
active time: 10 minutes
total time: 30 minutes
- 2 ears corn
- 2 peaches, sliced (I used white peaches)
- 1/2 small head red cabbage, thinly sliced
- 1/2 large cucumber, or 2-3 small cucumbers, cubed
- 1 jalapeño, diced, optional
- 2 tablespoons freshly chopped cilantro
- 2 tablespoons freshly chopped mint
- juice of 1/2 lime
- 2 tablespoons neutral oil
- 1/2 tablespoon rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Char the corn on your grill or in a grill pan. Alternatively, wrap loosely in a damp paper towel and microwave, on a plate, for 2-3 minutes. Cut the kernels off the cob.
Grill the peaches or simply slice. Toss together the corn, peaches, cabbage, cucumbers, jalapeno, cilantro, and mint. In a small bowl, whisk together the lime juice, oil, rice vinegar and sesame oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Dress the salad bit by bit (you may not need all of the dressing or you may need to make a touch more). Enjoy!