Photo by jules. Whether it's Leslie Knope, the non-Lisa Simpsons, Vernon Dursley, or your racist uncle who draws scientifically bunk parallels between salad consumption and gender identity, I can't think of a food that's cooler to hate than salad. That's really too bad, because a well-constructed salad is one of life's great pleasures.
Mastering the art of cooking is a lifelong pursuit, but honestly, it's pretty easy to make meat taste good. It's not that I'm unimpressed by a perfect medium-rare rib-eye or a meltingly tender duck confit; I'm just far more impressed by chefs who treat vegetables with as much care and attention as they do meat. A few balanced and exciting salads on an otherwise meat-forward menu indicates, to me, a chef who truly gives a damn about what they do. Sure, salads can be light and "healthy" (whatever that means), but they're also a master class in texture and flavour balance, which is why every cook should master at least a couple.
Fair warning: this is less of a step-by-step guide to salad construction than it is a meditation on the beauty and sheer possibilities of an unfairly-maligned dish. Of course, there are tips and tricks for everything from ingredient selection to dressing recipes, but my goal in writing this is to inspire you to look at salad a little differently, and hopefully, welcome it into your life with open arms.
Know Thyself (and Thine Preferences)
Photo: Lou Setjskal.
When I told my boyfriend that I was writing a piece about how great salad is, he laughed and reminded me of the weeks-old, unopened bucket of spring mix in our fridge that I refuse to eat. (It's far from the first time this has happened, too.) He has a point, but who among us hasn't bought salad greens with wide-eyed, misguided hopes that this bucket of leaves would finally release the joyful salad-eater within?
"A pile of leaves with some other shit on top" is a frustratingly common definition for "salad," and I think it's why so many people hate it. It's okay to dislike lettuce; it kinda sucks, honestly. Once I ditched boring (and overpriced!) spring mix for more robust greens like kale, cabbage, mustard greens, and arugula, I started appreciating salad so much more. As with most things in life, you gotta know what you like and be honest with yourself about it.
Speaking of which, you don't have to like raw vegetables to eat more salad. Even very omnivorous people have texture issues; plus, some folks' systems just reject them outright. Anything can be the base for a salad, from roasted squash to leftover rice to stale old bread. Start with ingredients you know you like and go from there.
Consider Both the Forest and the Trees
A well-executed salad is a symphony of tastes and textures; each element has to work individually and as part of the whole. The best way to accomplish this is by seasoning each ingredient separately before assembling your salad. I know that sounds extra as hell, but it doesn't have to be. Just sprinkling a pinch of salt on a bowl of greens before dressing them makes a world of difference.
Of course, you can take it further than salt. It's your salad and you can do whatever you want. Take a minute to massage raw kale or mustard greens with oil and a pinch of salt before adding the other ingredients; it's totally worth it. Go ahead and pickle your own celery for tuna salad, or roast up some carrots and mushrooms for a marinated lentil salad.
Toss apples with lemon juice to prevent them from browning too much in a delicate slaw. Shave off huge strips of Parmesan with a vegetable peeler so the cheese becomes a distinct textural element. Making your own mayonnaise is a noble undertaking and I support you all the way, especially if you use it to dress a sous-vide chicken salad.
Make Better Dressing
Photo: Steven Jackson.
It's a cliché by now, but making your own dressing is the best way to start enjoying salad more. I make all of mine with an immersion blender. If you don't have one, a mason jar works wonderfully; just be sure to finely mince any solid ingredients like garlic and herbs before adding them to the jar.
The words to keep in mind when making salad dressing are intensity and balance. A good dressing isn't something you can happily slurp up by the spoonful; it should be so aggressively seasoned that your mouth puckers a little when you taste it. Since I make very intense dressings, I always add something sweet to balance the salt and acidity. Here are three of my favourite recipes to get you started.
This is a total classic. It works equally well on a grain-and-roasted-vegetable salad as it does on one with arugula, red onions, blue cheese, and thinly-sliced rare steak.
- ½ cup balsamic vinegar
- ¾ cup vegetable or canola oil
- 2 tsp. Salt, plus more to taste
- 2 tsp. Honey, plus more to taste
- 1 tsp. Dijon mustard (smooth)
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and smashed
- Black pepper to taste
Combine everything except the pepper in a plastic soup container (or any container with a mouth wide enough to accommodate the head of an immersion blender). Blend until very smooth, then taste and adjust seasoning if needed. When you're happy with the balance, add plenty of freshly cracked black pepper and stir to combine. It will keep in the refrigerator for about a week.
I like this dressing best on a salad with julienne-d raw beets, a ton of chopped cilantro (or parsley), and chicken breast.
- ½ cup freshly-squeezed lemon juice
- ¾ cup vegetable or canola oil
- 2 Tb. miso paste
- 2 tsp. honey
- 1 tsp. Dijon mustard
- Big pinch of salt
- Pepper to taste
Combine everything except the salt and pepper in a plastic soup container and process with an immersion blender until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed; you may or may not need extra salt depending on the miso paste you used. Add black pepper to taste and stir to combine. This one keeps in the refrigerator for 2 weeks.
This dressing is the star of my summer 2017 salad obsession. I mix shredded Napa cabbage with julienned carrots, celery, and serrano pepper, then top with pickled red onions and plenty of this stuff. It's fresh, crunchy, and addictive as hell.
- ¼ cup mayonnaise
- ¼ cup full-fat Greek yogurt (sour cream is also good)
- ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
- 2 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. sugar
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
- 2 scallions, chopped
- Handful of cilantro leaves, chopped
- Handful of parsley leaves, chopped
Combine everything except the scallions, cilantro, and parsley in a plastic soup container and process with an immersion blender until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning; once you're happy with the base, add the scallions and blend until smooth. Add the chopped herbs last and pulse a few times to combine. This will keep in the refrigerator for 3-4 days.
There have to be some folks out there who feel as passionately about salad as I do. I would like to hear about the best salad you've ever eaten, and what made it so great. Tell me about it in the comments!