A couple friends have asked me for salad tips recently. I don’t think of myself as any kind of salad expert but I guess I am pretty salad competent. I rarely use a recipe for salad even though I’m often drawn to salad recipes. Some of my recent successful experiments: red endive salad, grilled Greek salad, and larb-inspired salad.

In this post, I’ll share my approach to serving (mostly) vegetables (mostly) raw. I break down my approach into Serving, Ingredients, Dressing, Toppings. Maybe you’ll find it helpful 🙂

For non veg-oriented salads, Epicurious has an actually great “without a recipe” series, including posts on grain salads, chicken salads, and potato salads. They also have a collection they call “Best Salad Recipes” to get you started if you prefer more guidance and a tested combination.

Serving: don’t toss it

It might seem weird to put “serving” up front, but if I did not, you might make your salad by putting all the cut ingredients in a bowl, then pour the dressing on top, and toss it. This is fine, but you might end with a mess and all the yummy bits at the bottom.

For a MUCH prettier salad, especially when serving something simple to only a small number of people:

  • EITHER: toss each ingredient separately in a bit a dressing, and then distribute them on a nice plate, or among plates
  • OR: arrange all the ingredients on a plate, and then drizzle the dressing over everything

Ingredients: what goes with what?

Okay, this might be the part where people get stuck. If you start with any kind of lettuce as a base, you are making it harder because most lettuce is mostly boring.

Try this process instead:

  1. Pick one vegetable or fruit that you feel excited about or wonder how to serve, and make that the base. Examples: fennel, ripe tomatoes, endive (yeah, it’s kinda like a lettuce. Shush), cucumber, watermelon, green beans (you’ll need to blanch them).
  2. Pick a second vegetable, fruit, or herb to be in the supporting role. Think beyond the usual salad suspects like onion and tomato (though those are great, especially just the two of them together). Think contrasting colours or texture.
  3. Pick a topping which is especially contrasting in either colour or texture or flavour.
  4. Craft a dressing that ties it together. (More on that below)

Something I do a lot when experimenting is I do a Google search for two ingredients and “recipe” and see what other ideas are out there.

Dressing: dead easy

Sure, there are other kinds of dressings besides vinaigrette, but let’s keep it simple and stick to that. The components of any vinaigrette are:

  • two parts oil
  • one part acid (vinegar or fresh citrus juice)
  • seasonings – optional
    • e.g. salt, pepper, dry or fresh herbs, chili flakes, spices like ground cumin
  • something sweet, when the acid is strong, or you pull back on the oil – optional
    • e.g. pinch of sugar, honey, jelly
  • binder – optional
    • e.g. mustard, cooked egg yolk, yoghurt, miso paste, tahini

You really can stop at just oil and acid. A touch of mustard and sugar helps it cling to the salad, and amps up the flavour. Whisk everything, and then taste it by dipping your pinky in, and adjust the ingredients. More oil if the whole thing is too strong, or you want it to stretch further. A bit of sugar if it’s too acidic. More binder if the oil sits on top. More acid if it’s bland. You can also poke a bit of veg in there then eat it, if you want to get a taste in context.

The choice of oil and acid is a matter of your taste, what you have on hand, and what you are putting it on. Here are my own mental guides:

  • olive oil by default
  • neutral oil on fruits
  • balsamic on strong greens
  • white balsamic when I want to the salad colours to pop
  • red wine vinegar when tomatoes are the base
  • red wine vinegar or lemon juice when going in a Mediterranean/Greek direction
  • orange or lemon juice with fennel
  • lime juice when going in a Central American or Asian direction

What else you add is also up to you, but here are my guides:

  • more salt and pepper than you maybe think; they have to season the whole salad!
  • oregano when going in a Mediterranean/Greek direction
  • dijon by default, but changing up the mustard is an easy way to get out of a rut
  • nut oil or seed oil (e.g. walnut, pumpkin seed, sesame) either entirely or partially as a seasoning

After that, you might put some other ingredients in your salad that are might be better distributed via the dressing. Think:

  • poppy seeds
  • sesame seeds
  • finely chopped shallot, pickles, radish

Toppings: add some glam

Recently, I have been tuned into putting “toppings” on my salad, sprinkled on the top. These add texture, flavour, contrast, and eye appeal. I think adding even one topping can take a salad from just a salad to “oh my, what beautiful food”. Multiple of these can also be stunning. Some ideas:

  • sunflower, pumpkin, sesame seeds
  • capers
  • thinly sliced radish
  • thinly sliced rings of onion
  • chives or herbs
  • toasted nuts
  • crumbled cheese
  • croutons – I have literally never done this, but it seems obvious these go here

A final tip: buy a mandoline

A good knife will only get you so far. If you really want to serve gorgeous salad, buy a mandoline AKA a slicer. Mine is a Japanese import, and I use a Microplane cut-resistant glove with it, cuz I’m a snob. (Actually it’s because I hate owning crap. Is there a difference?) I don’t use a mandoline for every salad I make, but I swear it makes fennel taste better.

Some inspiration:

Fennel side salad with pasta
I paired thinly sliced fennel with even thinner red onion, topped with capers, in a white balsamic dressing.
Red endive salad and yellow tomato salad
Two salads! A simple tomato and onion salad, but with yellow tomatoes and red onion for flare. A red endive salad with capers and radish. Notice how what makes this salad gorgeous is how I laid out the endive.
Cut fennel with seasoned olive oil
This hardly even counts as a salad, but it shares all the ideas: I served unadorned wedges of fennel with a bowl of olive oil with salt and cracked pepper. You eat the vegetables by dipping them in the seasoned oil. I got this from my Aperitivo drinks and snacks book.
Baby greens, cherry tomatoes, aged-cheddar
I put this salad together while writing this post. Because it’s lettuce-based, it was not very filling, so it was not a meal on its own. I combined baby greens, vine-ripened cherry tomatoes, and mature cheddar that I sliced with a vegetable slicer into shavings. I did not make a dressing, but drizzled it with pumpkin seed oil, “Crema di Balsamico”, and then cracked on black pepper and rock salt.

2 thoughts on “Salad 101

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