Salad 101

Salad 101

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.

A fully catered picnic

At least a year ago, maybe two, I was sitting in a park and I imagined a “pop-up picnic” vendor that would roll up with a cargo bike and sell full picnics complete with a blanket and a bottle of wine. In my fantasy, picnickers would get a tote bag filled with tasty food, plus all the things they’d need to enjoy them, like glasses and cutlery. I realized though that in reality you’d have better luck, financially, if the picnics were pre-ordered, the way one reserves and pre-pays for a supper club. Continue reading “A fully catered picnic”

Pantry Update #10: Everyday Chinese

I’ve finally built up the pantry and experience to throw together a Chinese-inspired light meal with little to no planning or need to consult a recipe.

Dish #39: Chili oil

Having a great tasting chili oil around is key. A great chili oil can make almost any vegetable into a cold salad, or make any noodles a meal. Throw cilantro on there and boom: you’ve got a meal.

Continue reading “Pantry Update #10: Everyday Chinese”

Pantry Update #9: Fish curry

I decided to do a pantry update with just one dish, so I could write down all the details of a highly successful experiment. Although I was working without a recipe, I was following tips from the colleague who recommend the brand of fish curry masala, and cross-pollinated those tips with the instructions from the side of the box of masala. I was very happy with the result: a flavourful sauce and perfectly cooked fish.

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Christmas cookies: sandbakelse

I decided to attempt another tricky European cookie this Christmas: this time Norwegian sandbakelse (also “sandbakkels” or “sandkaker”). They are a crisp almond-flavored sugar cookie baked in special aluminum tart molds. I have probably only had them once or twice, over 30 years ago, and as far as I know, no one in my family makes them anymore. Although they are very tasty, they’re kind of a pain. I haven’t quite decided if they’re worth it yet. But when I took the first bite, I did think: “Oh yeah, I have definitely had these before.”

Continue reading “Christmas cookies: sandbakelse”

Christmas cookies: Springerle

I’ve always hesitated to write about Christmas cookies because, honestly, they’re kind of boring to read about unless you’re specifically looking for a recipe. And everyone already has their favorites anyway. But I figured Springerle are different because they’re so pretty and old fashioned. I know Springerle as a Southern German cookie, but Wikipedia says they’re eaten in Switzerland, Alsace, parts of Austria and Hungary too. Although they basically taste like an anise-flavored sugar cookie, the process for making them is different than a standard sugar cookie. And not just because of the beautiful molds used to shape them.

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Grilled Greek Salad

When brainstorming dinner plans (as we drank our breakfast coffees) I said I was thinking of perhaps roasting vegetables. Fronx said he would rather have something crunchy, like a Greek salad. Vegetables and low effort was the main motivation for me suggesting roasted vegetables, so I agreed that Greek salad was also good.

But thinking about romaine lettuce reminded me of the fantastic grilled meal we’d had over at Ole’s in the summer …

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Biángbiáng noodles

The only thing I wanted to eat when I was in NYC was Chinese food that I can’t get in Berlin. I succeeded.

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This was exactly what I wanted.

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In addition to a lunch stop at Congee Village, I ended up having what is my new all time favourite Chinese dish, Biángbiáng noodles, from the Shaanxi province, brought to New York by Xi’an Famous Foods in 2005. I have since learned, from this great post on Lady and Pups, that “Xi’an famous foods” is a known phrase in Chinese referring to a collection of dishes from Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province. The chain has been so successful and influential that is even has its own Wikipedia entry.

Upon my return – actually, no, it was when I was still at Newark waiting for the plane home – I looked up how to get these amazingly sloppy, slippery wide noodles in Berlin. And the only way was to make them myself. Using the Lady and Pups recipes as my guide, I made a vegetarian version using a trio of mushrooms instead of lamb.

Continue reading “Biángbiáng noodles”

Banh mi at home

Recently, Kristin and Sebastian gave me an all-things-banh-mi cookbook titled The Banh Mi Handbook. For me, it turned out to be the perfect sort of gift; something you never knew you wanted, but turn out to love.

Flipping through, it was clear how all the individual components were perfectly manageable, and most could be made ahead. Plus (yay!) it included a recipe for the soft, steamed variation of buns, which I think are the perfect size for experimenting with topping combinations.

Continue reading “Banh mi at home”