It is my fervent belief that any lunch or dinner food a person truly loves can be fashioned into a respectable, maybe even legendary, entrée salad. And I am on a mission to prove this.
Yesterday morning, after coffee and chores but before breakfast, I splashed in my too-big flip-flops out to the vegetable garden to see what might be ready for harvest. The grass was ankle-high and soaked with fresh rain. My calves and shins were quickly speckled with mud. I passed through the garden gate, collected a heaping bowl of big, glossy, tangy-sweet black berries and admired the growing pepper plants. Then I turned to my right toward the raised beds that house mostly tomatoes and leafy greens. I have been harvesting the greens so aggressively, and we have enjoyed such a glorious first few weeks of true summer heat, that I keep expecting to find bolted, seedy stalks where my tender salad bar used to be. The snow peas and spinach have now surrendered to the hot new season, after all. Instead, much to my delight, the remaining plants just get bigger and prettier. Ferny, spiky mesclun and fancy lettuces, soft, sunny leaf lettuce, a rainbow of kale colors in just as many sizes and textures, now baby Romaine and arugula are joining the party. I have every shade of green popping up and providing me ruffled vitamins and roughage every single day. And for this I am so grateful.
It really supports my salad habit.
I eat a lot of salad, and not just when I’m “dieting.”
Because, friends, salad is King. I believe deep down in my very healthy guts that besides coffee, salad is the best possible food you can ingest. Salad is pleasure food, not deprivation food. It provides variety. It opens the door to endless streams of flavor and nutrition. Different kinds of salad greens grow rampantly all over the world in all sorts of conditions and are usually affordable to buy if you don’t want to grow your own. A well constructed salad will fill you up, energize you, and help you feel happy but not guilty. Salad will get you to efficiently scrape out all the weird ingredients in your kitchen while you wait for pay day.
Salad is just the bomb-dot-com.
I am, however, kind of a salad snob. Sometimes at restaurants I embarrass Handsome by asking our server too many questions about a salad on the menu before ordering. I just hate to be disappointed, you know? And they can be so expensive at restaurants, I want to know what I’m getting.
So I build them at home to guarantee success and in recent months have been paying more scrutinous attention to what makes a salad truly great. What are the elements of salad design that bring a bowl or plate of the stuff from just ordinary to knock-your-socks-off? Okay. This is what I have so far:
- Variety of leaves. The best salads have at least two different green leaves: One crunchy (like Romaine or iceberg but including so much more) and one leafy (like red sails) or leathery (like spinach). Mix it up! Use wild greens if you can. Try arugula, mesclun, kale, anything you can find. Aim for a mix of shades of green or purple. Add cabbage. Pea shoots if they are in season. Reach waaaaaay beyond anemic heads of limp, yellow lettuce.
- Wash and dry. We all know to rinse our raw food first, but don’t forget to get rid of that extra water, too. Spin it, shake it, dab it with a flour sack towel, whatever you fancy. Just don’t sabotage your creation with a puddle of tap water in the bottom of your bowl. Fairly dry leaves will accept dressing better, too.
- Additional produce. Can it even be called a salad if there’s not at least one other fruit or vegetable scattered throughout? Veggies are high in fiber and low in calories. Fruit is just magical. The best carbs. They both provide crunch, flavor, moisture, visual appeal, and so many nutrients. Go for variety again, and when chopping, err on the side of small and bite-sized. Use fresh and raw veggies. Shred some carrots or broccoli stalks after you’ve eaten the trees. Use that last apple in your fruit bowl, sliced thinly. Try some fire roasted corn sliced off the cob, marinated and roasted peppers, anything! I save every little extra bowl of cooked veggies from our meals to use in lunch salads throughout the week. So far nothing has been disappointing. Getting really creative with salad add-ins is a wonderful way to cut waste in your kitchen.
- Protein. The world is your oyster here. (haha) Whatever your mouth and your belly desire is a good call for your salad. My favorites are fried or hard-boiled eggs, black beans, and grilled chicken breast or grilled steak. I also like a can of well drained tuna. Just anything that will help the meal gain some heft and staying power. We recently started eating at a local BBQ restaurant that serves the most delicious entrée salad! You choose your meat, and about four ounces of it is served in the center of the mixed, chopped salad, like in a little well, and it’s perfect. Just the right amount. I had never had pulled pork like that before, and it was wonderful. The dish included roasted corn, diced tomatoes, a tiny speck of cheese, and a drizzle of their barbecue-ranch dressing, so despite having had a “salad for dinner,” I felt like I feasted on BBQ. Legit.
- Easy on the dressing and let’s be creative. I know it’s a joke, but salad really is not just an excuse for lots of creamy dressing. Too much can ruin a really good thing, so this is my plea for the world to lighten up with how we top our salad plates. Train your mouth to crave the flavors of the food, not the topping. Try squeezing some lemons all over the leaves first and then add a little sea salt and black pepper. Just that! You may not need anything else, especially if you have built a good variety of flavors and textures on your plate. Eggs make a great binding dressing. Or, if you want, maybe just a teaspoon of good olive oil. Salsa is an excellent dressing for Tex-Mex entrée salads. Also, chunks of pineapple or watermelon can serve as both bulk and moisture. These fruity options aren’t calorie-free, but they aren’t empty calories either. Stir it all together to distribute the deliciousness.
- Something crunchy or chewy. This is just me, but after all of that has been accomplished I like to have one crunchy or chewy element. Something strong for my teeth. It can be raw veggies, or seeds, or roasted chickpeas, maybe crispy tortilla strips or torn and microwaved corn tortillas, but rarely croutons. Unless they are homemade and so worth the calories. Just a little, though. Just a little bit of crunch or chew goes a long way. Sometimes the protein works for this.
Two Great Salads Recently:
Monday night our farm menu was Spaghetti Carbonara. We love that dish! I love it a lot. Maybe too much. So at the last minute I decided to both trim down the carbs on my dinner and capitalize on the day’s green garden bounty by refashioning carbonara into a salad. It was divine.
The basic flavors of carbonara are bacon, parmesan, and raw egg. I included these, plus fresh Roma tomatoes and some parsley and called it perfect. For my salad, the eggs were hard-boiled and grated. I also added lemon juice for moisture and because I think lemon and egg taste great together.
Maybe it seems more like a BLT at this point, but to me it read as carbonara. So good.
So good, friends.
That was last night.
Tonight I had in the fridge a handful of leftover chicken-zuchinni poppers needing to be used up. Salad opportunity! So I reheated them, cut them in half, and tossed them onto a heaping helping of the same garden greens as yesterday plus more tomatoes, one hard-boiled egg chopped up, and some lemon juice again. So easy! I was full long before my bowl was empty. I have zero guilt about this meal. It’s both healthy and economical.
Are you with me? Do you too believe that salad is pleasure food, not deprivation or punishment food? And that any food you already love can easily translate to the famous (glorious) big bowl of greens? Does your appetite include anything I’ve mentioned, or something more? What’s your favorite salad combination? I started a Pinterest board all about this, so feel free to send me ideas! Basically I’m obsessed.
We’re gonna talk more very soon about this mission to prove that any food can become a spectacular salad. But I’ve kept you long enough for tonight. : )