One way to come up with consistently satisfying salads is to treat creating them as a game. Over the years I've been collecting ideas to keep our daily salads exciting.
As a salad base, I often combine a green salad and a Mediterranean diced vegetable salad (classically tomatoes, cucumber and a bit of onion) and moisten it with a light dressing of extra virgin olive oil, fresh lemon juice, salt and freshly ground pepper. With good quality vegetables, this colorful mixture tastes fine by itself, but I seldom stop there. To make the salad more enticing, I top it with a treat.
At the market, I'm always looking for special salad surprises. Pungent foods like preserved lemons, spicy Indian pickles, capers, and thin slices of the trendy, surprisingly sweet black garlic are perfect for enlivening salads. Cheeses and olives are obvious choices, but there's no need to stick to the same old shredded cheddar and canned sliced olives. As a change of pace, try creamy Bulgarian feta or goat cheese, or oil-cured or herb-marinated olives. Ethnic markets are full of exotic items that make great salad garnishes, like spicy-sweet tofu snacks at Asian groceries and roasted chickpeas at Middle Eastern shops.
A salad is an ideal opportunity for experimenting with produce you don't generally use. Try purslane, a succulent herb valued for its omega-3 content and available at Mexican markets, where it is labeled "verdolaga." Thin dice of jicama, also at its best at Mexican markets, is another salad favorite of mine for its sweetness and delicate, apple-like crunch. Unfamiliar fruits like sliced loquats, pomegranate seeds and deep red dried goji berries provide a sweet-tangy accent, good for dressing up simple salads.
If luscious summer-ripe tomatoes haven't yet arrived at the store, there are other ways to provide color and moisture to salads. Instead of pale, tasteless tomatoes, enjoy lettuce mixtures enhanced with the bright flavors of kiwi, pineapple or Maradol papaya, also called Mexican papaya. For a lively addition to baby greens, Cathy Thomas, author of "Melissa's Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce," uses diced mango and fresh blueberries. If you've bought some peaches or apricots that aren't as sweet as you had hoped, add them to a savory salad; when paired this way, you are likely to enjoy both the fruit and the greens more.
Try using familiar vegetables in different ways as salad embellishments. If you've never tasted fresh, raw asparagus tips, you're in for a treat. Fresh sweet corn kernels and slivers of sugar snap peas are delicious uncooked too, and so are slices of very fresh, white mushrooms and small pieces of Chinese long beans.
Cubes or slices of roasted, grilled or sauteed vegetables make salads more substantial. Roasted eggplant cubes and pepper strips are particularly good, especially in salads containing tomatoes and feta cheese. Other roasted vegetables such as asparagus pieces, broccoli florets and carrot slices are appetizing salad toppers too; so are sauteed mushrooms and sliced cooked artichoke bottoms. Even cooked beets make surprisingly tasty additions to salads of raw vegetables. I learned this trick in Paris, where we bought ready-cooked beets at our neighborhood outdoor market; convenient steamed baby beets are now available in North American supermarkets.
Nuts may be our favorite salad garnish of all. I keep a selection on hand and alternate them. Walnuts are a terrific match for most vegetables, as long as they taste fresh; I store mine in the freezer. Pecans and roasted peanuts complement veggies beautifully; so do roasted and smoked almonds and nut-like roasted edamame (green soybeans).
Cooked beans, whether red, black, chickpeas or shelled edamame, make appealing, filling toppings and add a pleasing textural contrast to crisp vegetables. Add them in generous amounts, and the salad becomes a main course. For entree salads you can also add poached or smoked salmon, grilled chicken or meat, or flavored tofu.
A few salad tips:
• When using onions, cut them in very thin slices. Nobody wants a mouthful of raw onion. If they smell very sharp, rinse the slices briefly and pat them dry before adding them to the salad.
• Cut sturdy greens, like outer romaine leaves or red cabbage, in thin strips so they won't be tough.
• To vary the dressings, use walnut oil, hazelnut oil or herb-flavored olive oil, or substitute wine vinegar or lime juice for the lemon juice.
• Add enough dressing to moisten the salad elements, especially the greens, so they will not be dry, but not enough to make a pool at the bottom of the bowl.
COLORFUL CHOPPED SALAD WITH PAPAYA, PURSLANE AND WALNUTS
Makes 4 servings
Salads have been playing an increasingly important role in making meals nutritious. In my kitchen this attractive, easy-to-make salad evolved from the standard Israeli salad of finely diced tomatoes, cucumber, onions and parsley. The papaya found its way into the salad when I was out of tomatoes. We liked the papaya in the salad so much that we often add it even when we have tomatoes also.
When using purslane (verdolaga), you can use the whole sprig, including the stems, but the leaves are most attractive. Purslane is very perishable; handle it gently and use it within 3 days of purchase. For a Mexican themed salad you can substitute pepitas, or green Mexican pumpkin seeds, for the walnuts, use lime juice in the dressing instead of lemon juice, and omit the preserved lemon.
Moroccan style salt-preserved lemons are available at specialty shops. To make this a Moroccan inspired salad, omit the papaya and beets and top the salad with sliced cooked artichoke bottoms and black olives.
- 2 cups chopped romaine lettuce
- 1/4 hothouse cucumber or 1/2 medium cucumber, peeled and cut in small dice
- 1/2 cup peeled, diced jicama (optional)
- 2 radishes, cut in half slices
- 1/4 cup chopped green onion (optional)
- 2 to 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil or walnut oil
- 2 to 4 tablespoons strained fresh lemon juice or wine vinegar
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- Cayenne pepper
- 4 plum tomatoes, cut in small dice
- 1 1/2 cups peeled diced Mexican papaya
- 4 to 6 sprigs of purslane (verdolaga), coarsely chopped
- 2 cooked baby beets, cut in thin half slices or 1/2 large cooked beet, cut in thin quarter slices
- 1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley
- 1/4 to 1/3 cup walnut halves or pieces
- Thin strips of preserved lemon (optional)
In a salad bowl mix romaine with cucumber dice, jicama, radishes and green onion.
In a small bowl whisk oil with lemon juice and salt, pepper and cayenne to taste. Add dressing to salad mixture and mix well. Taste and adjust seasoning.
A short time before serving, top salad with diced tomato and papaya, then with purslane. Arrange beet slices around edge of bowl. Top a few of the beet slices with preserved lemon strips. Sprinkle salad with chopped parsley and garnish with walnut halves. Serve cold or at room temperature.
GOJI BERRY AND ALMOND-TOPPED SALAD WITH JICAMA, PEACHES AND PERSIAN CUCUMBER
You can find goji berries in specialty stores and barberries in Middle Eastern shops; or substitute dried cranberries, which you can find at any supermarket. Halved kiwi slices are a good addition to this salad.
Makes 2 or 3 servings.
- One 6- to 8-ounce piece jicama
- 3 cups mild lettuce, such as butter lettuce or iceberg lettuce, chopped, or baby spinach
- 1/2 cup finely shredded red cabbage
- 2 small slim Persian cucumbers or 1/4 hothouse cucumber, unpeeled, diced
- 2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 to 2 tablespoons strained fresh lemon juice
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2 or 3 peaches or nectarines or 1 cup diced Maradol papaya
- 1/3 cup toasted or raw almonds, halved
- 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons goji berries, barberries or dried cranberries
To prepare jicama, cut it in half and cut off its peel with a sturdy knife, removing the fibrous layer below the brown skin as well. Cut the jicama in thin slices, then into dice. In a salad bowl, mix lettuce with red cabbage, jicama and cucumber.
In a small bowl whisk oil with lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Add dressing to salad mixture and mix well. Taste and adjust seasoning.
A short time before serving, slice or dice peaches. Top salad with peaches, nectarines or papaya. Sprinkled with almonds and goji berries. Serve cold or at room temperature.
ASPARAGUS-TOPPED DINNER SALAD WITH SNOW PEAS, TOMATOES AND WALNUTS
In this salad the greens are topped with lightly cooked asparagus and snow peas. For a festive touch, you can enrich the cooked vegetables by briefly sauteing them in extra virgin olive oil before adding them to the salad.
If you would like to use raw asparagus in this or other, use only the upper third of slim, tender asparagus.
Makes 3 or 4 servings
- 1/2 pound asparagus spears, thin or medium
- 1/2 cup snow peas or sugar snap peas
- 4 cups chopped romaine hearts or mixed baby lettuces
- 3 or 4 plum tomatoes, cut in wedges
- 1/3 cup walnut halves or pieces
- 1 or 2 green onions, chopped
- 2 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil or walnut oil
- 1 to 2 tablespoons strained fresh lemon juice or white wine vinegar
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
Cut off bottom quarter of asparagus spears. Cut rest of each spear in 1-inch pieces. Remove ends of snow peas or sugar snap peas, pulling off any strings, and cut peas in two diagonally.
Cook asparagus uncovered in a pan of boiling salted water to cover over high heat until crisp tender; pencil-thin asparagus needs only about 2 minutes, thicker asparagus 3 to 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon, rinse with cold water and drain. Add snow peas or sugar snap peas to boiling water and cook uncovered over high heat until crisp tender, about 1 minute for snow peas or 2 minutes for sugar snap peas. Remove with a slotted spoon, rinse with cold water, and drain well.
If you wish, saute the asparagus and snow peas: Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add asparagus, snow peas, salt and pepper and saute for 1 or 2 minutes. Transfer to a plate.
In a small bowl whisk remaining oil with lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste.
In a shallow salad bowl combine romaine and green onions. Add to salad mixture and toss well. Taste and adjust seasoning. Top with asparagus, snow peas, tomato wedges and walnuts. Serve warm or at room temperature.