Nothing pleases the palate in summertime like salad: garden lettuces drizzled with red-wine vinaigrette, heirloom tomatoes with basil and fresh mozzarella, or quinoa with peppers, cucumber, and avocado. Warm weather inspires simple, healthful fare, and a salad bowl is the ultimate showcase for the season's kaleidoscope of produce.
Still, when dinnertime comes, salad is often overlooked as a main-course option—it's a nice sidekick but seldom the star. Maybe that's because it can be hard to match the inspired, carefully prepared salads served in restaurants, where each heart of endive is exquisitely dressed, every grain of quinoa is perfectly tender, and slices of avocado are fanned artfully across the plate.
But suppose you could make salads that really sparkled and were satisfying enough to be a light main course? By using heartier portions and adding nutrient-dense ingredients such as avocado, lentils, and quinoa, even the most delicate greens can become dinner, says Tasha DeSerio, the author of Salad for Dinner. And making spectacular salads is easier than it sounds.
Keep It Simple
In fact, the secret to a great salad may lie in simplicity, itself. DeSerio, a vinyasa practitioner and former cook at the iconic Berkeley, California, restaurant Chez Panisse, suggests limiting yourself to a handful of ingredients when preparing a salad. You might start with a classic summer pairing such as corn and green beans and then add mushrooms and shallots; or for a heartier meal, combine protein-rich lentils with roasted peppers and a toasted-garlic vinaigrette. But resist the temptation to keep adding more ingredients. "Sometimes our first instinct with salad is to do more," she says. "But oftentimes — especially with good-quality ingredients—it's better to do less. Creativity in the kitchen is as much about what you leave out as what you put in."
Take a Taste
When you're making salads, get in the habit of tasting as you go—beginning at the market. At farmers' markets, sampling the produce is standard procedure, so don't be shy about making the same request at your local store. And if something doesn't taste great to you, don't buy it. "If you hone the practice of tasting regularly," says DeSerio, "you'll remember that a tomato last week was better than this week's. You'll become more in tune with what's happening at the market and with what you like."
Keep tasting at every stage as you create your salad. Sample raw veggies, which can be surprisingly sweet or bitter. Taste grains and vegetables after cooking and again after seasoning. Then, try your dressing. When each of the components is delicious, your salad is sure to be, too.
Reserve the slightly wilted veggies in the back of the refrigerator for the soup pot. When you're making a raw salad, you want your salad greens, fruits, and vegetables to be absolutely fresh, says Gilbert Pilgram, co-owner of Zuni Café in San Francisco. In a cooked dish, he says, "you can take a tomato that's a little bit mushy and do tricks to it—smash it up, add a lot of spice and oil. But when it's in the raw, you cannot hide behind any tricks; your product must be in very, very good shape."
Dress For Success
Nothing makes a salad sing like a dressing that starts with the simple combination of good-quality oil and vinegar. Made from unrefined oil from the first cold press, extra-virgin olive oil is a flavorful choice for salads. Varieties differ in taste—from mild to strong, or from fruity to grassy or peppery—and in price. Sample a few to see what suits your palate and budget.
Vinegars give dressings their character and add an acidity to salads that makes the other flavors stand out. Mild rice vinegar, sharp cider vinegar, red and white wine vinegars, champagne or mellow balsamic—each has its own unique qualities. DeSerio favors artisanal vinegars, which are made from a living starter and produced in small batches over several months. Because their flavor develops slowly, she says, they have a rich, complex taste. Can't choose a favorite? Don't be afraid to combine two vinegars in one dressing. "I love to experiment with vinegar," DeSerio says. "I probably have eight different kinds in my cabinet."
The Right Cut
"Making salad is an art," says DeSerio. "A delicious, healthful art." And indeed, the beauty of a carefully composed salad makes this evident. But there's more to cutting vegetables for a salad than just aesthetic appeal. "I consider the overall taste, texture, and the look of the salad before I start cutting," says DeSerio. Varying your chopping and cutting techniques produces different flavor combinations on the fork and in the mouth, DeSerio explains. If your ingredients are diced, you'll get a variety of tastes and textures in one bite; thinly slivered vegetables offer a crisp hint of flavor; larger chunks mean more distinct flavors in the mouth.
Handle With Care
Putting a salad together requires a gentle hand. Blot delicate greens dry so the excess water doesn't dilute the dressing. After placing ingredients in the bowl, drizzle the dressing around the edge of the bowl, and then gently mix to evenly distribute it, suggests Pilgram. Use your hands instead of tongs to toss the greens so they don't get bruised, and avoid stirring or tossing a salad once you've added fragile ingredients like berries or avocado.
Though the possibilities are endless, a few ingredients are common to every salad: attention to quality, careful awareness, and the intention to nurture yourself and your loved ones with delicious, wholesome food. It's that simple.
Get the Recipes!
Use the following three recipes to get a delicious and healthy taste of summer...
Lavinia Spalding is the author of Writing Away.