Today’s trip to the Oakland Grand Lake Farmer’s Market has me thinking of Spring and what it means…..fresh lettuces, baby carrots, and other succulent edibles that make up the components for wonderful salads. Here are my tips for putting together a delicious side dish with ingredients you find in stores now and/or at your local Farmer’s Markets.
#1. Get creative with your leafy greens! We are spoiled in CA with a large selection to choose from and there is no excuse for using iceberg (yuck). Instead try out kale, Swiss chard, cabbage or endive for a more bitter and heartier leaf. Want something lighter? try watercress, baby spinach, arugula, butter lettuce, mesclun or little gems. One of my favorite standbys is romaine which the hearts can also be grilled to make tender and smoky good. I often mix more than one type of lettuce in my salads and all the different textures and flavors make it so interesting.
#2. Don’t underestimate the importance of adding in a combo of veggies. It takes prep work, but don’t let that stop you from being adventurous. Adding green or red onions, thin sliced radish, different varieties of mushrooms (not just the ol’ button!) dehydrated or roasted beets, heirloom tomatoes or ripe cherry ones, jicama, and fresh peas are some of the veggies I have used in different combinations. I will always add carrots to my salads either with fine peels/shavings of a large one, or small chops of baby carrots. Nothing is more satisfying than crunching down on an earthy root vegetable or smelling the sweetness of a carrot. The size you chop, slice or dice a veggie is just as important as what you choose since smaller pieces are easier to eat.
#3. Fresh herbs in my salad?! An ingredient I feel is often overlooked is the herb. Either people are not sure how they taste in a salad, or they are too expensive, or they don’t know how to use them….I am not sure the reasons but using fresh chives is a great way to get flavor into an otherwise boring salad. Ditto for basil, cilantro, dill, marjoram, mints (excellent with fruits!) parsley and thyme. Use sparingly for these are similar to a spice and not a vegetable portion. You may want to make a dressing of them instead (crushed up with olive oil), but however you use them they will make your salad delicious.
#4. Want to mix it up even more? Add fruits such as grapefruit slices, grilled peaches, watermelon, strawberries, blueberries, or grapes. Dried fruits such as cranberries and apricots can add some sweetness and tang without making a salad too wet. Nuts are another overlooked item perhaps because they bring a higher fat content but they contain good cholesterol like walnuts, pecans, and almonds. I personally love roasted walnuts, but sunflowers seeds will often do for adding another layer of flavor.
#5. Say yes to cheese! It is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals, although it can be high in fat. My favorite is a soft goat cheese which just seems to really bring out the zest in the veggies while still having its own unique flavor. Another standby is of course an aged Parmesan thinly shaved. Some people might prefer a cheese with more bite such as a blue, feta or gorgonzola, or perhaps a mild ricotta or cottage for a softer palate.
#6. Speaking of proteins…if you want to make your salad a main course instead of a side then fire up the grill! By adding chicken, fish, tofu, etc to your plate it will become a hearty and healthy meal. Think of meat as just another piece in the salad, don’t go overboard with the portion and keep the balance. Using a hard boiled, or poached egg is also a good source of protein and nothing is tastier than a warm yolk over fresh greens…yum
#7. Dress it up, or go naked! There is no rule saying you MUST have a dressing for your salad. If you have grilled any of the veggies or proteins that is often flavorful enough without pouring anything else on top. Sometimes with fresh fruit or herbs, and/or a poached egg there is enough moisture there to blend all the components together. To keep it light use an olive oil based dressing with vinaigrette, or a citrusy blend. A good creamier dressing I often use is a Caesar which can be made fresh with this recipe by Alton Brown
#8. Last but not least….don’t forget the salt & pepper! Seasonings are often overlooked unless your dressing is pre-made in the bottle which usually has too much salt. I love fresh cracked pepper for spice, and a little salt goes a long way.
Above all you should have fun with trying out different combinations and keeping it seasonal will be more flavorful. By mixing up your “mixed salad” you will hopefully not be bored, and instead look forward to the first course (or main!) as much as you do the last.