Fearless Fresh writer Steve Voser is back with four great bits of advice for creating epically delicious dinner salads. If you’re bored with salad, let this article be your guide to salad ascension. Also, check out my rant on why salad sucks. -SS
Side and Dinner Salads with Personality
We all know how important it is to eat salads, and dinner salads are fast, healthy way to get dinner on the table. Unfortunately, too many people think of salad as that boring green stuff that restaurants sneak in before you get your steak and fries. I’m going to try to change the “salad stigma” and show you that, by following four simple tricks, you can create awesome, delicious dinner salads you’ll happily eat, even as a main meal.
Here are four examples of great salads, some of which make dinner salads, that illustrate the points below:
- Farro salad with sweet corn, cherry tomatoes, and arugula
- Black bean salad with sweet corn, cucumber, and parsley
- Hearty grain-based couscous salad with pickled rhubarb
1. Learn Your Greens
The base to most traditional salads is some type of lettuce. There are all kinds of lettuces out there, each with its own unique flavors and textures. A great way to start spicing up your salads — especially dinner salads — is to learn more about the different kinds of lettuces, how they taste, what the texture is, and how to combine them to create bold, interesting flavors.
Below is a list of some common types of lettuce and other leafy greens you’ll find at the supermarket or greengrocer. To add a bit of flair to your next salad, try using a mix of 2 or 3 of these varieties as a base:
- Iceberg lettuce: This is a classic, fresh, and crisp lettuce. It can be crunchy or thin, depending on what part of the leaf you’re eating.
- Butterhead lettuces: There are two kinds of butterhead lettuce; Boston and Bibb. The Boston variety is larger and fluffier, while Bibb butterhead is smaller, a little sweeter and crisper.
- Leaf lettuce: Leaf lettuce can be either green or red in color. Both are very mild in flavor and have a soft texture.
- Oak leaf lettuce: This lettuce has a beautiful burgundy color and a slightly spicy, nutty flavor.
- Romaine lettuce: Romaine lettuce has long, narrow leaves that are crunchy, crisp, and slightly bitter. It is used as the base for the traditional Caesar salad, which is a perfect dinner salad.
- Endive (pronounced ahn-deev — who knew?): Endive is a small, bitter green that’s available in three varieties. Curly endive (also called chicory or frisée), broad-leaved endive, and Belgian endive. All three are great ways to add some interesting bitter undertones and gorgeous color to a fresh salad.
- Radicchio: Similar in appearance to red cabbage, radicchio belongs to the same plant family as chicory. It has a bold, bitter flavor and beautiful red leaves with white veins. It’s often a chef’s go-to for a colorful salad that will help offset a fatty meal that’s heavy with meat or cheese.
- Arugula: With its broad leaves and earthy, slightly spicy flavor, arugula (also known as rocket) is a great way to add a bit of deli “kick” to your regular old leafy salads. The bitterness helps with digestion, making it great for pre-dinner salads. It goes especially well with sweet red tomatoes, peeled Parmesan, and a simple olive oil dressing. And the flowers are not only pretty, they’re edible!
- Spinach: While not technically a lettuce, spinach is a hearty, leafy green with a nice nutty flavor that doesn’t overpower other ingredients. It’s absolutely delicious when eaten raw but can also be sautéed.
- Watercress: Thanks to its slightly peppery flavor, watercress is another great way to add some spice to your salad. It’s also highly nutritious and goes great in green smoothies (just saying).
- Corn salad leaves: These dark green leaves have a beautiful, nutty flavor and are great for adding body to the base of your salad.
2. Go Beyond Basic Ingredients
When someone says “salad,” chances are you think of a generic mix of lettuces and tomatoes. And while there’s nothing wrong with this combination of ingredients, it’s not really exciting, either. One of the first steps to making better salads is to think beyond the basic ingredients you’ll find in salads from your basic diner. There’s a whole world of ingredients that you can use to craft dinner salads that are interesting, tasty, nourishing, and fast!
Things like baby radish, for example, can help add some color and a slightly spicy kick to your salads. Carrots, on the other hand, can help sweeten things up, while cucumber, tomato, and bell peppers are great for adding freshness. Fruit — think apples, citrus, even berries — can add some stellar visual and flavor-based interest. Fruits go surprisingly well in dinner salads, especially paired with meats, because they lighten up the flavor profile and add a refreshing note to counter rich, fatty, and meaty flavors.
Soft herbs (like dill, mint, or parsley, for example) are also a great way to add some subtle fragrance to your salad, while a sprinkle of cheese can help give your salad body and bold flavors that contrast the mildness of lettuce, for example. To add some more “oomph” to your dinner salads, don’t be scared to mix and match a variety of ingredients to build some complex and interesting flavors. Here’s a great post on how to selecting, storing, and using fresh herbs.
3. Think About Texture
Texture is hugely important when it comes to making compelling food. Yet when it comes to salads, most people leave texture at the door. Luckily, it’s easy to add texture back into your salads and spice things up. Try to use ingredients that create some contrasting textures in your dinner salads, like a handful of crunchy croutons, a sprinkle of velvety-soft cheese, and some crisp vegetables.
Nuts and seeds are a great way to add extra crunch to your salad while also providing a variety of flavors that’ll help push your experience to the next level.
Another way to add textural interest is to simply change how you slice/dice your ingredients. Peeling cucumber or grating carrot, for example, are both great ways to add some texture to dinner salads, or cutting ingredients into larger or small pieces, too.
4. The Perfect Dressing
Last but definitely not least, one of the most important aspects of a great salad is its dressing. A great salad dressing not only adds extra flavor to your salad but also helps enhance the natural flavors of all your ingredients, too. This is so important when trying to create tempting salads, especially when it comes to dinner salads.
(This is a GREAT place to mention that the Cooking Cheat Sheets come with two salad dressing guides, one for creamy dressing and one for vinaigrette. The cooking charts allow you to mix and match your ingredients to create the perfect dressing for your preferences.)
The easiest salad dressing to make is a vinaigrette, which is just 3 parts oil and 1-part acid. Olive oil is a great all-around oil for salads, but don’t be scared to use oils made from sunflower, canola, avocado, etc., to experiment with different flavors. You can also use nut oil, such as almond and walnut, for extra flavor — but due to how strongly flavored they can be, I recommend mixing a small amount with a milder carrier oil (such as sunflower oil) so they don’t overpower your palate.
When it comes to acid, almost any kind of vinegar will work. Try to be creative here, considering all the different varieties available to you: balsamic vinegar, champagne vinegar, rice wine vinegar, and apple cider vinegar are all great options. Acidic fruit juices work, too. Consider lemon, lime, orange, or even grapefruit juice as acidic options for your vinaigrette. It’s worth considering the brighter, acidic flavors for dinner salads, especially when they’re paired with meat, cheese, or other fatty items. The brightness helps lighten the dish and create a refreshing contrast.
Finish all side and dinner salads off with a good pinch of salt and pepper, and you have yourself a basic, yet very good salad dressing. Some would argue this is the most important part. In fact, don’t be afraid to make your dressings slightly too salty and too acidic, as ingredients like lettuce, tomato, and cucumber will naturally tone things down a bit.
Toss everything into a lidded jar and give it a good shake to combine, then pour over your salad. You can also experiment with more complex dressings by using things like mustard, yogurt, mayonnaise, herbs, and other seasonings to create more complex dressings. Just make sure you stick to a 3:1 oil-to-acid ratio.