How to Make Your Next Salad into an Exciting New Dish
How many of you think that a salad is a bowl of iceberg lettuce with some dressing and maybe a crouton here and there? I am actually shocked that this passes as a salad at restaurants these days. Sometimes they throw on some chicken and call it Cesaer salad. I don't think Cesaer would be impressed. When I was a little kid we lived in the boonies, a house surrounded by trees, and our neighbors were a very sweet hippie couple who had their own garden. To make pocket change the wife would sell "gourmet salads" to local eateries. My mother's salads were diverse but my neighbor's salads were crazy. Some were composed entirely of edible flowers. Imagine that! This might be a little too exotic for most but it did open my eyes to the possibilities...
At their base most salads are composed of lettuce. You don't have to use lettuce in a salad but it'll probably be expected if you have dinner guests. However there's a lot more options than iceberg lettuce. Iceberg lettuce is what you normally see in salads. Despite being green and leafy it has very little nutritional value and even less taste. All it really has going for it is crunch but we're making a salad of raw veggies here, there will be plenty of crunch to go around! We can do better. So what else is there? Well there are different kinds of lettuce. Romaine Lettuce is commonly found at your local grocer. It's also green, with a light flavor and a good crunch. However its more nutritious and a good baby step into into having a different kind of salad. If you want to be a little more different go for the Red Romaine. It'll add interesting color. Some stores may sell Boston Lettuce, Oak Leaf Lettuce, Arugula, Little Gems, or premixed gourmet lettuce mixes. Don't be afraid to try them! In fact you don't even have to stick with lettuces. Pretty much any leafy vegetable will do. Perhaps you would like some baby spinach, sliced red cabbage leaves, beet greens, kale, or dandelion leaves. These add texture and flavor but may not be to everyone's taste as some of these things are pretty bitter and tough. Personally I like this but to each their own!
Many salads have tomatoes but they're often the tomatoes that are grown with super thick skins, shipped across country, and sold tough and rubbery at the grocery store. If you want the best tomatoes you've ever tasted, as well as the most nutritious, go find someone who grows them at home. Here's a few tips. First don't automatically pick the big round ones, actually many people feel the tomatoes that look big and gnarled taste much more vibrant. If you don't like the squishy texture seen in the middle of the tomatoes consider cherry tomatoes. You don't even have to chop them up, just throw them in whole! And don't be shy to try some of the yellow tomatoes. They're often softer in taste and better on acid levels if you're someone who suffers from heartburn. Remember, home grown tomatoes should have thin skins, no rubbery texture, be bright red or yellow, and taste like it fell from Heaven. Really. Try your local farmer's market and you'll see I'm right!
Some salads have green peppers in them but green peppers are so yesterday's pepper. They're somewhat bitter and aren't pretty or sweet. I used to use them until I found the other colors... Sweet Peppers come in green, yellow, orange, and red. The yellow has a very mild but sweet flavor, the red has a nice strong and sweet flavor and the orange is between the two. They are delicious both raw and cooked and look beautiful when chopped up in a salad, giving any ho hum pile of greens a nice array of color. Are you someone who likes things hot and spicy? Consider chopping up some fresh raw jalapenos and throwing them in.
Most salads that contain mushrooms have chopped button mushrooms in them. These are the little cheap mushrooms you can get at any grocery store. The funny thing about these is that they have anti-nutrient properties. This means they actually suck nutrients out of system so they can be digested! Not to worry though, if you like these mushrooms there is something much better that tastes exactly the same - baby bellas. Baby bellas, sometimes called crimini mushrooms, are small portabello mushrooms and they are very rich in nutrition with high levels of calcium, folic acid, phosphorus, magnesium, and selenium. Many of these are more commonly found in meats so these should be a vegetarian's best friend. Most other mushrooms are not good raw so this is as far as I've personally experimented with mushrooms in salads. However if you like the other types of mushrooms that are cooked feel free to add them cooked to your salad. It'll add moisture, texture, and flavor. Don't be shy in experimenting!
Did you know in one study scientists found that women prefer the smell of cucumber over most other foods? Pizza was the men's favorite food scent if you were wondering. I love cucumbers. I've seen a lot of people use the large European cucumber in salads and I must say I have no idea why. It's obvious to me the small, fat, bumpy, pickling cucumbers taste better and have much less chewy skins.
Onions are another great one. I used to use sweet white onions in my salads before I really knew what I was doing. Sweet onions are only sweet when cooked... in a salad they taste, well, like a raw onion. They're not bad per se but I think red onions have far more flavor and crunch and if you really like onions feel free to use both in your salad, maybe even throw a yellow onion in there. And if you're a cry baby when it comes to cutting onions don't fret. Just put your onion in the freezer for 5-10 minutes before you start chopping. I have no idea why this works but it really does. Since learning this trick I've stopped crying!
Carrots are common to the point they're boring. Everyone tends to buy the big orange carrots that are everywhere and I guess there's nothing wrong with that but there are other carrots who may be being overlooked. For instance if you are looking for convenience try some baby carrots, no chopping required, just throw them in whole. If you're looking for color try some heritage carrots. Sometimes if you're lucky you can find packages of these strangely colored carrots at the grocer or your farmer's market. Many people are surprised to know carrots don't just come in orange but also yellow, white, and even purple. As with regular carrots they can either be chopped out thrown in the salad as slivers you've created with your vegetable peeler.
Broccoli and Cauliflower
Broccoli and cauliflower are some common vegetables many people forget about when making a salad but they can add texture and even more color. Usually broccoli is green but there is a purple variation. Similarly in cauliflower there is an orange variation.
Less Common Ingrediants
So you have a basic "cheif's salad" going on and now you want something a little more unusual but not to the point its off putting. Why not try some chopped up radishes? They add a little kick, a little attitude, to an otherwise bland salad. If radishes aren't your thing maybe snow peas are, or raw green beans, or maybe you really want to take a walk on the wild side and throw in some of those edible flowers I mentioned earlier. If you want to add a little bit of sweetness to your salad consider adding blueberries, strawberries,pine apple, leeches fruit, avocado, pomegranate seeds, slices of apples or oranges, or even grapes. Sometimes mixing fruit salads with regular salads can really make them pop. Every once in awhile I like to add canned corn or navy beans to my salads. I've seen other people use boiled eggs. And if meat is more your thing don't hesitate to top your salads with chunks of chicken, maybe a little ground beef or lamb, or whatever your tastes desire. Don't neglect to try something because you've never heard of anyone else trying it. Be brave you might end up with something amazing!
A lot of salads have croutons these days and most people don't really think there's any other choices but there really are. If you don't like croutons perhaps some shredded or feta cheese would be better for you. Or maybe you would like a nice spread of nuts - peanuts, walnuts, chopped almonds, sunflower seeds, poppy seeds, granola, any of these could add a lovely crunch. Or perhaps you'd rather have the opposite - if that's the case raisins or dried cranberries can be amazing. And hey if croutons really are your thing try making your own. Croutons are basically just chunks of stale bread. Use your favorite bread, rye bread, multigrain, honey oat, whatever floats your boat. Its a great way to use up old bread too. I'm sure you could find even more options than these.
Some Final Notes
Salads are one of my favorite "super foods." They're super in the sense that the more raw things you put in them the more packed they are going to be with all sorts of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. They're also low on calories and just generally very healthy for you. This is not to mention there's about a million different ways you can make them and they can add great variety to your diet. It should be noted that the more colorful your salad the more variety of nutrients you'll be getting. Typically color distinguishes which vegetables have which vitamins in them so they're more than just making your salad easy on the eyes. Of course if you want the best, freshest, most delicious vegetables they are best obtained freshly picked out of a garden or purchased at your local farmer's market where they've been recently picked out of someone else's local garden.