The Elements of a Perfect Salad

3 Sep

Summertime, and the living is easy … Every time I get an urge to make a salad, I hear that song singing in my head. I never used to like salads (strange for a vegetarian, I know!) but that was because I grew up in the olden times when salad was iceberg lettuce with some washed out supermarket tomatoes. These days, salads are a whole different creature. They are sumptuous, delicious, delectable and can serve as an entire meal.

Dont get me wrong, I have learned to love side salads too – I think there is much to be said for the perfect accompaniment to say, mac and cheese, or pasta … where a salad needs to be fresh, sparkling, with a few key ingredients that will highlight and compliment the meal. But what I am thinking about here is a salad that is an event. A salad that stands on its own, and is immensely satisfying. When I go to non-vegetarian potlucks, I often bring the salad. I usually find that even the carnivores want more!

Here, then, are my nine elements of a really perfect salad, one that will create for you a fearsome reputation as a master salad maker.

Theme

Decide on one theme and stick to it! Salad is ripe for interpretation, and for creativity, but just as with any meal, a mishmash of ideas and thematic flavours will muddy and confuse the eater. Decide on the direction in which you want to go, and let your imagination flow from there. An Asian inspired salad could have mung bean sprouts, sesame seeds, and a rich soy honey dressing. An Indian-Asian inspired salad could have a curry mayonnaise dressing, green beans, potatoes and possibly cubes of grilled paneer. A breakfast salad could have poached eggs in it, along with toasted brioche croutons, and may be some roasted tomatoes. You get the idea…

Remember though that its important for you to depend on your sense of taste and balance when deciding on where you want this salad to go …And think very carefully about each ingredient you add. You will know if there is dissonance. I often write down exactly what I am thinking of putting in a salad. Sometimes an ingredient just jumps out at me and says, Wrong! Even if I am really craving that thing, I trust my instinct and judgement about how things will go together, and I usually take that element out, or serve it on its own. If you are making an Asian inspired salad, dont add parmesan cheese – it just does not go well! But a banana or pineapple might. If you are making an Italian salad, then may be you should think twice about having soy basted tofu as your main protein.

Your whole meal does not have to coordinate around a singular theme, but your salad should definitely incorporate elements that naturally go together. Dont try and stuff ten different vegetables together, that have no complementary value, and call it a salad. No one will believe you, and no one will eat it!

Green

While I do love a simple salad of chopped tomatoes and avocado, or a roasted potato and garlic salad, most salads in my estimation have to begin with green leaves. My green of choice is baby arugula (rocket ) – I love love love it. I love the peppery taste of it – it is substantial if you know what I mean. I love how it stands up to most anything you throw at it. But, if arugula is not available (or I am serving arugu-phobes), I also love raw baby spinach. Baby leaves of any kind are usually a good bet – they are infinitely tender, and their taste is clean and sweet. Play around with green – and if you like, add a few surprises, like some chopped basil leaves for a change of taste.

And if you know a farmer, or have your own garden, whatever green there is, use. My wonderful organic delivery guy back home delivered lettuce picked from his crop that day. I stood in the kitchen, and ate the lettuce as is, it was so beautiful. Go with your taste, and go with what is freshest. But add green!

Also, make sure the leaves are impeccably clean. Even if the package says its been cleaned already, clean it again. I read somewhere that there is more bacteria in a washed packet of lettuce than in an unwashed bundle. Just clean the leaves – it doesnt take long. I usually immerse the leaves in cold  salted clean water. The salt will make sure any little bugs left living in the leaves are encouraged to let go 😉 I swish them around in the water and make sure that any grit or dirt is rubbed off. One of the best investments of my life is a salad spinner – you can get a cheapo one from Ikea for a few bucks, and a fancier, but far sturdier one is made by Oxo. Whichever you choose, spin those leaves like your life depended on it! And then spin again! My nephews love to help to “cook” by spinning the salad leaves. Its a nice way to incorporate non cooks in the cooking process 😉 The leaves will be very crisp and dry once they have been spun a couple of times… wrap them in a clean kitchen towel or paper towels, and refrigerate them until you are ready to put the salad together (which really should be just before you serve it).

Protein

I like to have a little protein in my salads, especially as a vegetarian. There are so many lovely things to choose from – garbanzo beans add a creamy richness, seasoned baked tofu adds meatiness, quinoa adds nuttiness, as do any variety of nut (from pine to almond to cashew to macadamia – which happens to be one of my best), eggs add a silky quality, and shavings or cubes of cheese (parmesan and cheddar are my favourites) are always welcome.

I think its important to think about proteins when you serve a salad as a main course, but think carefully about what kind of protein you will use, and also if there is protein in your dessert or starter. If so, you dont need to get too het up about big amounts of protein in your salad.

I think protein adds a certain heaviness to a salad which is good. Most people think that eating salad leaves you starving. If you have a reasonable amount of protein in your salad, this can be a very filling and fulfilling dish.

Sweet

I love adding an element of sweetness to my salads. People like that surprising contrast of flavour, and they often dont expect cubes of apple or caramelised macadamias to make an appearance. But once they have a taste of that sweet juxtaposition, they often hunt for more! Sweet can come in lots of different ways – tomatoes are actually a fruit, after all, and carrots have a sugary sweetness all their own.

I usually only add one dedicated sweet element to a salad, but I try and think of something really delectable to add this sweet element. Beautiful juicy grapes are often very popular, and creamy pears are surprisingly refreshing. Roasted beetroot or butternut caramelise in their own juices and add colour as well as sweetness to any salad. I have added chunks of sesame brittle to a salad with great success. Raw corn is another great addition – if it is really fresh, its incredibly sweet, and absolutely delicious. But dont go overboard! Just one thing – and make it good!

Balance, Texture and Contrast

These to me are the most important elements when thinking about your salad. How does each ingredient juxtapose against the other? Are you getting juicy, crunch, soft, sweet, savoury, salty, bright, sparkly, rich, creamy, fresh, bitter, sharp? You need to have contrast when eating a major salad, otherwise it gets boring, and quickly. Carrots and avocados and roasted onion are very different from one another, but bound together by a beautiful dressing, they contrast in texture, but are balanced on the palate.

Boring salads, in my opinion, are salads where everything feels the same in the mouth. Salads made of soft ingredients – eggs, peas, boiled potatoes, avocado. These all have the same textural patterns, and they can totally negate each other simply by their similar mouth feel. Dont get me wrong. Sometimes, at a family meal when everyone is tired, or when eating with a baby 😉 … there is a place for texturally alike foods. But I love contrast. I love the crunch of a crouton against the juiciness of a ripe tomato. I adore the toasty rich nuttiness of sesame seeds coating the crisp snap of a green bean. Its why I always incorporate something sweet into my salads… it contrasts with the main players, but at the same time adds a much needed balance to the dish.

Also, think about how you are going to present each ingredient. A raw mushroom is very different from a sauteed one. Raw corn totally contrasts with roasted corn, rubbed with soy. A fresh juicy tomato is completely distinct from a sun dried tomato dripping with olive oil. Sometimes its fun to add the same thing but in different incarnations. This is contrast, balance and texture, and its also an intelligent way to challenge and engage the people you are serving.

Salads are compositions. Think of your salad as a work of art, a symphony, a play, a beautiful poem. The elements must be different, and yet work together as a whole. Go with ingredients that on a singular note may be beautiful, but a tad boring, but joined with other ingredients, will really sing.

Exotic or Special

When you say salad most people cant resist yawning, or rolling their eyes sadly. Salads are much maligned, but really, shouldnt be. There is so much room to play in a salad, and to that end, I often try and introduce something exotic or special into my salads. When I cook, I want to celebrate the people I am eating with. I want to honour them, amuse them, and satisfy their senses.

I often try and incorporate an exotic or special element into my salad. This could be as simple as using truffle oil in the dressing. Shaved truffles in the salad would be nice, but unfortunately totally out of my price range! Sun dried tomatoes are exotic to some, but commonplace to others. Remember who you are serving, and think about what they like – what they would consider a treat, something special. Or, conversely, think about what would surprise them in a salad – what they would find unique or exotic.

In Malaysia, strawberries and avocados are very expensive, as are nuts like pine nuts or macadamias. Pomegranate seeds are gorgeous visually, and often considered very exotic. Good parmesan is like gold. Putting one of these ingredients in a salad makes it feel like a celebration – a special meal, and for many, makes the salad much more exotic. Conversely, in America, adding star fruit or guava, cubes of papaya or slivers of rambutan, adds a certain exotic deliciousness to the salad.

Sometimes, it can be as simple as thinking about what your eaters really love. If I know my sister will be eating the salad, I often put sprouts in it. She is crazy about them. Another friend adores sun dried tomatoes. When I cook for her, my salads always incorporate them. The special doesnt have to be exotic or expensive… it can be as simple as knowing the person youre serving, and making sure her favourite flavours and tastes are represented.

Presentation

Not only do you need to think about colour and texture, but you need to think very carefully about how you will present your salad. Is everyone going to serve themselves from a communal bowl (thats how I usually do it) or are you going to present every person with a plated salad, composed like a still life water colour? Is everything going to be cold, or is there something you will cook at the last minute to add textural heat to the dish? Are you going to dress the salad first, or allow each person to dress the salad themselves (my preferred option is the latter). What kind of plates, or bowls are people going to use to eat the salad? Knives and forks? Spoons and forks? Sitting down at a table, or on the ground outside at a picnic, or gathered around the tv? Is the salad going to arrive in a big bowl, jumbled together, or laid out on a huge plate, layered in an artful arrangement? Or do you have a big glass bowl, like a trifle jar, that you can literally layer each element of the salad in, and get gorgeous stripes of colour?

How the salad will look when it is served is really important. If everything is cut the same way (whether that way be cubed, strips, or melon balled), you will have one very clean visual pattern, even if everything is a different colour. But if things are jumbled, or roughly chopped, then the salad will “feel” different. Sometimes, I feel like everything should be green and yellow and white … all similar colours, but with markedly contrasting flavours and textures. Other times, I want a riot of colour – I throw in edible flowers, and try and find  lots of different colours to create a merry riot. It depends on what you feel like, but take a moment to think about how your salad will look. Its important because people eat with their senses, and they see it first and foremost.

Think about what you want to convey when you serve the salad, and how people are going to eat it. Think about if may be serving a crusty warm loaf of bread alongside to mop up the juices would be a good idea, or if you need some other element to complement it.

How you present your salad is definitely one of the most important ways to ensure that people enjoy eating it. So give it some time and thought, and then compose!

Freshness and Limits

I have linked these two elements together because they really are about the shopping experience. I have often made a list for a salad, and gone to the market only to find that the tomatoes are completely ugly and insipid looking. Or all the avocados are rock hard or pulpy. If you have a theme in mind, you should be able to quickly find and figure out a substitute. Freshness is key in a salad because most of the ingredients you serve will be raw. If you had to choose between tender perfect figs and overripe mushy pears, choose the figs, even if the pears are your favourite. Be open to the market – be open to finding a gorgeous gem that is unexpected or not on your list. Add it if it adds value to your salad, and drop what is not of absolute perfect quality.

If freshness is key to a beautiful salad, so are limits! I have served a salad with 20 ingredients, and to be honest, its as muddy and horrible as if I were to serve lettuce leaves, and only lettuce leaves for dinner. Too much is overkill, and instead of contract, juxtaposition and texture, you will short circuit your eaters sensibilities. Try and limit your salads to 7 – 9 key ingredients at the max, though less also can. More than that, and I find its too much. Like a baby when it gets overstimulated by too much colour or too many games or too much music, an overloaded salad just makes me want to lay down and cry.

Your Own Signature Dressing

Spend a little time, and make your own salad dressing. All this though, cutting, chopping, shopping, tasting, texturalising… and you pour on a mass market made dressing? Are you kidding? Salad dressing takes almost no time to make. Its as unique as your signature, and can elevate a salad into the sublime.

Have a few salad dressings under your sleeve. I make a killer Asian dressing. I have a varied number of ingredients I use for it, and its never quite the same each time, but it does have a few basics, and its amazing. Its so good, you could literally eat it out of the jar with a spoon. People ask me for the recipe, and I always give them an outline … but they say it never turns out the same. Well, it never turns out the same for me either, but I know what I want it to taste like at any given time!

Salad dressing is easy to make ahead, and it is what ties everything together in your salad. If you make your own blue cheese buttermilk dressing, I promise you, it will be a hundred times better than anything you can purchase at the store. Even a basic balsamic and olive oil dressing can be elevated with a few fresh herbs, or a spark of fresh lemon juice. And it will be your signature, your hallmark, an expression of your creativity.

Please, if you want to be a salad master, make your own dressing!

Hopefully these few guidelines will make you think about salad in a new way. Its one of the great joys of life, one of the remarkable treats of summertime – a wonderful salad to share with those you love.

One Response to “The Elements of a Perfect Salad”

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  1. The Elements of a Perfect Salad « delectable | - September 3, 2010

    […] Excerpt from: The Elements of a Perfect Salad « delectable […]

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