It’s the time of year when many of us enjoy eating a salad, especially on a hot, humid day. But what exactly is a salad? What comes to mind: Caesar, Waldorf, potato, tuna, pasta? Some even think of it as rabbit food, which perhaps is true, if you think about how salads were prepared back in the day…iceberg lettuce, a slice of onion and cucumber, a wedge of tomato, some shredded carrots, and perhaps an olive or two. Today, many restaurants, especially fast-food restaurants, still serve this type of salad.
In years past, salad was served as an appetizer or side dish, with little creativity in its preparation. Remember the salads that included cubes of Jell-O? Am I aging myself now?
Fast forward…. Salads today, quite often, take center stage of meals, using a variety of greens largely unbeknownst to most in the past. Arugula seems to be popular and has become a favorite of mine. Watercress, Bok choy, endive, kale, and a plethora of lettuces have taken over from plain old iceberg. Fruits, both fresh and dried, heirloom vegetables (roasted ones add great flavor), seeds, beans, grains, nuts, meats, fish, cheese and easily made delicious dressings are now part of the ingredient repertoire.
Salads are a time-poor cook’s secret weapon for putting a healthy and delicious meal on the table. They offer endless possibilities; go to your local farmers market and introduce yourself to some unfamiliar greens and vegetables. Ask the farmer for some suggestions too. With some creativity, a simple, easy to prepare dish becomes a delicious and healthy lunch or dinner. But remember, some salad dressings can add those unnecessary, and unwanted, calories.
Many years ago, I met Wiley Mullins, (aka “The Salad Man,”) author of “Salad Makes the Meal,” published in 2008. He inspired me to add more dinner and lunch salads to my diet. It is quite easy with a cookbook giving inspiration.
“The Complete Salad Cookbook: A Fresh Guide to 200+ Vibrant Dishes Using Greens, Vegetables, Grains, Proteins, and More,” by the editors of America’s Test Kitchen (2021, America’s Test Kitchen, $32.99), is a welcome addition to my collection, especially with all the local produce becoming available. You might be thinking you don’t need a cookbook to make salad…perhaps you don’t if you choose not to go beyond tossed greens and a couple of other ingredients. Why not take your salads to the next level, mixing textures, and flavors. You’ll learn to incorporate roasted, grilled, sauteed and pickled vegetables as well as grains, dried and fresh fruit, beans, and a variety of pastas.
Before getting into the recipes, the editors differentiate salads by cutting technique, cooking method, assembly, and flavor profiles. Think, chopped, or sliced, shaved, spiralized, shredded, grilled, warm and wilted. A layered salad will impress your guests. The architecture of a salad and flight plan information is helpful in constructing a salad… “do you want it to be filling or light? Is it going to be the whole meal or just the starter?” Following the suggestions about how to get the most out of the ingredients, enhancing their flavor and appearance will make your salad appealing, anything but boring. The “what should I make?” section suggests specific recipes to make for each season: brunch, main-dish vegetarian, fruit-forward, dinner salads, around-the-world salads, salads in less than 15 minutes. I found the information on how to keep wooden salad bowls in tip-top shape helpful as well as the recommended tools to make salad making a cinch.
You’ll be introduced to new ingredients to use as well as the science behind making a vinaigrette that doesn’t separate. And talking about new ingredients to use…. I was intrigued by the use of grated chocolate that the editors said adds the perfect finish to the recipe for Pinto Bean, Ancho, and Beef Salad with Pickled Poblanos. Ready to make your salad a masterpiece? Here are a few recipes from the book to get started. For the recipe on green bean salad with shallot, mustard and tarragon go to: bit.ly/43jxBci
Southwestern Black Bean Salad
The headnote says: “Why This Recipe Works: For a black bean salad with bold but balanced flavors that evoked the Southwest, we used a judicious mixture of black beans, corn, avocado, tomato, and cilantro. Sautéing the corn (both fresh and frozen worked well) in a skillet until it was toasty and just starting to brown added a pleasant nuttiness to the kernels. For a dressing that could stand up to the hearty beans, we used lots of lime juice and spicy chipotle chile, with a little honey to balance the bright citrus. Raw onion was too harsh in the dressing, but thinly sliced scallions provided a pleasant onion flavor. You will need three to four ears of corn to yield 2 cups of fresh kernels.¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 cups fresh or thawed frozen corn
4 scallions, sliced thin
⅓ cup lime juice (3 limes)
1 tablespoon minced canned chipotle chile in adobo sauce
1 teaspoon honey
½ teaspoon table salt
½ teaspoon pepper
2 (15-ounce) cans black beans, rinsed
2 ripe avocados, halved, pitted, and chopped
2 tomatoes, cored and chopped
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro or parsley
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add corn and cook until spotty brown, about 5 minutes; let cool slightly. Whisk scallions, lime juice, chipotle, honey, salt, and pepper together in large bowl. Whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in remaining 2 tablespoons oil until emulsified. Add beans, avocados, tomatoes, cilantro, and corn and toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste Serves 6-8.
California Chicken Salad
The headnote says: “Why This Recipe Works: You can put avocado on just about anything and call it “Californian,” but we wanted to earn our West Coast cred with a healthy, hearty salad that paid respect to the Golden State in every bite. Instead of just throwing on diced avocado, we prepared our luscious, dairy-free dressing with avocado, pureeing the ripe fruit with lemon, garlic, and olive oil. Of course, a California salad should burst with fresh flavors, so we went heavy on green vegetables such as spinach and sugar snap peas. Thinly sliced radishes offered a pop of color, then we added sweet grapes (think Napa Valley). And then we realized we were missing something quintessentially West Coast: a light, fluffy mound of alfalfa sprouts. Sprinkle on chopped California almonds too, if you like. We like using Perfect Poached Chicken (page 43in the book) here, but any cooked chicken would work.8 ounces (8 cups) baby spinach
2 scallions, sliced thin
1 cup Creamy Avocado Dressing (recipe below)), divided
4 cups cooked chicken, chopped
9 ounces seedless grapes, halved (1½ cups)
4 ounces sugar snap peas or snow peas, strings removed, halved
8 radishes, trimmed, halved, and sliced thin
2 ounces (1 cup) alfalfa sprouts or microgreens
¼ cup chopped almonds
Toss spinach, scallions, and half of dressing together in bowl to coat, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Divide among individual plates. Serve, topping individual portions with chicken, grapes, snap peas, and radishes. Drizzle with remaining dressing, add alfalfa sprouts, and top with chopped almonds. Serves 4.
Creamy Avocado Dressing
1 avocado, halved, pitted, and cut into ½ inch pieces
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest plus 3 tablespoons juice
1 garlic clove, minced
¾ teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon pepper
Process all ingredients in food processor until smooth, about 30 seconds, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Use immediately. Makes about 1 cup.
Cherry and Goat Cheese Couscous Salad
The headnote says, “Why This Recipe Works: Back-of-the-box instructions for couscous yield mushy, clumpy granules. Toasting uncooked couscous in butter and garlic sets the starch in the pasta, which keeps the granules separate and prevents them from blowing out. It also adds nutty flavor. To enhance the cooked couscous further, we added sweet, tart, and spicy flavors—dried cherries, pecans, arugula, and goat cheese. You can eat the salad immediately, but it will improve if you let the flavors meld for 30 minutes or so. Do not substitute pearl couscous in this dish, as it requires a different cooking method and will not work in this recipe.”2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups couscous
1 cup water
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1 teaspoon table salt
1 cup pecans or walnuts, toasted and chopped
1 cup baby arugula, chopped
1 cup dried cherries, chopped
4 ounces goat or feta cheese, crumbled (1 cup)
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 scallions, sliced thin
3 tablespoons lemon juice
Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add couscous and cook, stirring frequently, until grains begin to brown, about 5 minutes. Add water, broth, and salt; stir briefly to combine, cover, and remove saucepan from heat. Let sit until liquid is absorbed and couscous is tender, about 7 minutes. Uncover and fluff couscous with fork.
Combine pecans, arugula, cherries, goat cheese, oil, scallions, and lemon juice in large bowl. Stir in couscous until well combined. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serves 4-6.
Source: Recipes and photos courtesy of America’s Test Kitchen
Stephen Fries, is Professor Emeritus and former coordinator of the Hospitality Management Programs at Gateway Community College, in New Haven, CT. He has been a food and culinary travel columnist for the past 15 years and is co-founder of and host of “Worth Tasting,” a culinary walking tour of downtown New Haven, CT. He is a board member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Stephen@stephenfries.com For more, go to stephenfries.com.