Salad Composition 101

(originally published on
Many sad salads lurk in refrigerators at restaurants, or languish in the bins of the nearest Salad Toss counter at the deli, or cower inside taco shells or the latest fast food delivery contraption, waiting to depress the nearest eater. Leathery lettuce, alien tomatoes, and canned garnishes can create the impression that a salad is a poor substitute for food. As a powerful antidote to this dispiriting category, creating your own salad is a great way to connect with fresh ingredients. Along with a bit of bread and a glass of wine, it’s a delicious, light, and healthy supper.

The key is to use the most inspired selection of ingredients you can find, with the barest of seasonings. Shopping for a salad can be a great experience of foraging locally for things that are seasonal and fresh. I like to think of an unconventional salade Niçoise or a vegetable antipasto: an artfully curated selection of flavors, textures and colors displayed on individual plates or a large serving dish. Temperature is a key component of getting the best flavor from your salad. A cold tomato is a thing from hell, whereas one that has been warmed by the sun for a few hours just prior to being picked and eaten is a Proustian experience. Not everything you include has to come straight from the garden, but bringing all produce to room temperature is crucial. I rarely refrigerate produce I plan to use within 24 hours, except for onions (colder onions make for fewer tears.)

A salad as it should be is so personal to the taste of the cook and so dependant upon what is in season that it is difficult to give a recipe, but here are some ideas for combinations, along with my favorite salad dressing recipe. As far as that goes, you can do just as well and sometimes better with just a drizzle of high-quality extra virgin olive oil, a squeeze of lemon or lime juice and a sprinkle of salt.

Don’t feel as though you have to throw in the kitchen sink. Think of five or six things that might taste good together, treat them well, and assemble them in an appealing way.

Lettuce and other greens: Mesclun mixes of various varieties, baby spinach, sorrel, dandelion greens, and lettuces are in season around the country for the next several months. If you have a farmer’s market, look there first, but many stores now carry a good selection of bulk mesclun or bagged, washed greens. Look carefully for wilted bits, dive to the back of the shelf for the bagged lettuce with the farthest expiration date, and be generally picky. Sub-par greens can become more inspired with a brief cold water bath, and all greens should have one in any case to remove any dirt, sand, or bugs. Dry very carefully in a salad spinner or between paper towels (or both) as wet greens prevent dressing from adhering.

Fresh herbs : Cilantro, tarragon, chervil, basil, mint and parsley are some of my favorites to use in salads. Stick to milder herbs without an overly fibrous texture. Rosemary and sage are better in cooked foods, for example.

Other Vegetables: Some vegetables need a bit of blanching or steaming, including peas, green beans, and fava beans. Beets and potatoes should be boiled until just tender, while tomatoes, avocados, radishes, fennel, peppers, cucumbers, carrots, scallions, sweet onions, celery and sprouts can just be sliced or chopped or included whole.

Fruits: Apples, pears, plums, peaches, watermelon cubes, grapes, mango, berries, grapefruit or orange sections, and thin slices of lemon with the peel still on all have their place in a salad. Raw is always great, but apples, pears, and peaches can also be halved and baked first. Be sure to buy organic when it counts.

Toasted Nuts: Toasting, either in a toaster or on top of the stove in a small skillet, really develops the flavor of nuts. I like to use pine nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, and in a salad with Southeast Asian-inspired flavors, peanuts.

Cheeses: A salad is one of the tastiest ways to set off the flavors of good cheese. Try blue cheeses like Cabrales or sweet Gorgonzola, rich Brie and soft and tangy goats’ milk cheeses, nutty Parmigiano Reggiano, delicate Mozzarella Bufala or dry, salty Feta and Ricotta Salata.

Legumes: High-quality canned cannellini beans or chickpeas, or beluga lentils or lentils du puy cooked in vegetable stock, can work very well in salads. If using canned legumes, wake them up by washing them very well in cold water and marinating in a quick dressing of olive oil and lemon juice.

Others: High-quality canned tuna fish (try the Italian versions packed in olive oil), olives, hard boiled eggs, poached eggs, poached or grilled shrimp, croutons made from stale wholegrain bread, cubed salami, and slab bacon cubed, fried, and drained are all great additions to a salad. I’m told that anchovies are delicious, but they’re too strange for me.

Salad Dressing

I make this in my blender. You can make it without one, but you will need to chop the shallot very finely and whisk the olive oil into the other ingredients by droplets.

1 small shallot, roughly chopped

1/4 cup rice vinegar

Juice of 1 lemon (pick out the seeds)

1/4 tsp Dijon mustard

1/2 cup olive oil

Salt to taste

In the bottom of a blender, macerate the shallot in the vinegar and lemon juice for about 15 minutes while you assemble the salad. Add mustard, and blend on high for about 30 seconds. While the blender is running, open the middle of the lid. In a slow, steady stream, add the olive oil. Stop the blender, taste, and correct seasonings. To dress the salad, just barely moisten and toss as close to serving as possible. I like to assemble the salad and then dress and toss it at the table.

You may prefer a lower or higher ratio of vinegar to oil, so experiment. This makes almost a cup of dressing, which will be way more than enough unless you are making a very large salad. It keeps in the refrigerator for up to a week, but be sure to bring to room temperature before using.

Inspired Combinations

  • Mache or mesclun, parsley, tuna, olives, red potatoes, tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, anchovy (if you must.) This is the classic Niçoise salad.
  • Arugula, sliced fennel, slivered pecorino romano, toasted pine nuts. Dress with just a splash of olive oil and a small drizzle of red wine vinegar, with sea salt and pepper.
  • Grilled radicchio, parsley, celery, chickpeas, cubed ricotta salata, cubed salami.
  • Frisee, tarragon, cubed fried bacon (lardoons), toasted baguette, poached egg.
  • Baby romaine, cilantro, mint, grilled shrimp, watermelon cubes, scallions, toasted chopped peanuts. Dress with lime juice mixed with a tiny bit of fish sauce, a dab of honey, and salt.
  • Mesclun, baked Seckel pears, Cabrales, toasted pecans.
  • Arugula, cannellini, tuna, fennel slices, lemon slices, chopped fennel fronds.

Image courtesy of Chocolate and Zucchini


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