Salad days

I’ve never been very good at making salads.  I love salads.  I love them – I love their crisp flavours, their varied colours and textures, their fresh fibrey vitamin-packed goodness.  I love them salty, sweet, spicy, sour, savoury, warm or cold, any day of the year – but I don’t make a proper salad very often, and that is mostly because the salads I make are lacklustre to say the least.

I haven’t been feeling quite on top of things recently, and like all sensible people, when I feel rubbish, I eat rubbish.  Dishes requiring minimal effort, ideally made from ingredients I already own, are the order of the day – and if they’re high in sugar and higher in fat, so much the better (peanut butter and jelly tortilla wraps, anyone?).

But I realise the vicious-cycley nature of my errant ways, and as I was pondering my general gloominess this afternoon, and considering my next store-cupboard meal, I said to myself, ‘Self, it’s about time you kicked yourself out of these doldrums, and the only way to do that is with a salad,’ to which myself replied, ‘But you make really boring salads.’  And there’s only response to that, really.  ‘Well, we’d better learn to make a good salad, hadn’t we?’

So the salad challenge has begun.  By the end of this summer, I hope to be able to make a salad I would be happy to serve as a main course to my friends, rather than an apologetic side of token rawness alongside the main event.  Because I’ve realised that one of the reasons my salads are so very dull is that I don’t accord them any kind of status in their own right, so no wonder they’re a bit limp and colourless.

Anyway, the challenge began, not as I mean it to go on, but with a fairly accurate representation of my normal salad technique, and some ingredients I had in my fridge: fennel, curly lettuce, spinach, rocket, parmesan and the end of a left-behind pot of mixed olives.  I used half a bulb of fennel and marinated it as instructed here for an hour, sliced not-very-thinly in crushed garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper and wine vinegar (no balsamic).  Then I added some mixed leaves, parmesan shavings and the end of a pot of olives from the fridge, which gave the necessary richness to turn it into a main course and, with its slivers of peppers, chillies and garlic (and the occasional tiny cube of feta!) a crucial dash of colour.  It wasn’t show-stopping by any means, but fresh and fibrous and very green.  A start, at least.

I’ve bookmarked some really exciting salads I’ve come across in blogland since my dinner of herbs, but I’d love your recommendations.  What are you favourite salads and salad-magic suggestions?  All tips and tip-offs gratefully received.

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11 Responses to Salad days

  1. Felix says:

    My favourite way to invent salads involves seeing one ingredient that really inspires me and then building up a pallette of flavours around that. So the other day, we picked up this amazing smoked trout and I started envisaging this salad with the trout flaked into it, and beetroot and orange and watercress flavours to compliment the smoky nom-ness.

    I think a few store-cupboard essentials totally pep up all salads; I try to always have on hand:

    preserved, roasted peppers. A massive jar of red, roast peppers is about 89p in LIDL and chopped up small and tossed in, will improve many salads.

    olives. especially black pitted ones.

    And CAPERS. If you are ever somewhere where they are selling caperberries, get those too; they last for ages and have seeds in them which make for amazing textures.

    Speaking of which… I always have pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and poppy seeds to hand. One tbsp of these, roasted, adds a lot of textural interest and joy to salads.

    I also always have white balsamic vinegar, honey and apple balsamic vinegars to hand for making kick-arse dressings. And never skip salt in a salad; the reason we like salty, sweet food, is because it’s delicious! But even with salt and a dash of sweet vinegar (white balsamic is perfect for this) the salad is still better than any junk food. So: season with confidence.

    A few last things: mint sauce is indispensable in my opinion if you want to become a salad goddess. Everyone compliments my three-bean salad, and I’m telling you, it’s the mint sauce that is the secret ingredient. I totally stole that idea from Marks and Spencers – which is another top tip: buy amazing salads from Marks and Spencers and critique them, and write out the ingredients, for your own inspiration. I do that all the time and it gives me great salad ideas when I am feeling a little bit lack-lustre.

    I think a really good salad basic is a nicoise salad. Done right – boiled eggs, seared tuna steak, fresh anchovies, capers, black olives, green beans, tomatoes, potatos and some tasty little pasta shells, it is the stuff of dreams and feels just substantial enough to be a meal in its own right. I think mastering your perfect nicoise salad is a good starting point for making all your salads amazing.

    Also, it is really worth growing fresh parsley and fresh basil for the purpose of salads. Mint is amazing with tomatoes, so that is good to grow too… some combos that I love using as the basis for various salads include:

    cooked beetroot, fresh orange (blood oranges if you want to make the redness a feature…) and smoky flavours like smoked chicken or smoked fish… or smoked tofu for that matter. Paprika and peppers always enhance these flavours…

    tomato and mint tabouleh; you can use bulgar wheat, finely chopped red onion, freshly chopped mint and fresh tomatoes to make a really great tabouleh. You also need lemons for this… you can add whatever you fancy. Red peppers, steamed aubergine…

    The 3-bean salad is immense: You need to finely chop cucumber, spring onions, mixed peppers in all colours, and tomatoes. Then you stir in 3 tins of beans of your choice. I like kidney beans, borlotti beans and canneloni beans but really, anything other than butter beans will do (butterbeans tend to go mushy.) You then stir in a concoction of mint sauce, white balsamic vinegar, white sugar and salt, and then chill the salad until all those nommy flavours mingle. I’m telling you: it’s the business.

    Phew! Sorry for leaving so much info but I got inspired on the salad front, reading your post.

    Good luck with further salad adventures! x

  2. brokeknits says:

    Thanks so much for posting this! Similar thoughts re: vicious cycles had been circling in my own brain … this might be just the kick I need to investigate (and improve) my own salad technique. I’m definitely going to try out this nicoise idea. Also, have you check out the Asian Noodle salad over at thepioneerwoman.com: http://thepioneerwoman.com/cooking/2008/03/my_most_favorite_salad_ever_ever_ever_ever/? It’s very tasty, though a bit large for only one person (as I found).

  3. Elli says:

    I am guilty of the boring salad too! Though bagged greens, canned red salmon, parmesan, pepper, oil and balsamic vinegar is pretty good as “there’s nothing in the house but I don’t want to drive to the grocery store” food.

    My favorite salad is a recipe Joe found…but it’s more of a winter salad. Sliced steak over greens with a warm dressing of shallots, rosemary, garlic, oil and a couple kinds of vinegar. Yum! It’s also good when you sub garbanzo beans for the steak.

  4. Max says:

    I love salads too! But I am lazy and sometimes reading about all the cooking and preparation involved in making those truly amazing salads tires me out. I think that starting out with a different basic leaf can change things dramatically (with no additional effort). I like a mixture of rocket and spinach. No lettuce. I would love to eat those salads you have bookmarked though!

  5. ara jane says:

    i love lots of what i call “nubbins” in my salad. meaning, lots of little bits served over lettuce or salad greens that can blend with the dressing to make it super satisfying. so i will usually add some cooked brown or wild rice to the top of my salads, along with shredded carrots, avocado chunks, sunflower seeds, small pieces of celery, black or kidney beans, etc. i know, i know… i’m totally describing some kind of hippie salad, but trust me, it’s amazing!

  6. colleen says:

    I like the idea of a hippie salad! My starting point is generally what looks good at the market or shop or allotment ( asparagus at the moment), then make something on whatever green base we have. Like Felix we always have some Lidl’s red peppers and black olives in the cupboard as well as tinned beans, lentils and anchovies. Then it’s a bit of mix it and see.

  7. jane says:

    I LOVE SALAD. I get very lazy in the summer and more or less all i eat is various types of salad. That fennel sounds delicious – I love fennel, and it’s also very good paired with orange.

    My salads are often not very organised and sometimes just involve putting lots of different bits and bobs on top of my plateful of greenery – i am exceptionally fond of the hippie kinds of salad described above! Grated carrot is especially good and at the moment I am really into sprouted seeds – I’m in fact sprouting my own (or trying to…). I also think the key to good salad is to make sure you have lots of tasty things in the fridge or cupboards to put in… some of the things I like adding are
    - toasted nuts and seeds (toasted hazelnuts or walnuts are especially good i think; pistachios are great too but they don’t need toasting I don’t think)
    - olives, capers, artichoke hearts…and so on. Salty things.
    - slow roasted tomatoes – these are so good and really easy to make, you can buy those big cheap punnets of tomatoes and roast them with olive oil, dried oregano and basil at a very low temperature for roughly half a lazy Sunday…. delicious.
    - edamame beans, sugarsnap peas, blanched green beans
    - fresh herbs: they make everything better. So does halloumi in fact, if you eat these things, especially when you cook it on a griddle pan and leave it to go a little bit too charred and crispy
    - I’m not a big fan of lettuce plain and simple, probably largely because I’m not too sure what to do with it and how to make it interesting, but I do love watercress, baby spinach, peashoots, lamb’s lettuce and other such things which do the work for me. If you buy the unwashed rocket etc from Tesco it’s a lot cheaper and lasts much longer.

    The other thing I think is worthwhile is buying good tomatoes unless they’re going to be cooked – there’s a world of difference between a good tomato and a bad tomato and I think this constitutes one of life’s wiser investments.

    I really like lentil salads, like this one:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/jul/04/vegetarian-vegetablesrecipes

    And here is a link I have recently bookmarked for Nigel Slater’s summer salads – I’ve never made panzanella actually but have long been intrigued by it.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/may/16/nigel-slater-simple-summer-recipes

  8. lily says:

    mm, delicious discussion happening here.

    i like simple salads… when it’s about good ingredients (greens and veggies so tasty you sneak bites when chopping them up), proportions, and contrast.

    when the greens are good, just greens and great dressing can be amazing. i like salads to have a focus… simple greens and simple dressing if a creamy goat cheese is going in; no greens and one basic cheese if fennel is what i’m craving. then a small handful of something for contrast–sugared nuts, pear slices, salted cucumber, berries, something pickled, something smoky, or something salty.

  9. brokeknits says:

    p.s. What about a cobb salad? It is certainly hearty and could probably be made a bit healthier … smitten kitchen has a good basic recipe: http://smittenkitchen.com/2010/04/classic-cobb-salad/

  10. Pingback: With the sunshine « the world according to jane

  11. Natalie Kaye says:

    I’m like you, always in search of the perfect salad. My mom makes an excellent summer salad using pears and blue cheese (or feta). You should give those ingredients a whirl :)

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