Saturday, January 3, 2009

Tips for Fabulous Green Salads

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season. I know we did, but boy the time just flew by! I can't believe it's already come and gone.

If you're anything like me, you overindulged and now feel it's time to get back on the band wagon of healthy eating and regular exercise. As such, salads are figuring heavily into my upcoming meal plans.

A green salad can be one of those dishes that really sings on your plate, or it can be the ho-hum obligation that you eat because you think you should. The difference between the two is often just a matter of a few simple tips and small details. Here are some of my favorite tips for making great salads. If you have others, please post them to the comments section.

  • Get creative with greens. Gone are the days when salad meant a few leaves of wilted iceberg lettuce drizzled with a fat laden creamy dressing. Today's markets have a wide variety of salad greens. Try to use several varieties in your salads. For convenience you can buy premixed mesclun, which contains a variety of greens. You can also blend your own by going through the produce department and mixing and matching greens. Some that will add interesting flavors to the mix are the slightly bitter chicories such as endive or radicchio, peppery arugula or even mild baby spinach. Look for interesting textures and colors in your greens as well. Maybe add some frisée or curly red leaf lettuce for extra dimension.

  • Wash and dry greens well. If you bought a pre-washed mesclun mix, you won't have to worry about cleaning the greens, otherwise they should be thoroughly washed. The hardest part of this is that salad greens should also be dried before being turned into salad, otherwise they will water down the dressing. A salad spinner is a handy kitchen gadget that actually works quite well (order online or pick them up for a song any weekend at a local garage sale). Otherwise, after shaking off most of the water, you can roll the washed lettuce in paper towels to help absorb the remaining moisture.

  • Plan on about 2 cups of mixed greens per person.

  • Try fennel. For a slightly sweet, mild anise flavor, try adding some chopped fresh fennel bulb to your salad or use fennel as the basis of the salad itself.

  • You can add all kinds of other vegetables to your salads depending on your mood. I generally prefer simpler salads that allow one or two ingredients to really shine, but to each his own. Tomatoes and onions seem to be standard fare but don't forget cucumbers, shredded carrots, shredded cabbage, avocado, olives, celery, cauliflower, broccoli, radishes, peas, corn, beans, etc.

  • Lightly steamed veggies that have been chilled also make excellent salad additions, think asparagus, green beans, broccoli or cauliflower.

  • Avoid raw mushrooms. While raw mushrooms are a staple of many salad recipes, I now avoid them. Mycology expert Charmoon Richardson of the Sonoma, California company "Wild About Mushrooms" recently taught me that raw mushrooms are slightly toxic (these elements are released during cooking).

  • Add fruit. Fruit can add a bright flavor surprise to green salads. For just a few suggestions, try adding a small amount of sliced fresh strawberries, blueberries or raspberries to your salad mix. Citrus fruit like orange or grapefruit slices or fresh pineapple go really well, especially with dark greens like spinach. Add tropical flavor with fruits like mango or papaya or my favorite. In fall, be sure to try my favorite salad fruit: fresh pomegranate seeds.

  • Try roasting vegetables on the grill or roasting them in the oven before adding to salads (you can chill first, or add them warm). This works well for onions, asparagus, zucchini, mushrooms (especially portobellos), and many others.

  • Add grilled chicken, beef or even tofu to your salad and turn it into a meal.

  • Add ingredients that really make salads sing! The following ingredients are so potent in flavor, you only have to use a small amount, but they will add a distinctive, unforgettable flavor to your salads: crumbled bacon bits; crumbled hard boiled egg; crumbled strong cheeses such as blue cheese, gorgonzola, Roquefort or feta; brine cured olives such as kalamatas; toasted nuts or seeds; anchovies.

  • If you like toasted nuts on your salad, try sugared nuts, such as pecans or walnuts, for an even greater flavor spectrum. To make these nuts, combine 2 1/4 cups nuts with 1 cup sugar and 1/2 cup of water in a heavy skillet. Cook the mixture over medium heat until the water evaporates and the nuts have a crystal, sugary appearance. Pour onto a baking sheet covered with waxed paper and immediately separate the nuts with a fork. Let cool, store in airtight container.

  • Try goat cheese. Mixed green salads with warm goat cheese are on the menus of countless trendy restaurants today, but it's easy to duplicate this feat at home. Simply take a log of goat cheese and slice into slices about 1/2 - 3/4 of an inch thick. Lightly coat the cheese slices with either some seasoned breadcrumbs or finely chopped nuts. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet and place under the boiler. Watch carefully, it takes less than a minute! Broil just until the cheese starts to melt (if you wait too long you will end up it a runny mess). Remove cheese from oven and use a wide spatula to transfer one cheese slice onto each serving plate of dressed, mixed greens.

  • Do not over dress your salad. Green salads only need about 1 teaspoon of dressing per person, as long as you toss it well.

  • Don't over power flavors. A lighter vinaigrette type dressing will allow the flavors of the salad to come through.

  • A good basic vinaigrette. A basic vinaigrette than can be tossed right on the salad is about 1 1/2 teaspoons vinegar to 2 teaspoons oil. Sprinkle the vinegar on first, then toss, then sprinkle on the oil and toss again. If you do it the other way around, the oil will keep the vinegar from adhering to the leaves. Season with salt and pepper.

  • Experiment with vinegars. Play with types of vinegars you use. Try red or white wine vinegars, balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar or seasoned rice vinegar, in addition to vinegars flavored with fruits or herbs.

  • Use vinegar somewhat sparingly as the taste can easily overpower all other flavors.

  • Experiment with oils. Extra virgin olive oil is great, but you can play with the flavor by adding part nut oils, such as hazelnut or almond oil. A few drops of sesame oil will give your salad an exotic Asian flair.

  • Substitute acidic fruit juice for all or part of the vinegar in a vinaigrette. Try using lemon, lime, orange, apple or pineapple juices.

  • Add flavor. To add flavor and dimension to your vinaigrette dressings, try adding ingredients like minced shallot, garlic, ginger, onion or green onion. Play with the flavors by adding small amounts of flavoring ingredients such as mustard, honey, hot sauce or soy sauce.

  • Use herbs. Small amounts of fresh herbs can add a whole new flavor dimension to salads and salad dressings. Try basil, thyme leaves, chives or tarragon. Experiment and have fun with herbs.
More Salad Tips and Recipes Click here for more salad making tips and lots of fabulous salad and salad dressing recipes.

1 comment:

Pam said...

I love a good salad - thanks for all the tips and ideas.

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