When I first came to write for xoJane on the premise of dispensing cookery advice, the great Lesley advised, “Salads. We don’t know why, but people seem to respond the most to salads.” And I said, “Well, sure, but seriously, how many salads could they possibly want to hear about?” Well, xoJane, the stats don’t lie. The answer is an INFINITE AMOUNT OF SALADS. You are a bunch of snarky feminist rabbits.
I quickly realized that the content was already sitting there in my Instagram account, where I frequently throw together fridge and garden miscellany in a lackadaisical way and call it lunch. I love salads -- they’re a perfect way to dispense of leftovers, a frequent topic here.
I use a formula for most salads: a vegetable, a nut/seed, a cheese, and (optionally) a fruit and/or a green. To start, choose two of those items that go great together -- either complimentary or contrasting. Green beans and garbanzos. Spinach and walnuts. Tangerines and peppers. Just as I am not a fan of the mixed flower bouquet, I am not a fan of the “bit of everything” salad. Choose a few standouts and let them shine.
Da NutsThen I build around that -- what green goes (and sometimes, it's not green, but purple cabbage or quinoa or couscous). What nut goes here, remembering that some are “softer” than others. I adore pecans and walnuts, but for the greatest crunch I love halved almonds, hazelnuts and macadamias.
I could eat candied nuts 'til the cows come home, but it needs to make sense in the overall salad. Against the peppers in a tangerine and pepper salad, or against some spicy arugula they’d make complete sense. Pine nuts have an earthiness to them that works well with crisp, cool vegetables -- jicama, cucumbers, watermelon. Pine nuts play off cucumber, mint and feta.
There are so many greens beyond the borders of romaine and butter lettuce. Choose them when you need volume (butter) or crunch (romaine) but no added flavors. Arugula is a perfect example: it ranges from mildly peppery to really super spicy. Against fruit or chevre it is lovely.
Endive is another favorite of mine; it has a soft bitterness, with a velvety texture. Bitter goes well against slight sweetness like apples and watermelon and pears. Radicchio is even more bitter, but with a satisfying crunch and gorgeous color. Pair it with sweeter, juicier fruits: pomegranate seeds, grapefruit, peaches. Purple cabbage is a benign and pretty punch to salads for contrast.
Cheese is a great way to bring salads together and brighten them. Crumbly blue cheeses contrast with mildly sweet (a big flavor matched to a moderate flavor) -- think stiltons (which are the sharpest) or gorgonzolas (which are a bit more moderate). Soft chevres are the perfect mild way to bring flavors together -- against an arugula it's divine (a mild flavor with a big flavor). Mozzarellas are about texture and body. Use them to hold up a salad structurally. Parmesans and manchego are my favorite way to add a bit of salt and bite to a composition.
Fig, Watercress and Blue Cheese Salad
Wash watercress, trim off the end, leaving most of the stem. Dry well and toss in bowl. Use a heavy knife or a pan to smash some hazelnuts and toss in bowl as well. I cut a few figs into quarters and toss them in. Crumble blue cheese in. To dress it, I use pickled mustard seeds and a bit of olive oil. It really doesn't need much.
Spicy Red Cabbage and Carrot Salad
Slice a red cabbage in half and cut out the core. Slice the watercress thinly and toss it into a bowl. Peel and slice carrots into slices the size of quarters and toss those in as well. You can prep the sauce separately, but I just toss it all in the bowl as well and toss it in. Add a splash of 1 part chili oil, 1 part fish sauce, 1 part soy sauce to 2 parts rice wine vinegar and 3 parts sesame oil. Add sesame seeds, toss really well and then let it sit for an hour or two. This gets better the longer it sits.
Feta, Cucumber, Preserved Lemon and Pine Nut Salad
There's no lettuce in this salad, but you will be addicted to it quickly. Peel a few cucumbers, and then use a spoon to scoop out the middle. Chop it roughly into bite-sized pieces and toss into bowl. Toss crumbled feta cheese into bowl as well. Wash and dry mint leaves, stack them, roll them and then slice so you end up with ribbons, and toss those in as well. Slice a preserved lemon in. Toss in pine nuts, a bit of olive oil, salt and cracked pepper.
Roasted Corn, Queso Fresco, Cucumber and Tomato Salad
This is the perfect way to get rid of leftover corn on the cob. Otherwise, just throw a few cobs on the grill, and then slice the kernels off into a bowl. I peel a cucumber, seed it, and then chop it into bite-sized pieces. I add a few chopped red tomatoes, and occasionally I will add chopped jicama and red bell pepper in as well. I add in fresh chopped oregano or thyme, and a bit of olive oil. Finally, I crumble in queso fresco and toss it together with salt and pepper.
Grapefruit, Pecan, Pistachio and Blue Cheese Salad with Cabbage
Toss some shaved red cabbage into the bowl, and then add a supremed grapefruit. Toss in some pecans and some pistachio nuts. Now I crumble in some blue cheese or stilton. I toss it with vinegar (I have some blackberry vinegar I made, but any sweet vinegar would be great) and a bit of olive oil. Then I take some honey and just touch it to the blue cheese. Let the salad sit for about 10 minutes. The honey will make the blue cheese melt -- it's amazing.
Fried Green Tomato Salad
Add greens to the bowl -- here I've used watercress, but butter lettuce would be great, or endive. I slice in red radishes, and yellow and red tomatoes. Then I make fried green tomatoes (just one) by just dusting the slices with flour and sauteing them in olive oil and garlic. I toss them in, add slivered almonds and pickled beet greens (but any pickled veggie would do). Then I add some hard goat cheese and toss it with a tbsp of Dijon mustard and some anchovies and olive oil.
Roasted Beet and Yellow Tomato Salad
Cut off the ends of 2-3 beets, and wrap in tin foil. In a separate small roasting dish, place yellow tomatoes sliced in half, cut side up. Drizzle with olive oil and place a few garlic cloves amongst them. Roast the beets and the tomatoes at 350 for an hour. Wash the beets under cold water and peel, then quarter. The tomatoes will have wilted and become concentrated. Toss both in a bowl with sliced green onions and walnuts; then I make quenelles of ricotta cheese (use two spoons to make a dumpling of ricotta, like this). Drizzle on the tomato drippings.
Beets and Shallot Salad with Goat Cheese
Peel a few beets -- it's great to use a few different ones -- yellow, orange, red, bleeding heart. I just pull out of my garden whatever is ready, but the more color the prettier the salad. I chop the beets into large pieces and then thinly slice a shallot. I saute both in a bit of olive oil and white balsamic vinegar, then toss into a bowl. I chop a few pickled beets and onions and toss those in as well. I add a handful of slivered almonds and crumble in some chevre. Finally I toss it and crack some pepper on top.
Summer Tomato and Pasta Salad
This is an amazing way to show off your summer tomatoes. Make a handful of egg noodles, drain and set into bowl. Now I chop fresh tomatoes -- yellow, orange, red, whatever you have. I sliced a lobster mushroom (but any shrooms would do) and a boneless chicken thigh, and then I sauteed them with a bit of garlic oil until cooked through. At the last minute or two, I tossed in some squash blossoms. Toss it all together, including the pan drippings.
Finally I washed and dried some green and purple basil and stacked the leaves together, rolled them and sliced them to get ribbons of basil. I tossed this into the salad, with a tablespoon or two of ricotta. Allow the salad to marinate together and serve at room temperature.
Damnit, Jim, I AM NOT A SALAD MACHINE.
Color, textures, shapes and tastes, they’re all the elements that make salads rich instead of rote. Part of why they’re such eyecandy for Instagram is how gorgeous they lay out -- so that’s my challenge this month. Snap your salads, tag them #xoSalad and #xoFood on Instagram or Pinterest (if you're having trouble tagging, get my attention on Twitter) and at the end of the month, I’m going to make and review my favorites here. Help us grow the #xofood community out there!