Whipping up a side salad does not have to result in a salad topped with bottled ranch dressing, shredded carrots and underripe cherry tomatoes. There is much more out there in the world of side salads, and it starts with only a few basic kitchen staples.
A smartly stocked pantry combined with basic knowledge of vinaigrettes can make salads a quick and delicious go-to side, even on busy weeknights.
Quality olive oil will instantly enhance your salad game. A little will go a long way, which, for some, will justify a higher-priced bottle. Just a touch of premium olive oil, a dash of salt, a squeeze of lemon juice and freshly grated Parmesan can make one of the easiest and most delicious salads. Quality olive oil will shine in a basic vinaigrette (using a ratio of 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar) or the most elaborate combination.
Other great oils for salads are sesame oil, avocado oil and walnut oil.
Vinegars are the lifeblood of cooking. A drop of acidity is like a bomb of brilliance that permeates an entire dish, allowing ingredients, otherwise hidden, to be highlighted. Vinegar has this same effect on salads.
For salads (and cooking in general), I have five go-to vinegars: wine (red and white), balsamic, sherry and rice. It is important to recognize that vinegars have their own flavors. Balsamic is wholly different from red wine, which is nothing like sherry. Remember too that rice vinegar is different from seasoned rice vinegar. The latter contains salt and sugar, which I love using for quick pickles!
Citrus juice — fresh lemon juice in particular — is the other acid that can change the course of a vinaigrette and a salad. During citrus season, I grab a variety of everything from oranges to pommelos to limes to create the most outstanding dressings.
This is where the fun and variety come into play. Always embrace mustard, in particular Dijon and whole grain. These kitchen staples add salt, texture and tartness. Mayonnaise can also add a touch of umami and thickness to dressings.
But there are plenty of other options on the condiment aisle: Miso! Honey! Anchovy paste! Hot sauce! Tahini! Tamarind! Chile-garlic! Whataburger sauce! (I’m kidding … or am I?) Try these combinations: miso + balsamic, tahini + Dijon, mayonnaise + chile-garlic. The options are endless.
Another element of fun are the spices used to dress up the dressing. A basic spice collection is all that is needed to make things exciting. Ground garlic, ground ginger, red pepper flakes and cayenne are more than sufficient to yield delicious vinaigrettes and dressings for salads. However, a more advanced spice pantry that contains items like saffron threads, smoked paprika, sumac, za’atar, cardamom and turmeric will yield even more options.
The foundation of a salad, leafy greens can affect the overall flavor of the salad, so choose wisely. Romaine is bitter. Arugula is spicy. Butter lettuce is sweet. Similar to herbs, greens have their own flavor. How you choose to dress them can either highlight or take away their flavor.
If allowed only one topping for my salad, it would be fresh herbs. Delicate yet powerful, herbs bring bright pops of flavor to every salad bite. Using a variety of chopped herbs, like tarragon, dill and cilantro, will easily elevate a salad (or any savory meal).
When selecting herbs, steer clear of fresh rosemary and thyme. They are rough, and this texture is unappealing. The goal for herbs is to blend into the texture and stand out in flavor.
Side salads don’t need much else when tossed in quality dressings and herbs. However, if you feel the need for additional texture and taste, this where your pantry needs to match your palate.
Nuts and seeds: Neutral in flavor, salty or sweet, these ingredients are great additions. I prefer pine nuts and sunflower seeds for salads.
Fruits and veggies: Choose only one to two and be sure to cut into small pieces. Place on the salad when plated, as these tend to fall to the bottom of the salad bowl. Try grapes, Persian cucumbers, tomatoes (in season), avocado, shallots or jarred olives. Dried fruit, like cranberries, cherries or apricots, can be finely chopped and sprinkled like spices, adding a nice touch.
Cheese: Used sparingly, finely grated cheeses (like pecorino and Parmesan) will blend into the dressing and will adhere to the greens. Soft cheeses and strips of cheese will stand alone, becoming a prominent bite, and will dictate the overall flavor of the salad.
Arugula Olive Salad With Tahini Dijon Dressing
Fresh dill, chopped
Chopped Kalamata olives
Persian cucumbers, sliced
Tahini Dijon Dressing (recipe follows)
In a large bowl add the fresh dill, olives and cucumbers. Top with the arugula and the Tahini Dijon Dressing. Toss to coat. Serve immediately.
Tahini Dijon Dressing: In a medium bowl combine 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, 2 tablespoons tahini, juice of 1/2 a lemon and 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt. For a bit of heat, add a pinch or two of red pepper flakes. Whisk to combine. Slowly add 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil to the mixture, starting with a few drops and then a steady stream. Whisk constantly until the dressing is combined. Makes about 3/4 cup.
Red Butter Lettuce Salad With Honey Peppered Vinaigrette, Pecorino and Pine Nuts
Red butter lettuce
Fresh basil leaves, torn
Toasted pine nuts
Honey Peppered Vinaigrette (recipe follows)
Fresh lemon juice, to top
In a large bowl, add the red butter lettuce, basil, pecorino and pine nuts. Top with the Honey Peppered Vinaigrette and toss to coat. Serve immediately with a light squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
Honey Peppered Vinaigrette: In a small bowl, add 2 teaspoons whole grain mustard, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 3/4 teaspoon pepper, 2 teaspoons honey and 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar. Whisk to combine. Slowly add 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, starting with a few drops of oil and then in a steady stream. Whisk constantly until the vinaigrette is combined. Use immediately or store in the fridge to use later. Makes 1/2 cup.