Best Dressed: 5 Tips for Creating Delectable Dressings & Super Salads

Best Dressed: 5 Tips for Creating Delectable Dressings & Super Salads

Confession: I am obsessed with salads, y’all. (I’d have one for every meal if I could.) I’ve long loved a fresh green salad to go with my evening meal. I’m also known for eagerly jumping on an exotic salad as a main course when I eat out.

Still, it took some major changes to my own food rules to really challenge me to create incredible salads at home.

Yes, there once was a time when we would grab a handful of organic mixed spring greens from the the tub, toss them with our standard homemade dressing and call it a salad. But no more…

It took eliminating refined sugar, dumping dairy, and shifting to a more veg-based lifestyle to put increasingly inspired salads on a pedestal and on our plates regularly.

So while I always loved salads, it’s only in the last year that I’ve really embraced just how delicious and nutritious they can be at home.

A simple salad can deliver everything you need by way of nourishment (including protein!), but a truly great salad has it all: nutrients, texture, color, and flavor.

Herewith, some tips to inspire great salad creations in your own kitchen.

TIP #1 It’s easy being green.

There’s more than one way to make a “green salad” green, y’all, so, please, step away from the iceberg lettuce. Reach instead for the host of organic leafy green treats offered at your natural grocer, favorite store, or farmer’s market. Try mixed spring greens, romaine, arugula, spinach, kale, chard, endive, frisee, bok choy, microgreens, or any of the endless and nutrient-rich cabbages. Get colorful with radicchio or red cabbage.

TIP #2 You don’t have to rely on store-bought dressing.

Your homemade salad dressing beats store-bought every time. When we shifted away from dairy, sugar, soy, and more, we had a helluva time even finding a dressing that nourished us in accordance with our food rules. So we ditched store-bought dressings with their preservatives and fillers and started making our own, small-batch dressing. It’s sooooo easy.

You only need to know one simple formula to begin crafting delicious homemade salad dressings.

Yep. That’s it. To make a basic salad dressing, you only need a fatty liquid (oil), a sour liquid (typically vinegar), a little bit of something sweet to balance the sour, and spices (salt and pepper being first among them).

Broadly, you’ll want twice as much fat as sour, less than half as much sweet as sour, and possibly a little water or other neutral liquid for balance.

For a typical Italian dressing, the formula might include olive oil, white vinegar, sugar, salt/pepper, and Italian spices like basil and oregano. But that’s only the beginning…

The real magic happens when you entertain exciting new ingredients to jump in the mix. Stumped? Here are some basics to get you thinking…

The delicious is in the details of which fats, sours, and sweeteners you choose.

Shake things up by trying new kinds of oils or vinegar. (Better still? Start infusing your own! Tarragon infused in white wine vinegar, ginger and garlic infused in rice vinegar, fennel fronds, orange peel, and star anise in champagne vinegar, and basil and lemon peel infused vinegar are among our favorites…)

Spices will also make a huge difference. Pretty much every dressing wants salt and pepper–that much you can take for granted. From there, only your imagination limits the spices you use in your dressing.

For everyday Italian dressing, think garlic, basil, and oregano for spices. Add a dash of Worcestershire if you’re feeling bold.

For dressing to accompany Asian salads or meals, look to flavors like garlic, ginger, and sesame seeds.

Having a French feast? Reach for tarragon or garlic chives.

Mexican on the menu? Add cilantro, cumin, oregano, and/or chile powder.

Don’t limit yourself to dried spices, either: fresh herbs like dill, cilantro, mint, lemon balm, basil, oregano, and more make incredibly flavorful additions.

TIP #3 Color is about more than making a salad pleasing to the eye.

COLOR = NUTRIENTS, y’all. The more color in your salad, the more nutritious (and delicious!) it’s going to be. Get in there with colorful chopped or sliced vegetables (think radishes, heirloom tomatoes, grape tomatoes, red, yellow or green peppers, cucumber, carrots, and red onion) and fruit (why not apple, grapes, raspberries, blueberries, or strawberries to start?).

Don’t stop there. Explode the model of what belongs where on your plate. Include grilled asparagus. Add roasted fennel and beets. Toss in sweet corn. Add handfuls of cooked, cooled beans. Get into grapefruit with light, bright dressings with tarragon.  Put sweet mandarin orange slices in tangy Asian salads. Take summer salads to eleven with fresh melon and mint. (Hint: melon is a secret weapon in a fancy salad as it adds amazing texture, sweetness, and coolness… watermelon is particularly sublime in savory salads. If you eat cheese, try sweet watermelon, peppery baby arugula, and salty feta together pronto. I remember it’s deliciousness well….) GO WILD.

Still not convinced? Moving beyond leafy greens into more exciting ingredients will make every bite of your salad pop, because…

TIP #4 Unexpected ingredients also make for great texture.

Ever taken a bite of a pretty salad only to find that the bite kinda collapses lifelessly in your mouth without any vigor? That’s about texture.

We look to ingredients beyond leafy greens to not only add color and nutrients, but also to add depth and texture to yield sublime mouthfeel. The “toothy-ness” of a roasted vegetable, the crunch of raw nuts, the juicy burst of a berry, the “pop” of an al dente bean, and the creamy bite of avocado all contribute to the excitement our mouth experiences with every bite. Do your salads a favor and start adding some texture.

For crunch, think nuts, seeds, and sprouts. While almonds are an easy addition, don’t ignore the taste and texture of walnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, or even candied pecans. With seeds, mix different sizes and kinds; we regularly use a mixture of pumpkin, sesame, chia, and hemp seeds on our salads. Don’t even get me started on the peppery zing and crunch of sprouts and shoots: we add a handful of sprouts or shoots to every salad we make.

Of course, salad staples like radishes, bell peppers, and cucumbers will add crunch, too.

If you eat bread and/or dairy, add croutons or baked parmesan crisps. In Asian salads, try fried won ton strips or crispy noodles.

For juicy bursts of flavor (and sometimes crunch, too!), look to fruits and berries: grapes, pear, apple, watermelon, honeydew, cantaloupe, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, or fresh pomegranate seeds.

For meaty texture (without meat!) that you can sink your teeth into, look to cooked, chilled, and rinsed beans, al dente corn or blanched green beans, mushrooms, or roasted vegetables. For beans, think everything from black beans, chickpeas, and kidney beans to Great Northern beans and edamame. In roasted veggies, go for butternut squash, fennel, beets, cauliflower, carrots, asparagus, or Brussels sprouts.

For a variety of soft, chewy, or creamy textures consider figs, dried apricots, olives, roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, or avocado.

TIP #5 Eat your side vegetables (and carbs!) *IN* your salad!

If there is ONE thing that has taken our salads to eleven, it’s this: we don’t relegate our “sides” to the sides of our plates anymore. That’s right: our veggies, carbs, and other “sides” are a part of our salads-as-a-main-meal more often than not.

As I’ve said, broccoli, cauliflower, artichoke hearts, and Brussels sprouts go in there. Also, roasted beets, caramelized onions, simmered mushrooms, oven-baked butternut squash, and roasted fennel have showed up. Heck, even beans, pearl couscous, barley, corn, and quinoa have landed in main course salads at Five Element Farm. Why?

More flavor, more texture, more color, more nutrients (especially from raw ingredients!) = mo’ better salad.

Please, don’t steam beautiful fresh vegetables to oblivion and then punish them on the sad side of your plate. Blanch them oh-so-barely, roast them oh-so-tenderly, sear them oh-so-gently, sautee them oh-so-quickly, or just mack them raw and tell me if you don’t think that maybe side vegetables NOT on the side is what your salad wanted all along.

To balance your salad, add some whole grain carbs, too. They don’t have to be just cooked and on the side! We regularly add pearl couscous, barley, quinoa, amaranth, wild rice, lentils, or other whole grains to salads. They tend to pick up the delicious flavor of the dressing and herbs, add texture, and contribute to our feeling satisfied with a salad as a main meal.

Stumped on where to begin? Here’s a handy list of some of our favorite, unusual salads to get you started:

  • Take quartered Brussels sprouts and lightly sautee them. Allow to cool slightly. Toss with minced red onion, whole leaf parsley, and almonds. Dressing = premium mayonnaise mixed with Dijon mustard, olive oil, crushed garlic, and salt/pepper.
  • Combine cooked or grilled sweet corn, cooked black beans, red onion, chopped red and green pepper, pine nuts, and fresh cilantro. Toss in a dressing of sunflower oil, lime juice, a little honey or agave, and garlic, cumin, oregano, and chipotle chile powder.
  • Combine cooked and cooled wild rice, minced red onion, small mango/pineapple chunks, diced red pepper, and peanuts. Toss in a dressing of safflower oil, lime juice, sweet chili sauce, and fresh mint.
  • Combine equal parts arugula, mixed spring greens, and spinach. Toss with blueberries, walnuts, and chopped green onions. Drizzle with caramelized mushrooms and shallots. Dress with a raspberry vinaigrette with olive oil, white balsamic vinegar, fresh raspberries, honey/agave, and salt/pepper.
  • Mix cooked pearl couscous with sun-dried tomatoes, fresh parsley and basil, olive oil, lemon juice, red chile flakes, and chunks of feta cheese.

Wishing you colorful, creative salads, nutrient-rich meals, and delicious noms always…

Bless and blessed be.

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