I have a deep loathing of side salads. It’s partially due to the fact that they often (and prominently) feature raw onions—which I find offensive—but it’s mostly because of what’s implied by being on the side to begin with. When your greens are an ancillary part of your meal, let’s be honest, they’re really just there to assuage your guilt about everything else you’re about to eat. Half the time side salads go uneaten, acting as a food-like table decoy to make people think you’re eating healthfully.
It took me a long time to realize that salads got a bad name from their on-the-side step-cousin, and that—even if it’s a warm-up to the main meal—a salad can hold its own as a legitimate focus.
There are two keys to making the kind of salad that will keep you from ever ordering a side salad again.
The first is choosing ingredients that are in season and local, which ensures that taste will be prime. If there’s an ingredient in a salad you want to make that’s not in season, steer away from the inferior option from halfway around the world and simply find an alternate item that’s similar in texture and flavor.
The second key to making a great salad is the dressing. Always make it from scratch, using good ingredients. Make sure your oils are fresh (give them a smell to know). Choose vinegars that have been aged a bit for a little depth of flavor. Wisk your dressing in a glass prep bowl or shake it in a Mason jar for the best melding of flavors, then make sure it’s salted properly. I am a self-proclaimed salt-ophile—or “supertaster” depending on your perspective—but it’s true that the right amount of salt amplifies the optimum balance between acidic and sweet. If you want a great tutorial on how to build a perfect dressing from scratch every time, check out Creative Mama’s fail-proof formula.
Here are a few of my favorite salads, all of which situate themselves beautifully right in between my fork, knife, and spoon—nowhere near the side.
1. Arugula Salad with Pepitas and Cotija Cheese
I’m a big fan of using fruits, toasted nuts, and cheese in salads. These ingredients give you a sensory experience that’s multifaceted, which keeps your interest far longer than crunch-crunch-crunch ever could. This arugula salad from Diggin Food is a perfect example. The toasty, crunchy pepitas and peppery arugula is smoothed out with a little mellow Cotija cheese. It’s a great combination that will keep you from ever uttering “lado de la ensalada” again.
2. Avocado Wasabi Salad
There may be nothing better than the smoothness of avocado countered with a spike of wasabi. The Avocado Wasabi Salad from Vegan Yum Yum nails it. With all that dramatic tension between these two perfect opposites, you barely notice you’ve downed half a head of broccoli along with a mound of greens before you realize you’ve spent the last twelve bites trying to unpack why it’s so darn good. Then you’ll inevitably come to terms with the fact that the science behind why this classic combination is so fabulous is over your head and you might as well just enjoy another helping.
3. Arugula Salad with Smoked Duck, Toasted Hazelnuts, and Dried Cherries
I realize that this salad features some seriously elitist ingredients, but—wherever you stand on the matter of greens also known as rocket—you won’t want to discount this salad from Restaurant Widow. The rich smokiness of the duck tastes amazing set against the spicy greens dressed in a homemade vinaigrette and tossed with sharp cheddar, tart cherries, and toasty hazelnuts.
4. Shaved Fennel Salad
No list of seven salad superstars could possibly be complete without a fabulous shaved fennel salad. The wonderful 101 Cookbooks recipe is engineered so that wispy slices of fennel get all wrapped up around dill, zucchini coins, and little crumbles of feta—and it’s all held together with a simple combination of fresh lemon juice, a little honey, olive oil, and salt.
5. Orzo Salad with Mustard Greens and Toasted Chickpeas
This is a two-part recipe—really two salads next to each other, which play off one another brilliantly. Peter Berley’s genius comes through in the way the flavors of orzo with mustard greens do surprising things on the plate—things you never would have dreamed of just by reading the recipe. The only minor tweak I recommend is one I stole from an excellent cook friend: she tossed the chickpeas in a little salt and olive oil, then toasted them in the oven at 425-degrees for about 10 or 12 minutes rather than blanching them as the recipe calls for. You won’t believe how much you’ll love mustard greens after eating this incredible pairing!
6. Southeast Asian Salad
This salad from Mommy Bistro is everything you love about the flavors in Thai food: loads of crunchy elements, including toasted peanuts or cashews tossed in a spicy citrus dressing and feathered with fresh cilantro. There’s a lot of chopping involved but as long as you’re working in a clean prep area with the right tools and the right music cranked up on the stereo, the work will go quickly and the payoff will be worth it.
7. Roasted Carrot and Beet Salad
Roasted carrots aren’t newsworthy, exactly. And roasted beets, well, not everyone likes them—or knows they like them. But when they’re brought together with Hugh Acheson’s vinaigrette, it’s a different story altogether. The cumin brings out the earthiness of the roasted vegetables, and the mint and acid adds another plane of incredible flavor. Running With Tweezers interviews Hugh and presents this recipe from his cookbook A New Turn In the South. With a bit of quinoa or couscous, it’s also a satisfying vegetarian meal—yet still a salad of sorts.
Do you have a favorite salad recipe? Drool over more of our favorite recipes here!