How to make a better side salad
What is the perfect simple salad? I’m not talking lunch salads or grain salads, but the simplest of dinner accompaniments, the salad that gets tossed at the last moment to lay beside a piece of grilled chicken or a plate of pasta. This kind of salad often feels like an afterthought. It’s the obligatory vegetable to be munched down before enjoying the rest of your dinner. But this doesn’t need to be so.
Everyone has different tastes in salad. Maybe you like yours with a creamy dressing; maybe you like it super-assertive. You might like to have extra vegetables in your salad; or, like me, you just want to keep it ultra-simple. The point — no matter how you decide to dress your salad, up or down — is that it taste delicious. Salads need seasoning, too, just like any other dish.
So, follow the guiding principles on making a quick salad for dinner. I follow this method nearly every time I make dinner, and often I unexpectedly enjoy the salad more than anything else on the table. There’s a purity and deliciousness to a well-dressed pile of greens that other, more complex, dishes often do not approach.
4 ounces lettuce or mixed greens, washed and torn
Finely shredded carrots or julienned cucumbers, optional
Small handful finely shredded basil, mint or other aromatic herb, optional
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons vinegar or lemon juice
1⁄2 teaspoon honey or maple syrup
Flaky salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Grated parmesan or Asiago cheese, to garnish, optional
1. The greens should be completely dry. No matter what kind of greens you use, they should be as dry as possible. If greens aren’t dry, they feel weighed down and even a little slimy when the dressing is added. I like to buy bags of mixed salad greens (I could make my own mix, but I don’t always have the time or inclination to buy frisee, radicchio, romaine, arugula, and butter lettuce and wash and chop them), but these should be washed, too.
Wash the greens and spin dry if you like, then lay them out on a towel to air-dry for a little while.
2. The greens should be bite-size. Really. Make sure the greens are torn into bite-size bits. I really hate those oversize wedges of lettuce left in restaurant salads; you have to cut them up to get them in your mouth. No good.
Tear your greens if you think they will be too big to spear and eat gracefully.
3. Put the greens in a really big bowl. This gives you space to dress the salad without splashing or compressing the air out of what should be a light, fluffy mix of greens.
No matter how you serve your salad, it’s best to toss it in a really big bowl — much bigger than the volume of the greens.
4. Add any other vegetables you like. Make sure they are dry, too. Herbs are extra-good. For a really simple salad, this is where you toss in any little extras. I don’t like to over-complicate my side salads or weigh them down with lots of heavy vegetables. But sometimes, I add a little carrot or cucumber, finely shredded and blotted dry. Finely shredded herbs are wonderful in salad, too; I’m partial to mint.
Here, add about 1⁄3 cup grated carrot (optional) and a small handful of chiffonaded basil.
5. Always dress your salad. Bottles at the table — no. All right. Here’s my salad manifesto. I don’t believe that salads should ever, ever be dressed at the table by the diners. A good salad is not a pile of vegetables with gloppy dressing on top. A good salad has dressing mixed all throughout, and a dressing calibrated to the salad. I know some might disagree with this, but I’m positively militant about it. Salad should never come to the party naked.
For the salad dressing: Whisk 2 tablespoons of good olive oil with 2 teaspoons of balsamic vinegar until it is thick and emulsified.
6. Most dressings need a touch of sweetness. In salad dressing, sweetness should always be a deliberate part of the equation. Sometimes, you deliberately leave it out, balancing the dressing with something funky and strong. But I find that just oil and vinegar lack a little something, unless you are working with really terrific oil and aged balsamic. A half-teaspoon of honey or maple syrup won’t sweeten the dressing noticeably; it will just make it taste more rounded and full.
Whisk in 1⁄2 teaspoon honey and blend.
7. Taste the dressing first. Always taste the dressing before you pour it on the salad. Adjust it if you want a little more acidity or sweetness.
8. Use far less dressing than you think you need. You want to lightly dress the salad, not drench it.
Drizzle the salad very lightly with dressing, just enough to moisten the lettuce, and work it in with your hands or two forks, stopping to toss it before you add all of the dressing you’ve made. You want to coat the greens very, very lightly.
9. Salt and pepper. Now, for, perhaps, the most important part of a well-dressed salad: Salt and pepper. This is what that flaky salt in your cupboard is for.
As you toss the salad with your hands or forks, sprinkle on salt and pepper. Taste and adjust as needed.
10. Add any other mix-ins, such as nuts, cheese or other dressy things. I like to serve salad in individual bowls and sprinkle any last-minute grace notes like a shaving of parmesan or some slivered nuts directly on top. This makes them look finished and pretty, and it also is a good way to make sure that these heavy ingredients don’t fall immediately to the bottom of the salad. If you don’t use any other garnishes, I like to add just a touch more pepper on top.
Serve the salad in individual bowls, or on plates. Garnish with some pepper, a shaving of cheese, or some fruit or nuts.
This will make enough side salad to feed 2 to 4 people.
Faith Durand is executive editor of TheKitchn.com.