Even the more willing salad-eaters among us tend to think of salad as the culinary equivalent of floss, i.e. as a depressing incarnation of grim, miserable healthfulness wagging a finger of admonishment from the most boring sector of the table. At family functions, you scoop some onto your plate with the same shrugging resignation with which you put in your yearly appearance at a church service: Ah hell, better heap some of this crap on there so Grandma won't get on my case.
Hey, maybe if I dump half a bottle of ranch dressing on it, you think, brightening, then it'll be more like somebody just spilled a harmless fistful of lawn clippings into an otherwise delicious puddle of mayonnaise!
Friends, that's not what a salad is meant to be. A salad, well executed and embraced as an opportunity to stuff more things that are good into our bodies, should be a carnival of lively flavors, textures, and colors. It should excite your eyes, exercise your teeth, and make your palate sing with joy. You should stare at it intently while you eat, lustily mixing and matching its various ingredients on your fork; you should finish before you're ready to be done and then nudge your dumb salmon toward the edge of your plate to make room for more salad. It should be a glorious, indulgent feast: healthful, sure, yeah OK, but mostly delicious and diverse and fresh and ecstatic.
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The real tragedy of salad's abysmal reputation among people who otherwise know what is good is that it's neither challenging nor particularly pricey to construct a salad that is tasty enough to literally—literally!—cause your eyes to come together and fuse into a single enormous Cyclops eye when you taste it. Commonly, at restaurants and in cookbooks, salads are presented to us as long lists of fancy ingredients—this is a combination of shaved jicama, fresh bonsai leaves, blood orange-marinated apricots, and chicory root, dusted with fennel pollen and drizzled with fermented lingonberry dressing, served on a bed of albino mesclun and angel fingernail clippings—and you think you're supposed to get all that stuff, or at least know what it is, in order to put together a salad of your own that doesn't need to be served with a chair and a pre-tied noose.
That's not true, though. You don't need to know what the hell an endive is to make a salad that really and truly will distract you from damn near anything else you put on the plate with it, up to and possibly including a live hand grenade. What you need to know is that variety—genuine, consequential variety: variety of flavor, texture, color, food group—is your friend. And you need to know some easy ways to assemble that variety.
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Think in terms of roles. You're casting a reality show, only instead of looking for a dozen superficially diverse variations of the hysterical, egomaniacal, oversexed twentysomething template to cram into a gaudy show-house so they can exchange polluted bodily fluids for six weeks, you're looking for at least four of the following: leafy, crunchy, tart, sweet, bitter, creamy, salty, nutty, spicy, and fatty. The more colorfully you can fill those roles, the better.
Be ambitious; be creative; be indulgent. Don't limit yourself to some silly minimal-calorie ideal. Your top priority is to make a salad that is good, not to make one that is nutritionally inoffensive or ideologically upright. It's perfectly possible to make a salad that is good and also loaded with healthful stuff, but that doesn't mean that everything in it must be some antioxidant-rich fiber-dense affirmation of your commitment to physiological wellness. Blue cheese is about as nutritionally virtuous as gamma radiation; by volume, it is nonetheless the absolute best thing a salad can possibly contain. It is healthful for the senses and for the soul: It is good. It is good for you.
On the other hand, it's also perfectly possible to make a salad that is delicious and indulgent, but that is also an authentic salad. This is primarily a matter of proportion, and of good faith: busted-up tortilla chips, salsa, shredded cheese, and strips of grilled chicken can be perfectly fine components of a salad in moderation, but if your salad looks like you pulsed a plate of chicken tacos in the blender for five seconds, then it is intellectually dishonest to say that you are eating a salad. You're eating a taco truck that flipped over on the highway.
And, hey, if what you want to eat is a mulched taco, go for it. There's not one damn thing wrong with that, as long as you're not asserting that the only way to have a tasty salad is to make it 92 percent not-a-salad, plus a wee fistful of shredded iceberg lettuce.
A salad's majority constituents should be raw vegetables: leafy lettuce-type stuff is the traditional (and best) choice, but if you want to go in a different direction and make a hash of other tasty vegetables, that's fine too. Beyond this basic requirement (that your salad be primarily composed of raw vegetables), have fun. Add other things that are good, in abundant and colorful variety, and the result will be splendid.
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Here's one way to do it. The following salad is completely un-fancy, containing only one easily substituted ingredient that your local chain supermarket may not regularly stock. It is also mind-shatteringly delicious, and just one example of filling a bunch of the above roles.
To begin, you are going to make salad dressing. As with barbecue sauce, there are myriad admirably tasty bottled options here, and if that's your preference, godspeed as you go, but putting in the extra time and effort to make your own is almost guaranteed to yield better results. The basic formula for salad dressing goes: oil + acid = dressing; you can and should add other things, like mild sweetness and piquancy, but start with a good oil and a tasty acid.
(A note: Here, we're leaving aside gloopy mayonnaise- and cream-based dressings, mostly because they're not as fun to make, but also because they don't interact as generously with other salad ingredients—you wind up with a salad that tastes like dressing, which is less interesting.)
Today your acid (your main acid, anyway) is a fistful of pulverized blackberries. Thoroughly crush the berries in a bowl with a fork or pulse them in a food processor a few times. To these, add extra virgin olive oil, maybe a tablespoon or so of honey, and some crushed red pepper. Vigorously whisk these things together.
Now, whisking and tasting as you go, add small increments of whatever-the-hell vinegar you happen to have around. Recipe writers, when a recipe calls for vinegar, like to specify which type to use, and that's fine: if you want to play around until you find exactly which vinegar tastes best to you, that's great. But really, any vinegar will do, from the huge detergent jug of white vinegar under your kitchen sink to a sexy glass bottle of artisan balsamic for which you spent entirely too much money, so long as you add it in small increments and taste as you go until the result makes you salivate uncontrollably. Err slightly on the side of sweetness, since some of the later ingredients will balance it out. There. You have made salad dressing. You have also filled the roles of Tart (the berries and the vinegar), Sweet (the berries and the honey), Spicy (the crushed red pepper), and Fatty (the oil).
Now, prepare your vegetables, beginning with your leafy lettuce-type stuff. Variety is good here. If you went to the store and examined all the options and came away with two or three or four bunches of different lettuce-type things, hooray for you, but you're not going to be docked any imaginary points for having just grabbed a bag or a plastic tub full of multicolored leaves labeled "Spring Salad Greens." Dump these into a big salad bowl. There's Leafy. Probably also Crunchy and Bitter, too.
To these, add a little plastic tub's worth of ripe cherry tomatoes. If you wish to halve or quarter your cherry tomatoes, for the sake of providing more bites of them or making them easier to handle with a fork, that's fine, so long as you do this knowing you are robbing yourself of the experience of biting into a ripe cherry tomato, feeling it burst with tangy tomato juice, and having your tongue leap entirely out of your mouth and sing Handel's Messiah on the tabletop. No no, go right ahead. Ruin it. What do I care? There's another bright color, and another wonderful variation on Tart.
Now, chop (julienne or just, y'know, chop) some baby carrots, and add these as well. There's another bright color, as well as Crunchy.
You've got your vegetables ready to go. It's time to add some nuts. If your supermarket stocks Marcona almonds, these are your best option (as well as irrefutable proof of the boundless goodwill of the universe), but if you can't find ‘em, salted cashews are fine. So are regular salted almonds. Or salted peanuts. Or salted walnuts. Whatever you have, put maybe two-thirds of a cup of them into a plastic sandwich bag, bash them a few times with the side of the can of cream-of-celery soup that has been in your cupboard since 2003, and add them to the mix in your big salad bowl. There's Salty, Nutty, and another variation on Fatty.
Now you're ready to add your dressing. Dump the whole bowl in there? No! Are you insane? Give the dressing a last couple of whisks, then add just a couple of tablespoons of it to the salad, and get tossing. Toss and toss and toss. This part is incredibly annoying—especially if, like mine, your biggest salad bowl isn't really all that big and single salad leaves and cherry tomatoes continually launch themselves over the side and leave little purple marks on the countertop from the salad dressing they took with them, the little bastards may they rot unmourned for eternity—but it's well worth it. Ultimately what you want is a very, very thin, very even distribution of dressing over all parts of the salad. So that you can taste the dressing, but can't only taste the dressing.
Hooray! Your salad is dressed and tossed and ready to eat. Psych! You still have to add crumbled blue cheese, because you aren't stupid. You waited until after adding the dressing to do this because if you toss the blue cheese too much, it will get all smeary, and the wonderful little crumbles will shrink down to nothing, and you'll be sad. So, add a half a cup of crumbled blue cheese (gorgonzola is best, not just among blue cheeses, but also among all things that have ever been created by man), and very gently give the salad a few tosses to distribute it. There's Bitter and Creamy, as well as yet another gloriously indulgent variation on Fatty.
One last thing, because you haven't crammed quite enough delicious, creamy fat into your salad just yet: avocado. Two ripe avocados, cut into nice-sized chunks. Add them to the salad and toss it gently just a couple more times. There's another Creamy, and a variation on Fatty that goes spectacularly with literally everything else in there.
Behold your salad!
You can put a cup or two of this gustatory work of art on your plate as a side to a steak, or a piece of grilled fish, or a quarter of a roasted chicken, or whatever delicious animal protein you were thinking of as the star of the meal before this salad ruthlessly upstaged it and sent it into several years of expensive talk therapy. Or you can grasp the salad bowl with one hand, a fork with the other, and with immodest, slavering single-mindedness, plunge into the jungle that is your salad, surfacing occasionally to dispatch a postcard to the poor suckers sawing away at their pork chops.
Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home.