It feels a little weird to just toss out a salad post (see what I did there) when I have a backlog of recaps I still owe. There’s my friend’s wedding I attended at the beginning of the month (waiting on photos from the official photographer, so waiting for the couple to return from their honeymoon) and my annual trip to New York (which I just want to wait because, chronologically, it happened after the wedding).
So I want to talk a little bit about salads real quick.
Back on my old blog (RIP Xanga), I wrote an entire post about how I construct salads and what my favorite restaurant salads were. I don’t think that ever made it here, but in light of how many salads I’ve been eating during DC’s recent heat bubble, I figured it was a good time to revisit salads.
While some people may think of summer as cookout time, a time to eat copious fried foods and barbecued meats, I always think about the fresh, raw foods I crave in the summer. It gets to the point where I am almost offended when someone invites me to eat salad or sushi in the winter. (Are you saying my winter coat of blubber doesn’t look good???) On days when you get covered in a layer of sweat or the moisture in the air or both within seconds of walking outside, a beautiful, crisp salad really hits the spot. The things I look for when I am glancing over salad menus are textures, flavors, and colors. I also take into consideration heaviness/freshness, which is hard to describe but I think you probably understand it? Citrus adds freshness. Avocado and bacon add heaviness.
Here’s my process, in order, of when I construct my own salads…
THE BASE // Good leafy greens are my favorite base for any salad. Don’t play games with me, iceberg lettuce, we are not cool anymore. Mesclun is a pretty safe bet for a variety of fresh greens, but I will go for spinach, arugula, romaine, even kale, yes. Just don’t give me a pile of iceberg lettuce, please.
VEGGIE TOPPINGS // Is a handful of spinach with some ranch dressing on top of it a salad? Sorta. But if you have the option, definitely throw some other goodies on your salad. Thinly shredded veggies make a great textural and nutritional addition: shredded carrots, broccoli slaw, shredded Brussels sprouts… cabbage (especially red cabbage for color), radicchio, maybe a little bit of frisée also make for some interesting texture and flavors. Some cucumber, bell pepper, broccoli, a bit of radish maybe? And some mushrooms? See if you pronounce jicama the same way as your server? Cherry tomatoes, if you count those as veggies. (They are because it is referring to how it is used culinarily. I treat tomatoes as vegetables in my salads.) (Maybe avocados would then also get clumped in here.)
FRUITS // Fruit can really take your salad to that next level. They can add fresh, sweet, and even tart notes, along with the texture. I love adding strawberries and blueberries (especially when they’re in season in the summer), apples, grapes, dried cranberries, pomegranate, pears. I tend to stay away from super soft and/or heavy fruits that have a hard time holding their own in a salad. Watermelon is great, but not for the kinds of salads I typically make, where it would be too heavy. (Don’t ever put banana in my salad, please.)
CRUNCH // This is maybe one of the most important things in a salad, in my opinion? It’s my favorite thing about salad, in fact, because I just love crunchin’. (Look at that chip addiction…) The crunch factor never adds the freshness I crave when I go for salad, but it is essential when I make salad. Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds (sliced or slivered), crushed peanuts, walnuts, pecans, cashews, pistachios, wonton crisps, pita chips, tortilla chips, croutons… I just really love crunchy bits on my salad, I truly do.
PROTEIN (Optional) // I know this isn’t optional for a lot of people, but I actually used to really avoid having protein in salad. (I was of the belief that if it didn’t grow from the ground, it didn’t belong in my salad.) But if you’re having your salad as your whole meal, protein (that isn’t nuts) does make it more filling. I’ve been enjoying adding a poached/soft-boiled egg, which I like to use as almost a sauce with a runny yolk, or bacon, which adds a great flavor and lends its grease to the oil that you dress the salad with. Tofu, shredded chicken, turkey, and steak are also great.
DRESSING // Of course, dressing is pretty key. Lately, I’ve been making my own vinagrettes with apple cider vinegar, oil, salt, pepper, garlic, honey/strawberry. Sometimes I’ll just toss my salad with some lemon/lime juice and oil with a pinch of salt and pepper and call it a day. And when it comes to pre-made dressings, it’s really hard to go wrong with good ol’ ranch, unless you have a lot of sweet fruits in your salad. Also, I tend to find ranch a bit heavy when I’m craving freshness, so it is usually reserved as a dip in the summer. I also like sesame dressings, but not super ginger-y ones.
You will never see me add cheese to a salad because cheese is one of my least favorite foods of all time. I’m sorry if that offends you, but it’s true. I always work picking out blue cheese crumbles, goat cheese bits, parmesan shreds. Even a parmesan crisp isn’t tempting enough for me. I don’t eat Caesar salads because of my complicated relationship with parmesan. But I recognize that cheese can play an important role in salads for most people. I’m just not one of them.
I actually really like some chain restaurant salad options, so here are a few that I pretty reliably order when I find myself at:
CHEESECAKE FACTORY // Maybe the inspiration for the post, but I recently got their Super Antioxidant Salad, and it was super yummy. It checks off basically all of my boxes for what I look for in a salad, tied together with a yummy and light dressing.
APPLEBEE’S // Don’t laugh, this was a mainstay when I was in college and I really liked their Oriental Chicken Salad. (Use of the term “oriental” aside.) It was a sneaky way to eat fried chicken and had a great dressing. Honestly, if it was just the chicken with the dressing to dip, I would be happy, so it’s great that I can sneak some veggies (and crispy noodles!) with that.
COSI // I used to love getting a little chicken noodle soup and their Signature Salad (without gorgonzola, please). It is light, it’s got a bunch of fruit and some great crunch, it’s fresh… I may have overdone it and be taking a break from it right now but this was the salad that inspired my original ode to salad blog post a few years ago.
PANERA // Despite the Mandarin oranges, I do like when they roll out their summer Strawberry Poppyseed and Chicken Salad. It’s very summery, to the point where its arrival signals to many of my friends that the season has finally arrived.
SWEETGREEN // It felt almost wrong not to include a salad chain on here, didn’t it? I usually get a custom made salad, and I usually get the same thing on it: half kale, half mesclun with sweet potatoes, apples, cabbage, and spicy sunflower seeds. A pinch of black pepper, a squeeze of lime, and a light dressing of the spicy cashew dressing. (And yes to the bread when I’m not torturing myself to eat fewer baked goods.)
I have a lot more salads that I order, but maybe I shouldn’t make it so easy for someone to lure me away with my favorite salads… or trying to sneak cheese in when they recognize my order!
What are your favorite salads to order when you’re out?
What goes into your perfect salad when you’re constructing it at home?