When you hear the word “salad,” do you think of light lunch fare, dieting, or restrictive eating? If you do, it’s time to rewire your thinking.

A salad does not have to be a pile of lettuce with some bland store-bought dressing and a few cherry tomatoes. A salad can be an entire meal, and feature the best of seasonal eating in a bowl.

I have worked with several clients to develop salads, and the exercise is the same as the approach to take at home. When constructing a salad, consider the following:

  • Think about all the elements ahead of time and give yourself some options as you create.
  • Ingredients can be cooked, raw, or pickled.
  • Think about dressing options (creamy, vinegar based, spicy, etc.).
  • If you want to make it a meal, add an element of protein, bread, and textures.
  • A salad can be served as individual or family-style platters, usually at room temperature or chilled.
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There are six main salad components. They are:

  • Base
  • Bulk items (vegetables)
  • Texture
  • Fruit/sweet element
  • Proteins
  • Dressings

How to make a salad with an illustration of different salad base options

Base

The base is traditionally the greens, but it can also be grains, potatoes, or even roasted vegetables. Think about the base as the backdrop for the flavor combination and textures you want to highlight. Some of my favorite combos are 1) shredded kale and cabbage 2) arugula and herb mixture 3) farro and raw vegetable mix 4) cooked quinoa 5) endive and bibb lettuce leaves 6) grilled romaine hearts You want the base to be about half the volume of your salad, or more if you want.


How to make a salad with an illustration of different kinds of lettuce.

Know your lettuces

Bibb (or Boston): buttery soft texture, great for vinaigrettes, goes well with seafood

Romaine: hearty and crunchy, good grilled and with hearty, creamy dressings

Kale: use baby kale or cut larger kale leaves into strips, good with any dressing and in coleslaws

Arugula: peppery tender leaf, good with other salads


How to make a salad with an illustration of vegetables on a platter.

Vegetables

Vegetables in salads can be added raw, roasted, pickled, or grilled. Depending on the composition of the salad, they bring texture, deep flavor, and bulk to the salad without being too heavy. I love the idea of adding both raw and cooked vegetables, such as beets, radishes, and asparagus, as you get the full spectrum of flavor that the vegetables offer. Think about some grilled asparagus and shaved raw asparagus with frisée lettuce and a sharp lemon or balsamic vinaigrette, along with some aged goat’s milk cheese or ricotta salata cheese.


How to make a salad with an illustration of a bowl of different kinds of nuts with the word "texture" above.

Texture

Texture is what makes salads interesting, and this is where you can use ingredients that veer off the theme of the salad. Textural components are everything from toasted nuts (think smoked almonds) to seeds (like pumpkin or sunflower) to croutons, puffed rice, and roasted chickpeas. Any of these things add texture — and crunch. Bread is another way to incorporate texture, and it can mean anything, too, from croutons to grilled naan to a griddled cheese sandwich.


How to make a salad with a drawing of different types of fruit, raw and dried.

Fruit/Sweet

Whether fresh or dried, fruit adds a natural sweetness to salads. Dried cranberries, raisins, dates, and figs all work well, and are even better when soaked in vinegar before putting them into your salad. Fresh fruits like pearspeaches, and apples are great for sweetness, texture, and acidity. If you grill the fruits, be sure to achieve a char; grilled fruits pair especially well with Rogue Creamery blue cheeses. In the fall, I like to roast grapes (this concentrates the sweetness) and add them to a salad with roasted cauliflower, bitter greens, and some aged cheese.


How to make a salad with an illustration of different proteins one would put in a salad.

Proteins

No proteins are off limits when it comes to salads — that includes using leftovers; just think through the base you are using to support the protein both in structure and flavor. Grilled chicken, fish, and shrimp all work nicely with hearty greens and grains. Poached salmon and shrimp go well on butter lettuce, and with avocado and spring vegetables. Barbecue tofu or meats are great when shredded over kale mixes with a goddess-type dressing. Eggs in any form are a great salad topping: poached on the classic salade Lyonnaise, fried on a bowl of grains seasoned with kimchi, or hard-boiled on a Cobb or Niçoise salad.


How to make a salad with an illustration of five bowls of different types of salad dressing.

Dressing

Dressing is what brings a salad together, and can make or break the dish. You want to lightly dress salads, not drown them in dressing. If you love dressing and need more, simply put some on the side. Remember to always season both your dressing and your salad to make sure the seasoning is well distributed.

I break dressings down into five categories:

  • Creamy and mild (Caesar, ranch, goddess)
  • Creamy and spicy (sriracha ranch, chipotle Caesar, kimchi)
  • Classic vinaigrette (lemon vinaigrette, mustard vinaigrette)
  • Herbaceous (chimichurri, pesto)
  • Chunky (remoulade, caramelized

How to make 4 seasonal salads

How to make a salad with an illustration of a summer salad with fennel and watermelon

Summer | Watermelon, feta, and mint

This is a light and refreshing salad that’s best when watermelons are at their sweet peak. You can shave fennel or celery hearts and mix them with spicy arugula leaves and toss lightly with olive oil. Place chunks of watermelon over the salad, then add cubes of fresh feta. Grind some black pepper on top and use a dressing with some acidity to brighten the sweet watermelon. Finish with torn mint leaves.


How to make a salad with an illustration of a fall salad in a bowl.

Fall | Shaved fennel, poached pear, candied pecans, cheddar, torn croutons

Mix thinly shaved fennel with greens like escarole or mizuna lettuce, and then toss with the croutons and slices of poached pear. (Poach the pear in lightly sweetened Riesling with some cloves or a cinnamon stick.) Top with candied pecans and pieces of cheddar cheese (preferably aged). Make a dressing with sherry vinegar, olive oil, mustard, and a pomegranate molasses.


How to make a salad with an illustration of a winter salad with blue cheese and kale in a bowl.

Winter | Roasted beets and kale salad with spiced pumpkin seeds, blue cheese, and maple vinaigrette

Make the maple vinaigrette with maple syrup, part sherry and part red wine vinegar, olive oil, cracked pepper, and shallots. Mix the torn kale or baby kale with sliced raw cabbages and the vinaigrette. Toast the seeds with salt and pepper and use as a garnish with pieces of blue cheese, shaved radishes, and a drizzle of the vinaigrette.

Note: Smoked bacon is not bad on this salad either.


How to make a salad with an illustration of a spring salad in a bowl next to a bottle of dijon sherry vinaigrette

Spring | Bibb lettuce, grilled and shaved asparagus, poached egg and crispy focaccia, Dijon-sherry vinaigrette

Bibb lettuce leaves are tender and buttery, tossed here with shaved raw asparagus and a classic Dijon vinaigrette. The whole asparagus is lightly grilled or roasted and arranged around the base of the salad. The pièce de résistance is the warm poached egg that creates a second dressing for the salad. Some lightly toasted pieces of focaccia bread finish the salad and soak up the egg yolk.

Author

Chef Bradford Thompson's culinary palette was formed by his summers spent lobster trapping and picking fresh blueberries with his grandmother on the coast of Maine. The classically trained chef has worked in the kitchens of such culinary luminaries as Vincent Guerithault, Alessandro Stratta, and Daniel Boulud. After being named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine in 2004, he won a James Beard Award as the Executive Chef at Mary Elaine's in 2006. Since leaving the back of the house, Thompson, a Level 1 Certified Sommelier, founded Bellyfull Hospitality, a full service culinary/hospitality consulting company. He's also an instructor at the ICC Food Business Program and the ICE Restaurant Management program, where he teaches and inspires the next generation of restaurateurs. A diehard sports fan, Thompson can often be found in the MetLife Stadium parking lot, tailgating and cheering on his beloved New York Giants, whom he has cooked for several times.

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