How to Build a Better Salad

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Most people don't really need a recipe to make a salad . . . salads are generally quite easy to throw together. What we do need though are ideas on how to put salads together. Salads can be very boring, or they can be fabulous. The choice is up to you really!

First, look at the types of fresh ingredients you have in the refrigerator in the way of vegetable matter. For instance on this particular day I had a Black Radish that I was wanting to use . . . a handful of fresh garden peas, some fresh broccoli, baby gem lettuces, fresh baby corn cobs, courgettes (zucchini) and red onions. Together they made a very delicious looking and quite colourful mixture. It may be that you have other options. Most vegetables will together very well in a salad. What you are looking for is interest in terms of colour, texture and crunch. Your ingredients should be as pleasing to the eye as they are to the palate.

A mix of lettuces is usually quite nice. I like to mix my own, but there are some very nice combinations available pre-washed and bagged at the shops. I love the mild flavours of spinach and mache, especially when combined with a more robust lettuce such as a rocket and peppery watercress. Just remember to use the more assertive flavours in a way that they won't completely overpower the salad, and ruin the balance. Radicchio is especially nice in colour and texture . . .but again it's quite assertive, so do try to balance it with flavours that are just as robust, or and equally assertive (red onions, blue cheese, toasted walnuts, roasted vegetables, etc.) or use it only in small quanitities. The one rule to hold to is that if you are using only delicate lettuces . . . you will not want to use assertive or heavy ingredients as well.

Cabbage and carrot can give a wonderful crunch and texture. They are both vegetables which have quite a bite however, so do be sure to cut them into smaller pieces that are more manageable to eat and to spear. Crunch can also be provided with the use of fresh radishes, chopped celery, diced peppers, chopped cucumber, chopped courgettes, etc. These also provide great colour, and there's that word again . . . texture!!!

Remember no one ingredient in a salad should be larger in size than that which you can easily fit into your mouth comfortably. Tear your lettuces and cut your vegetables into bite sized pieces. I am always annoyed when I order a salad in a restaurant and the leaves in it are left almost whole, especially if I haven't been given the option of a knife along with my salad fork!! It is really difficult, if not impossible, to try to maneuver large pieces of lettuce into your mouth and manage to look delicate and polite at the same time. Also make sure all of your lettuces and salad ingredients are clean, dry and perfectly chilled. (I have a fabulous Salad spinner that I swear by. A good Salad spinner is a wise investment.)

Olives, cornichons, marinated artichoke hearts, Sun dried tomatoes, and capers add an interesting element to most salads. They add some salt and a bit of tang. I quite like them myself, but they can be hated by some people, so I would only add them to salads which I am serving to people that I am familiar with.

I generally like to have some form of onion in my salads. This can be in the shape of thinly sliced red onions, or chopped spring onions. Chives are also a fabulous addition. I don't really like to use cooking onions as they can be very strong in flavour, unless they are of a sweet variety, such as a vidalia. I often will add minced shallots to my salad dressings.

Raw mushrooms go very well in salads. Just be sure they are clean, and once again . . . thinly sliced.

Protein! Protein is always a nice addition and can take an ordinary vegetable salad from being a light lunch to being a delicious main meal salad. Chopped ham, chicken or egg are fabulous additions. Cooked fish (tuna, salmon, smoked fishes, mackerel, shrimps, lobster, etc.) are also very good, as are cooked legumes and beans. Cooked chickpeas, canellini beans, kidney beans, black beans . . . they are all tasty protein additions to a salad. Drain and rinse them before adding. Cooked sweetcorn is also nice.

Think cheese . . . cubed feta is fab in a Greek Salad, and a vegetable salad. I love cubed strong cheddar, crumbled blue cheese, slivered emmenthal, shaved Parmesan, crumbled goats cheese. When you are adding cheese, you want to use one with an assertive flavour.

Nuts and seeds go down well in a whole meal salad. Almonds, cashews, pecans, pistachios, peanuts, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, all make fab additions, but do toast or roast them first. They add fabulous crunch, lovely flavour and of course, that texture interest I keep talking about!

Cooked vegetables are lovely in a salad . . . roasted or steamed . . . potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, beetroot, parsnips, peas and corn, string beans, turnips (or swede), asparagus, fennel, courgettes, mushrooms, cauliflower and broccoli, cherry tomatoes. All are fabulous.

Raw vegetables which are nice include tomatoes, bell peppers, baby corns, radishes, onions, cucumbers, mushrooms, spring onions, fennel, bean sprouts.

Frozen vegetables which can be used, and simply thawed . . . corn, lima beans, soya beans, baby peas.

Fruits are fab additions, although I would not add them along with vegetables, unless we are talking celery and possibly mild onions. (The one salad which immediately comes to mind here is a Waldorf type with celery, apples and toasted walnuts.) Some fab choices are sliced apple, strawberries, blueberries, sliced nectarines and peaches, sliced pears, quartered figs, sectioned oranges and grapefruits, mango, pineapple, blackberries, raspberriesm pomegranate seeds and most dried fruits (think cranberries, blueberries, sour cherries, sultanas etc.)

Crunchy toppings . . . to do . . . or not to do. I, personally, like a bit of crunch on top. Good quality croutons, either store bought or homemade. Crumbled melba toasts, pita crisps, bagel crisps, tortilla chips, goldfish crackers, crunchy chinese noodles. All are very good. I also like those crunchy salad onions, that come in a plastic tub. (In America they are called Durkee's French Fried Onions. Over here they call them Onion Salad Crispies.)

I like to use fresh herbs as well . . . either as additional salad leaves such as flat leaf parsley, chervil and mint. Soft herbs can also be chopped. Think dill, basil, tarragon, coriander, parsley, mint or oregano. All but basil, coriander and parsley should be used judiciously as too much can be somewhat overpowering and unless you are making a Tabbouleh where you want a lot of mint or parsley, I wouldn't use more than a few TBS. Edible flowers also can make a very tasty and pretty touch. (Nasturtiums, Violas, Violets, Pansies . . . pesticide free of course.)

Of course the crowning glory of any good salad lies in the dressing. Now that you will want a recipe for and I have a few very good ones, that I am quite happy to share.

*A Variety of Quick and Easy Salad Dressings*

*Light Blue Cheese*
Makes about 8 servings
(any leftovers can be refrigerated for later use during the week, or as a dip for raw vegetables)

1/3 cup low fat buttermilk
1/3 cup low fat sour cream
1/3 cup low fat mayonnaise
1 tsp red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese
fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Whisk together all the dressing ingredients, mashing some of the blue cheese into the dressing with a fork, and leaving some chunky. This will keep for several days refrigerated.

*Caesar Dressing*
enough for one 4 serving sized salad

2 TBS fresh lemon juice
2 1/2 TBS light mayonnaise
1 medium clove of garlic, peeled and minced to a paste
1/4 tsp Worcestershire Sauce
fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
5 TBS extra virgin Olive oil
1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan Cheese

Whisk the lemon juice, mayonnaise, garlic, Worcestershire, a pinch of salt and some freshly ground black pepper together in a small bowl. Slowly drizzle in the oil, whisking continuously until the mixture becomes nice and creamy. Stir in the cheese.

*Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing*

Serves 4

1 large clove of garlic, peeled and minced
1/3 cup of good quality Balsamic Vinegar
2 TBS Dijon mustard
1/4 tsp fine sea salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup of extra virgin Olive oil (Approximately. You may need more.)

Whisk the garlic, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper together in a glass measuring cup. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, whisking continously until you reach a 1 cup measure altogether.

*Lemon, Feta and Dill Vinaigrette*

Serves 4

2 TBS Dijon mustard
2 TBS freshly squeezed Lemon juice
1 TBS rice wine vinegar
1 large shallot, peeled and minced
3 TBS finely chopped fresh dillweed
fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup crumbled Greek feta cheese

Whisk the mustard, vinegar, lemon juice, shallot, dill, a bit pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper together in a glass beaker. Slowly whisk in the olive oil, whisking continously to make a thick vinaigrette. Whisk in the feta cheese.

*My Favourite Vinaigrette*
Makes about 3/4 cup

1/4 cup of vinegar (sherry, balsamic, white wine, red wine, or cider)
1 TBS fine fruit sugar
1 tsp of Dijon mustard, smooth or grainy (its up to you)
1 TBS low fat mayonnaise
1/4 cup of filtered water
1/4 cup of salad oil
1 tsp dried dillweed
1 TBS finely minced shallots
fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Put all of the ingredients into a glass jar with a lid that fits snugly. Shake until well combined. This keeps for about a week in the fridge.


  1. I'm definitely going to note those dressing recipes!! I sent my mom that snow pea, bean, and asparagus salad recipe, she said it was "addictive", and that the lemon shallot mint dressing would be delicious on cardboard!

  2. I wish every novice knew of your blog (as well as seasoned cooks) ..there are so many make someone love and learn cooking and baking~
    A gift Marie.

  3. Love this salad and dressing recipes we love them with Esperanza,xxxxx


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