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9 Rules for Better Salads

I know everyone goes all cuckoo for strawberries and rhubarb this time of year, but for me, spring is all about…

…bushels of fresh, flavorful greens at the market. Nothing says “warm days are ahead” to me quite like a bite of properly dressed peppery arugula or a forkful of bright pea shoots with mint. In honor of the season, I thought it was a good time to run down a few salad rules I live by.

1. Start with High Quality Greens As far as I’m concerned, if your spring lettuces — spinach, arugula, butterhead, pea shoots — are fresh enough, you don’t need much more than a thinly minced red onion or a shaving of Parm plus a simple vinaigrette to make a delicious, satisfying salad. (Unlike when I start with the plastic-bagged “spring mixes” and feel like I’m just adding ingredients like avocados, feta, and croutons not so much to complement the lettuce as I am to disguise it.) When it comes to a surprising salad, however…

2. Think Outside the Leaf Box. Salads don’t all begin and end with kale and romaine. Try building a bowl around pretty pea shoots or crunchy cabbage; or leafless vegetables like roasted beets (above, tossed with pickled cabbage and dill) or asparagus spears that have been simmered (and “shocked” in ice water) then chopped up and tossed with a ramp pesto and minced onions. I’d take that over a Cobb any day of the week.

3. You Want Contrast. You probably know this rule instinctively. The best bites are always the ones with a little bit of a lot. You want contrast in texture (like a kale salad that showcases crispy chickpeas and creamy ranch dressing); and in flavor (like a spinach salad with salty feta and sweet strawberries); or in richness (like a gem lettuce salad with indulgent avocados next to bright, light pickled onions).

4. Crunch is the Most Important Texture. No matter how great your ingredients are, and no matter how well they complement and contrast each other, for me, it’s not a salad with out a little substantive crunch to offset all the leafy delicateness. I’m talking about the fresh crispiness of a cucumber or radish or fennel or the crunchiness of nuts or pita chips or croutons. To be clear this is a need, not a want.

5. About Those Croutons. Sure, you can go store-bought but why…
when homemade croutons have the power to make people (especially little people) sprint to the dinner table? They upgrade literally everything. I toss 4 cups of roughly torn bread (stale is optimum but not required) with 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, and up to 1/3 cup olive oil (you want your croutons coated not drenched), then bake at 400°F for 10 to 12 minutes.

6. It Helps if It Looks Pretty. Will it taste the same if you slice your snow peas in chunks rather than these fussy slivers? Of course it will. But will it get the Pavlovian response (look gorgeous, must eat) you’re after when you serve it to your family and (soon! Please dear Lord) friends? Salads get the most likes on my instagram feed for a reason: They are so naturally vibrant and sculptural and do most of the work for you in the color department. Striped pink watermelon radishes, golden beets, orange and gold carrot shavings, deep green everything. And don’t get me started on Cézanne-still-life-like tomatoes. I’ll save that love letter for August…

7. Mix Before Your Dress. Even though most of these photos show otherwise, before you add your dressing, you want to combine all your grains, leaves and vegetables in a bowl, add salt and pepper, and toss everything together. I learned this from my most favorite salad cookbook ever, Saladish by Ilene Rosen. Rosen said this way, you ensure that your vegetables (especially delicate lettuce and herbs) aren’t overhandled and crushed by the weight of a dressing and your salad tongs. Once the dressing is added, you only have to toss briefly. Another tip from Rosen: Use your hands to ensure the most thorough, most gentle mixing.

8. Herbs Make it Sing. Here I am reminded of my friend who said she feels naked if she doesn’t apply perfume before she goes out. I am not my friend when it comes to fragrance, but I feel that nakedness when I make a salad and don’t finish with herbs. A generous showering of dill or chives or basil — or a mix of whatever you’ve got — adds dimension, plus a lingering hit of surprise.

9. Think About Your Ratio. Some people might find this scandalous, but my favorite salads don’t have a dominating base. There are greens in this salad, above, for instance, but there are also an equal amounts of beans and tomatoes and avocado. Unless I am completely embracing a super-fresh greens-only salad, I want at least a 1 to 1 ratio of base to good stuff. This is especially true for grain salads. I don’t want every bite to be 90% barley and 10% herbs. See: Rule 3, Contrast, i.e. I want a lot happening in every bite.