Salads for me are all about building layers-perfectly balancing these jenga blocks of flavour and texture stacked one on top of the other. Each element of a salad can be as simple, or as complex as you like depending on the time you have on-hand, but the real challenge that most people at home face is how to make a salad a complete meal that’s exciting to come home to, easy to rustle up, and beats going out and paying upwards of 300 bucks for it. If I were to initiate someone into salads, this is how I’d do it:
YOUR LEAVES DON’T HAVE TO BE ARTISANAL
If the leaves you want to use for your salad are tough and will require cooking to soften, you cannot use them in a salad, as there might be fibrous, hairy bits of the stem that might interfere with the experience of enjoying a salad. Check by biting into a leaf, or snapping a stem into two to ensure crispness and least chewiness. The younger the leaf, the more tender and crisp, and hence using baby spinach or smaller-sized red or green amaranth leaves are better. When choosing salad leaves, choose ones that look vibrant and not limp. These may be good for pesto, but not for your salad.
Rocket tends to yellow and when picking these, find ones that are still green. When buying micro greens and edible flowers, check the date on the box, and put it back on the shelf if they’re too old. A typical box of Trikaya ready to toss salad contains iceberg lettuce, lollo rosso, green romaine, red oak, baby spinach, red cabbage and cherry tomatoes. While this can be convenient, you can always use this as a skeleton to mix up your own bunch of greens. Please do not stop yourself from picking up more offbeat greens like water spinach, baby methi, mustard leaves, radish tops. An artisanal mix of all four of them would actually taste pretty great.
EVERYTHING MUST BE COLD
Heat is the enemy of a salad and right up until it is time to toss everything together, you must keep them, and any raw vegetables immersed in ice-cold water. I mean ice-cold. If you need your leaves at lunchtime, keeping the salad leaves cold for at least 30 minutes before tossing is necessary. This retains the crispness of the salad leaf and you’re kinda counting on that to stand up to the nuts, veg and dressing without going limp immediately. Salt also kinda contributes to this limpening of the green, and so you must not season your salad until it is time to serve. The best way to pack salad, therefore would be leaves separate, dressing separate, and any other cool component also, separate. It’s lovely when you watch people on Tv tossing up salads with their bare hands fancifully, but the truth is if you do it wrong, the heat from your hands too, can turn salads limp. When you toss, it therefore has to be a very light motion picking up the salad leaves and turning them onto themselves. Think of your fingers as the tines of a fork so that the salad greens don’t meet the warmth of your palm.
The obvious exception would be when we insist that Kale must be massaged with seasoning before using because we actually rely on softening this bitter curly dinosaur leaf a bit with our warm hands and that salt and acid dressing to make it a bit more edible. Try a kale that has been massaged with seasoning alongside one that has not, and you’ll instantly know the difference. Again, no brute force required because if you just bear claw your way through this green or any green really, you’re going to end up with a mushy sludge of wet inedible goop. I wouldn’t serve that to my enemy.
Can’t believe I have to say this, but WHILE WHOLE GREENS DO LOOK GREAT FOR A PICTURE, GO AHEAD AND CHOP YOUR SALAD LEAVES TO BITE-SIZED PIECES PERFECT FOR YOUR MOUTH. This goes for vegetables too.
FRUITS, VEGETABLES, NUTS AND SUPPORTING HERBS
Like is the case with most foods that we cook, I play on the salad leaf’s natural flavour and go with contrasting fruits and vegetables. Arugula/Rocket and mustard greens are peppery and so it goes naturally well with cherry tomatoes sweetness or maybe even a pear’s sweetness. Amaranth greens with their leafy taste and tenderness allow for bright flavours to shine such as pineapples or mangoes. More obvious greens like spinach, kale and tender fenugreek are slightly on the bitter side and like sweet flavours, so aliums and candied nuts, apples and pears sit very well. Iceberg lettuce, Lollo Rosso, Romaine and Butterhead are all pretty flexible in most salads and can be used if making, say, Caesar’s salad with crunchy croutons. These greens are pretty foolproof in salads and take on the personality of the dressing you pour over. Endive or frisee, again bitter and plays well when mixed with other salad greens, so you have pops of bitterness and fresh leaf.
Aside from the usual veg and fruit add-ins for a salad, it’s the nuts I’m most crazy about and that’s because I can’t imagine a salad without them. I’d crumble nuts into really any salad I can get my hands on and they’ll add a terrific crunch to the whole bowl. This, right here is me layering on texture- so you have crunch from the leaves, say the softness of a fruit like a tomato, something fresh like cucumber, maybe a herb is thrown in there, and nuts, obviously.
To freestyle an idea, I’d probably pair tomatoes and sliced fennel, sliced onions, fennel fronds as the herb, a leaf like butterhead if it’s even necessary, and a creamy caesar dressing just spooned on top with capers to finish. Since there’ll be ample crunch from the raw fennel, the nuts can sit this one out, but you get the idea right?
Basil, mint, parsley and coriander will only add an extra layer of flavour to your salads but use carefully and with a light hand. Coriander and basil can tend to overpower everything they touch, but the former is great with all-citrus salads, while the latter can be added into grain and salad combos where you’re going to be adding tomato. Parsley again, the curly variety can be used alongside other herbs in something like a tabbouleh where the flavour of the curly parsley is greatly mellowed, but still present. Curly parsley also likes sharp flavours quite a bit, so some EVOO, garlic, lots of parmesan, thinly sliced red onions all quite sharp would taste rather nice. To round off everything, some sundried tomatoes and shaved almonds.
THERE’S NO HARD AND FAST RULE IN SALAD MAKING. EVERYTHING CAN BE USED EVERYWHERE AS LONG AS A LITTLE THOUGHT GOES BEHIND PLANNING IT.
SALT, FAT AND ACID IS ALL YOU NEED EVERYDAY FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE
A basic salad dressing is nothing more than good quality extra virgin olive oil, salt and lemon or lime juice. The more salads we make, the more comfortable we get with dressings. Suddenly instead of lime juice, we add orange juice or vinegar and it tastes great. Instead of just evoo, we go with mayo which has oil, or Greek yoghurt with oil, and it’s still pretty awesome (These days silken tofu and nut butter are also being added to make fat-free dressings) Sometimes, in addition to the salt, we also add some capers or brined peppercorns and it tastes phenomenal. If we’re getting braver, we realise that soy sauce, rice wine vinegar and a bit of sesame oil and sugar is also a pretty great dressing that also relies on the salt, fat and acid rule. This emulsion of salt, fat and acid, when whisked together, shaken together, or blitzed together gives you a vinaigrette for you to drizzle over your salads.
Add a mix of many many chopped herbs and it’s a green goddess vinaigrette, mixing mustard into salt, fat and acid gives you a French dressing, blitzing peanut butter into rice vinegar, sugar, salt and soy sauce gives you a cool satay-style dressing. The possibilities are endless, and again coming back to layers, the more elements we add to these dressings-various elements of salt and many layers of acidity only yields a more robust and incredibly flavourful final result. Mix together apple cider vinegar, lemon juice and lime juice for a different but still pleasant acidity, or blitzed capers, anchovies and olives over EVOO’d tomatoes and shaved garlic for a layered salty umami. There are no rules, just go crazy.
If you want to follow a rule, let this be it. Olive oil to vinegar ratio should always be 2:1, so for 1/4 cup evoo, use 1/8 cup acid. If that acid is balsamic vinegar and you have some good crusty bread lying around, you’re in for a treat. Also, look up a panzanella.
Pepper, sugar and herbs come later, and are also super important, but it’s important to understand how even the most frugal dressing depends on the salt, fat and acid rule. Not every dressing will require sugar, pepper, herbs but they will definitely require the rest in some form or another.
THE BEST SALADS RELY ON LEFTOVERS AND A BIT OF COMMON SENSE
Know how to substitute one ingredient for another. Maple syrup, honey, jaggery syrup, sugar- all interchangeable. Vinegars from bottles-all interchangeable. Don’t have an herb for a dressing? Swap it for another, or use a lesser amount of the dried stuff. When it comes to salads, the sky is the limit, and it’s also a great way to keep expensive ingredients in use after you’ve bought them. An expensive bottle of orange blossom water bought off the internet will rarely be used in an Indian kitchen, but if you add it to a savoury salad, it’ll do wonders. Some of the oddest salads I’ve eaten have turned out to be the most delicious.
A few last pointers that are very important to remember:
-Only dress the amount of salad you’ll be consuming. If you dress more than necessary, that sad excuse for salad you’ll have for leftovers is better in the bin than in your stomach.
-Cabbage salads must be seasoned only when it’s time to serve as they release quite a bit of liquid
-Invest in a good salad spinner if you’re making salads a regular in your life. A salad spinner will do a more thorough job than just shaking the water off, which I admit to doing very often.
-Oxidised wine-red, white and sparkling-is now vinegar for your salads. Keep a few dregs handy for tipping into your vinaigrettes or for deglazing all the brown bits at the bottom of your pan.
-Cheap balsamic vinegar is good, aged is better, but when I need the flavour of balsamic to pop in a salad, I’ll turn that cheap balsamic into a glaze with some sugar and port-wine, cooked down to a syrupy consistency-it’s almost agrodolce, but the rich reduction tastes pretty great. Drizzle over grilled chicken, plain Jane salad leaves, or roasted tomatoes.
-Owning a mandoline slicer at home will bring you one step closer to making a really fancy looking salad that’s also going to taste great because the vegetables are sliced into chip-thin pieces and refreshed in ice cold water before getting tossed through. Radish, carrot, beet, cucumber will all benefit from a mandoline.
-Use whey from homemade curd to dress salads instead of throwing it out. Use it in place of the fat in the salad-dressing. Try it in an Indian style koshambari salad with the final tempering on top.
BRANDS I PREFER TO USE AT HOME:
Olive Oil/Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Fragata, Bertolli, Leonardo, Borges, Colavita in that order. I’m flexible with which brands I can afford and can’t be too fussy since it’s expensive.
Balsamic Vinegar: A pre-made salad dressing is an absolute no-no. Hellmans and Colavita are bad choices for balsamic vinegar. Opt for anything but these.
Salad Leaves: Opt for produce from the farms. Offerings Farms, Green Tokri, Vrindavan Farms and Trikaya are a few that I prefer.
Salt: Using a salt grinder distributes the salt flakes better in a salad. If doing by hand and using a fine salt like TATA salt, reduce the amount of salt you will be using. Less is more.
Alphonso Mango and Black Rice Salad
Refresh young red amaranth leaves in ice-cold water and spin them dry. Whisk together a simple dressing of olive oil and and white wine vinegar in 2:1 ratio (I went with 2 tbsp oil to 1 tbsp vinegar), salt and pepper. Chop a red and yellow bell pepper into small cubes, an alphonso mango into slightly larger chunks and roughly chop up almonds and a wee bit of coriander. Add everything to a bowl with the leftover black rice and and drizzle over the dressing. Toss and serve immediately.
Red Cabbage Salad With Orange Blossom Water
Thinly slice the red cabbage and place in a bowl. Make a dressing of olive oil and rice wine vinegar in a 2:1 ratio. Add salt, some honey, and a few drops of orange blossom water. It’s quite powerful. Finely chop a handful of coriander and mint leaves and toss everything together using your fingers, checking for more salt. Dress some cucumbers and tomatoes with any remaining orange blossom water vinaigrette.
Baby Kale and Kidney Bean Salad With A Chipotle Coconut Milk Dressing
Chop up a very small red onion finely and add to a mixing bowl with a good squeeze of lime juice, a bit more white wine vinegar, a smear of mustard, a tablespoon of chipotle paste and 3 tablespoons coconut milk, salt and pepper. Add a tempering of some ginger and cumin seeds heated through in a wee bit of vegetable oil and whisk quickly to combine. Add cooked red kidney beans to the baby kale and some extra thinly sliced onions and almonds on top. Dress right before eating.
Grilled Watermelon With A Mango Dressing, Granola and Dates
Slice the watermelon into thick slices and lightly brush both sides of each slice with oil. Heat a grill pan till very hot and let the watermelon char and get grill marks on both sides. On the side, saute some granola with sugar and red chilli powder, or if you don’t have any granola, make do with nuts. Pan-toss them and keep them aside. Chop up some dates and one small green chilli. For the mango dressing, whisk together alphonso mango pulp, lime juice, rice wine vinegar, the green chilli, salt and vegetable oil instead of olive oil. Spoon out some of the greek yoghurt. Serve either as a deconstructed salad with the watermelon, candied nuts/granola, mango dressing, basil leaves, dates and greek yoghurt on the side. Alternately, chop the watermelon into pieces separated from the rind, spoon over a bit of everything-mango dressing, yoghurt, candied nuts, basil and dates and serve immediately.