I’m a big fan of salads — they’re my go-to work-from-home lunch. But my plate of lettuce or spinach, tomatoes, cucumber, and radish is starting to feel a little blah. Sure, some days I add avocado, salsa, and black beans and top it with a southwestern-style dressing. Other days I add feta cheese and olives and top it with Greek dressing. Still, I can’t get around the fact that I’m really just making different versions of the same salad.
Kaumudi Marathé set me straight. She’s a senior editor for books at America’s Test Kitchen who oversaw "The Complete Salad Cookbook". She pointed out that with some out-of-the-box thinking, I can create salads that are interesting and satisfying. “We have warm salads. We have steak on salads. We have salads with scallops and shrimp. We have a lot of pasta salads,” she said.
You can experiment, too. Marathé calls it winging it with a flight plan. Start with whatever veggies you have on hand. “Then think about flavor, color, and texture, and balance it,” Marathé said:
- Add fruit or pickles to a rich salad.
- Add crisp raw veggies, croutons, tortilla strips or nuts to a slad that needs more crunch.
- Go heavy on the herbs.
- Contrast your dominant flavor. Add salt or spices to a sweet salad, or bitter greens to a mild salad, for example.
Before we get into some salads to try, let’s talk about what’s — to me — the most important part of the salad: the dressing. Marathé said you can make the dressing ahead of time, but keep it separate from the salad. When you’re ready to serve, whisk the dressing again to emulsify it. Add a little to your salad, toss and taste it, and pour some more until you have the flavor you like.
3 vibrant summer salads that won’t leave you hungry
If you’re not quite ready to wing it, try these three fun summertime salads first. Maybe they’ll inspire your next great salad creation.
I can guess what you’re thinking when you think fruit salad — chop up a bunch of whatever fruit you find, toss in some berries and grapes, and if you’re feeling fancy throw it all into a scooped-out half of a watermelon. There’s nothing wrong with that. But you can do better.
Marathé said all the fruit salad recipes they included in the cookbook are savory fruit salads. That includes the honeydew salad with peanuts and lime. “We take the textures and the sweetness of that fruit and contrast it with peanuts, chiles, lime, and shallots. So it’s this wonderful interplay of flavors,” she said.
Technique tip: Marathé said no matter what type of fruit salad you make, you want to drain the fruit to remove extra moisture. You can chop it and set it in a salad spinner or in a sieve or colander set over a bowl. Toss it with sugar and salt or just salt and the liquid will drain out in about 30 minutes. “This prevents the liquid from the fruit from diluting your dressing,” Marathé said. You can use some of it as an ingredient in your dressing, drink it, make something else with it, or toss it.
This bean salad is a perfect summer side dish if you’re grilling. Marathé said that while you have the grill going, you can take a few minutes to roast the peppers, and then this arugula, roasted red pepper, and white bean salad comes together in no time. “It’s very satisfying because of the white beans, and it’s fresh because of the arugula,” she said. Not grilling? No worries. The recipe explains how to easily roast peppers with your broiler.
Technique tip: Keep in mind that, with any salad ingredients, more surface area means more of the dressing can cling to the ingredients. So smaller white beans will give you more of the flavor of the dressing than larger ones. You can use this technique when you prep veggies for other salads, too. For example, shaved or grated carrots will have more surface area than sliced or diced carrots.
When I think of pasta salad, what comes to mind is mushy pasta drowning in mayonnaise, with a few peas, carrots, or peppers peeking through the mayo to add a little color. This pasta salad with eggplant, tomatoes, and basil couldn’t be more different. It’s loaded with veggies and finished with a bright, lemony dressing. “It looks like the colors of the Italian flag,” Marathé said.
Technique tip: “One of the things that’s really important to remember is to overcook your pasta,” Marathé said. Instead of cooking to al dente, cook until it’s tender. “It seems odd, but having them be extra soft allows them to soak up the dressing more,” she said. It also keeps the pasta from drying out quickly.