Making salads palatable, and recommendations for strong-flavored healthy food?
February 28, 2005 2:24 PM   Subscribe

How can I make salads more palatable? And any recommendations for healthy food with strong flavors?

My diet is very often fast food, very often centering more heavily on meat than on vegetables. I'd like to change that, but I've usually looked at vegetables with all the enthusiasm of a neoconservative at a Village People concert.

As I think over the problem, I suppose a few questions come to mind.

Could anyone describe the taste of their favorite vegetables? I'm a fan of strong flavor, but there are certain flavors I don't like, and I'm not a fan of vegetables that are tasteless (i.e. celery), although I can deal with them. I'd also be interested in similar descriptions for dressings, particularly low-calorie dressings. (Adding heavy creamy dressings, which I find yucky anyway, would vastly increase the calorie count anyway.)

Does your local fast food chain produce a good salad? If so, what chain, and what do they sell?

What do you like to add to a salad to make it good for you?

And, to open it up to the non-salad people, do you like any particular widely available foods that are low-fat or healthy? (Example of what I'm looking for: "Yes, popsicles are great because they have a strong flavor but are usually very low-calorie when compared to ice cream." Multiple brand names available, locatable in almost any store. Example of what I'm not looking for: "Yes, Farfenugen Chocolate-Flavored Soy-Curdled Yak Milk, if frozen for a long enough time, makes a great replacement for chocolate topping." Specialty product nearly impossible to find.)
posted by WCityMike to Health & Fitness (56 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I made a fantastic salad the other night -- a greens mix from the store, walnuts, pears, gorgonzola cheese, and some broiled chicken. Raspberry-walnut vinagrette dressing. Was very yum and very easy.
posted by u.n. owen at 2:32 PM on February 28, 2005

(and, what's more, was made with random month-old remnants of stuff from the fridge -- only had to buy the greens)
posted by u.n. owen at 2:33 PM on February 28, 2005

1. Good greens. Pass on the iceberg and romaine and try salads with mesclun, watercress, redleaf, greenleaf, baby or grownup spinach, and Boston lettuce as well.

2. Make your own dressing. A simple balsamic or cider vinaigrette can take on startling new qualities when you vary the seasonings - citrus, mustards, herbs, etc. Recipes can found at any good culinary website.

3. Include nuts, chopped small. Nuts are really healthy for you in small quanitites, and they add a richness to salad.

4. Include cheese. Not a lot, mind you (I hate seeing a good salad ruined by a pile of shredded cheddar from a salad bar). Try 1 T. of crumbled bleu, feta, or goat cheese for a major flavor addition without too much fat.
posted by Miko at 2:33 PM on February 28, 2005

I love chopped salads with fruits, veggies, and strong cheese like parmesan. For instance, I'll make a salad with mango, apples, de-seeded cucumber, bell peppers, chopped parsley or fennel and tiny cubes of blue cheese. Then I put (irritatingly obscure but spicy) salad dressing and eat it straight from the bowl. Yurm!
posted by pomegranate at 2:33 PM on February 28, 2005

I'd quibble about celery being tasteless -- it's a subtle flavor, but it's there. You could try fennel instead, which has a mild anise (licorice) flavor to it but the same crunch.

Are you opposed to making your own salad dressing? A simple vinaigrette takes just a couple minutes, and you can adjust how much fat it contains. The recipe at the end of this article is seriously good, and easily customizable.

My typical salad will contain:
romaine lettuce, chopped
celery, sliced
carrots, peeled and sliced into rounds or shaved
roma tomatoes (less pulp, more flavor), diced
avocadoes (if in season), cubed
bell peppers, julienned
...tossed in the above dressing and possibly garnished with a little grated parmesan.
posted by me3dia at 2:34 PM on February 28, 2005

You can find hundreds of salad dressings, but I usually stick to the mediterranean olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. You could fry up some crispy bacon and break that through it, add tuna, add olives, boiled eggs, cheese, pickled onions, beetroot, red and green pepper, sweetcorn... anything. Salads don't have to be wilted lettuce and cucumber. Boiled green runner beans and tomatoe with an olive oil dressing is one of my favourites. Fried bacon and cabbage with onions and garlic may sound horrible but is an amazing combination. Your best bet it probably to go out and buy a load of vegetables and eat them until you see what you like. Bought salads from coffee shops and fast food places are unlikey to be very healthy, the more dressing the less healthy it gets.
posted by fire&wings at 2:36 PM on February 28, 2005

Teddy Salad? (sorry couldn't resist)

I like lightly salted fresh tomatoes immensely. Red/yellow peppers mmmm. Adding things like grilled chicken is good as well. It helps to avoid iceberg lettuce which is an abomination unto creation, Baby/mixed greens have a decent taste. Some people like sliced hard boiled egg and cubed cheese.

If you dislike things like bleu cheese dressing then a simple olive oil and vinegar is good.

What makes many things taste good is... fat in some form. So I look for relatively healthy forms of it in moderation to replace the mainstream standards.
posted by edgeways at 2:39 PM on February 28, 2005

mix of greens, a mild goat cheese, cut-in-half grapes (way better than whole ones), and those candied pecans from Trader Joes. Toss the greens with a balsamic vinegrette (or just oil & vinegar). Put everything else on top.

Also, if you like beets, you can do a beet & arugula mix with a fresh cheese (goat or feta or something spreadable). I really like the sweet + bitter mix. That one I usually eat as a sandwich.

For something that seems hefty but is still a good caloric deal:

Dump 2 cans of black beans (don't drain), 2 cups of broth, and 1 cup or so of salsa into a sauce pan. Puree for a minute. Heat it up and eat - it's quick, good black bean soup. I usually put cilantro and sour cream or something on top, which negates the low calorie aspect. Plain yoghurt of the goopy sort is a good substitute, though.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:42 PM on February 28, 2005

Most of my favorite vegetables have either strong flavor or interesting texture. Arugula (or "rocket" if you're british) is one of my favorite tastes, eg. Mustard greens, mizuna, radish & watercress are other veggies with that kind of sharp/spicy taste, if you like that sort of thing.

But I tend not to be really into things heavy on the umami end of the spectrum, which if you're really into meaty tastes, you probably are (it seems to be the default preference generally, for some reason). Veggies heavier on umami include mushrooms and tomato & eggplant, which is maybe why non-veggie lovers tend to like those veggies.

Zucchini & other summer squash are good for soaking up other flavors, so you can cook them with tastes you enjoy, & they have a lovely texture.

I love spinach, personally, and am always suspicious that people think they don't like it because they have only had frozen/canned/half dead spinach, although I realize that some people just have different tastes. Still, frozen spinach is absolutely disgusting (I have no idea who eats it - real spinach lovers couldn't enjoy it, so is it just for people punishing themselves?) so always make sure you're eating a high quality version of something before passing judgment.

As for salads, I like crunchy salads with a nice balsamic vinegrette - cucumber, chick pea, carrot, celery, red onion, radish... mmm, making myself hungry. But I know I'm a weird "rabbit" type eater to a lot of folks, esp those who love the taste of meat, so dunno how much help I'll be. Try adding feta/goat cheese to salads... and chick peas are a good fatty taste that also soak up whatever dressing you use.

On preview, nuts and fruits also can be a great addition - mango & pine nuts both end up in my salads from time to time.
posted by mdn at 2:42 PM on February 28, 2005

Some fresh parmagiano reggiano microplaned at the last second does wonders for a salad. Heaps of flavour but almost no fat - you only need a few grams.

I have rocket (arugula) in most of my salads - I enjoy the peppery bite, and it's great with a little lemon juice, some extra virgin olive oil and some Maldon sea salt. The mich maligned iceberg lettuce can be seriously good this way, cut into a thick wedge and eaten with a knife and fork.

I like the flavour kick you get from using fresh fruit and nuts in a salad. Walnuts and grapes work well together, and mango works well with bitter leaves and smoked chicken.

Add plenty of fresh herbs to your salad. Treat mint, basil, parsley and coriander (cilantro) as you would any other salad leaf.

I usually add canned beans or pulses to salads. Kidney beans, borlotti beans and chickpeas all work well, especailly with fresh herbs.

I love freshly steamed veges, especially glistening green broccoli. They usually get the olive oil and lemon juice treatment with a generous grind of black pepper. Ginger works a treat, too.

Try tossing a little of your favourite sauce with low-fat mayo for a dressing - today I've got chipotle mango salsa on my lunch.

I also love earthy roasted vegetables in salads. Pumpkin, sweet potato, eggplant, zucchini (courgette) and beetroot all do wonders for a salad, especially if they're still warm. Ditto for grilled vegetables - capsicum (bell pepper) and asparagus are favourites.

Jamie Oliver does some interesting salads. Have a look through the BBC's recipe archives for inspiration, too.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:43 PM on February 28, 2005

i enjoy just about any boring salad with the addition of parmesan cheese + olive oil (no other dressing needed)
posted by jacobsee at 2:45 PM on February 28, 2005

Some great suggestions here. If you like strong flavors, I'll second the suggestion of asparagus (fresh, not canned!) -- when it's in season, I can happily munch on a plateful of steamed asparagus spears (either piping hot or chilled) with nothing more than a little blue cheese dressing.
posted by scody at 2:50 PM on February 28, 2005

I can't really give you any salad tips; I tend to like it when someone else makes it, but can never get excited about making it. For lots of good recipes for healthy food, I recommend you get a copy of Jane Brody's "Good Food Book: Living the High Carbohydrate Way." (Sorry Atkins fans)
posted by caddis at 2:56 PM on February 28, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks to everybody so far ... heap of suggestions to work off of. Keep 'em coming ... I'm sure there'll be others out there who'll appreciate this fantastic advice. :-)
posted by WCityMike at 2:58 PM on February 28, 2005

Hah, I knew there was a reason that I checked profiles before answering questions! Dude, go to Pockets. They have my favorite salads in town. My favorite is the Southwestern chicken pocket, but the others are just as yum. The bread is really good but if you aren't in the mood for it you can get it without. And the salads are friggin huge, enough for two meals, really. Everything is chopped up into tiny bits, and they make it right in front of you, so if you don't want celery you don't have to have it (though I would suggest getting it in something like this, as a way to sneak in a veggie, since you wouldn't be able to taste it.)

Just in general, I like to add a little bit of cheese to my salads, which I do because I don't eat dressing, so I figure it's a trade off as to fat, etc. It helps mask the bland taste of stuff like lettuce.
posted by sugarfish at 2:59 PM on February 28, 2005

Jazz that bastard up with some radishes, bleu cheese, black olives...I usually add chicken too. Honestly, my salads are walking a fine line between health and unhealth.
posted by Kafkaesque at 3:02 PM on February 28, 2005

Whole Foods has a great assortment of delicious salad recipes online.
posted by Mean Mr. Bucket at 3:07 PM on February 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

Sounds horrible, tastes great:

Greens, fresh grapefruit segments, goat cheese, toasted pecans. The grapefuit/goat cheese make their own dressing.
posted by mudpuppie at 3:08 PM on February 28, 2005

Slices or chunks of pickled beet add a lot of (distinctive) flavor to salad. It's easy to pickle a big bunch of beets and keep 'em in the fridge for virtually ever. Toss some cocktail onions into the brine while you're at it.

I get most of the green in my salads from spinach. It's fantastic just fresh, or you can do the traditional bacon-egg-and-spinach combo, which is like salad heaven, for me.
posted by Wolfdog at 3:09 PM on February 28, 2005

Miko wins. That is exactly the way I see salad (and this is coming from on guy whose been on South Beach for a couple months now). Small amounts of feta cheese make any salad palatable. I like a pseudo Greek salad (since I don't like olives) of greens, red onion, cucumber, tomato, feta cheese and balsamic vinaigrette. Adding a slice or two of sliced turkey, cut up into strips, makes a complete lunch.
posted by Doohickie at 3:18 PM on February 28, 2005

If you're wondering what obiwanwasabi meant by microplaned, check out this grater or the approximately two dozen others they make. They have tiny razor blades in place of the normal punched metal of graters, and are your best friend for adding flavor to dressings. Some of my favorites additions are grated ginger for asian dressings, garlic for mediterranean, and citrus zest for just about anything.

Also, if you love tomatoes but can't stand the flavorless ones in the stores 11 months out of the year, marinating them will add a ton of flavor. I like to cut them into slabs and layer them with the following:
generous pinch of salt
generous pinch of fresh chopped herbs (any kind will do)
generous pinch of sugar
few glugs of olive oil
few glugs of white wine vinegar

I also like to throw in a few onion rounds, but that may be too strong for some people. The flavor is great after an hour or two, will only keep for about 2 days before they get waterlogged (not a problem, these get eaten fast). Also fantastic on sandwiches.

Finally, poor maligned celery has more flavor than a lot of people think. The aroma of probably all of your favorite western soups comes from celery, most things based on chicken stock particularly are quite flat and uninteresting without celery as part of the mirepoix.
posted by TungstenChef at 3:26 PM on February 28, 2005

There's more flavor in the celery leaves than the stalk, by the way.
posted by Wolfdog at 3:29 PM on February 28, 2005

Yep, feta with spinach & some vinegar-based dressing is the way to go. Anything else added is fine, as long as you have these basics.

As for veggies in general: fresh + steam! And steam for like five minutes. I think most people who don't like veggies don't like 'em because they've had them cooked to smushiness. My faves are broccoli, green beans, and snow peas. You can also do them in a pan with some olive oil and fresh spices (thyme and rosemary are great), or garlic and lemon juice. Add some tater tots & vinegar or some other carb, and there's a great meal.
posted by dame at 3:35 PM on February 28, 2005

celery + lots of hummus = yum.
posted by stray at 3:36 PM on February 28, 2005

Could anyone describe the taste of their favorite vegetables?

Broccoli rabe. Bitter. Out of this world, it is so good for you and tastes so good. Some folks describe the flavor as 'tonic.' Escarole. Also good. Spinach. They just taste right.
posted by fixedgear at 3:36 PM on February 28, 2005

Capers. It is all about the capers.
Also, green olives with pimientos.

Both of these have good, strong flavors and a little will go a long way.

Adding tuna to your salad as mentioned above is also a great thing, it's fairly healthy and makes you feel like you're actually eating something more than just leaves.

I also second the recommendation of arugula. You'll probably either love or hate the taste, but it has a very interesting, strong flavor that's not quite like anything else; sort of bitter and rich-tasting.

Other good things to add:
Green onions
Boiled eggs
Toasted sunflower seeds

Also, some stores like Trader Joe's sell cooked chicken breast strips that are perfect for adding to salads.

This probably qualifies as a hard-to-find specialty item, depending on where you live, but I often use non-oil salad dressing that I buy at the Japanese market--either the sesame or the "Chinese" flavor is really excellent. (It probably has MSG though, if that's a problem for you.)
posted by exceptinsects at 3:46 PM on February 28, 2005

Oh, we've gotten this far and no-one's mentioned kim chi?
posted by Wolfdog at 3:52 PM on February 28, 2005

Best answer: And I forgot to add, roasted cauliflower is an amazing way to habituate yourself to vegetable eating.
Slice it fairly thin (about 1/4 in.), spray lightly with olive oil (get a regular plastic spray bottle, it works fine) and arrange flat on a cookie sheet. Salt and pepper.

Cook for about 15 minutes at about 400F (this may vary depending on your oven so keep an eye on it) until it is brown and gettig a bit crispy on the edges.

You can easily eat a whole head of cauliflower yourself this way, and it is so good you will not believe it. Even if you think you hate cauliflower, try it once and see.
posted by exceptinsects at 3:53 PM on February 28, 2005 [4 favorites]

Grilled/broiled portobello mushrooms give a salad a very rich flavor, and you can use the marinade for dressing. (You can use regular mushrooms - good, but not as meaty.) Other roasted or grilled veggies make a salad feel more substantial and give great flavor. Roasted red pepper is one of my favorites, and you can puree it with a bit of oil and vinegar for a simple dressing. Use beans! Chickpeas, white beans, black beans, and so on mixed in will bulk out a salad. Pureed beans (like thinned hummus) make a good dressing.

Strong cheese - feta, bleu, goat cheese, parmesan/romano. A little will go a long way. Croutons and nuts are good extras too. Use different oils and vinegars - balsamic will really make a boring salad perk up. Use a lot of spices and herbs; even just lots of fresh black pepper is good. Use good, flavorful lettuce. Romaine is our base lettuce - never iceberg. Use sprouts - radish is good - for extra flavor and crunch but not overwhelming taste.

One of my favorite dressings is Japanese-style ginger dressing (I haven't made it at home since you can get it in a specialty section in the bottle, or at restaurants - but it's something like this).
posted by Melinika at 3:56 PM on February 28, 2005

I never liked carrots much until I mixed them with cashews. Together, I find them to be a dynamite combo, and very healthy to boot.
posted by AlexReynolds at 4:00 PM on February 28, 2005

The word "salad" derives from "sal," or salt, and that's my advice to you: get some good, crunchy, gourmet kosher salt, and sprinkle a tiny bit on yer salad. It improves texture and flavor enormously.
posted by Dr. Wu at 4:00 PM on February 28, 2005

Three words: Roasted. Red. Peppers. You can roast them yourself - I usually set off the smoke detector when I do it, though - or find a kind you like in a jar. Try tossing sliced roasted red peppers with broccoli (cooked until just tender), a little lemon juice, sliced black/Greek olives, and pasta.

Plus, any salad with walnuts and gorgonzola can't go too far wrong. Most supermarkets sell mixed salad greens by the pound. Try those, the nuts and cheese, some sliced apple or pear, and balsamic vinaigrette.
posted by expialidocious at 4:06 PM on February 28, 2005

Best answer: How can I make salads more palatable?

Everyone's given advice about making yourself like salads (i.e. the carrot), but you may also want some suggestions about making yourself afraid of not eating salads/vegetables (i.e. the stick):
* read "fast food nation" by eric schlosser
* watch "supersize me"
posted by advil at 4:07 PM on February 28, 2005

I am not a big fan of salads at all. That said, there's an awesome one served at a local restaurant that has apple slices in a salad with a lot of dark greens (romaine, spinach, arugula for a peanut buttery/spicy taste, etc.), also shredded carrots, cucumbers, red onions, cheese, a vinaigrette dressing, and sesame seeds, almonds, and pecans to offset the sweetness and tartness.
posted by Tuwa at 4:07 PM on February 28, 2005

Parmesan does wonders for a salad. We like minced garlic, too... and in fact the only salad I ever make these days is fondly called "Smelly Fingers Salad" by my family because you must have a willingness to get your hands messy and a tolerance for the smell of garlic on your fingers or the recipe won’t work properly.

Tear clean dry romaine leaves into a salad bowl. Add a large minced garlic clove, a lot of freshly ground black pepper, and as much grated Parmesan cheese as you prefer. Use your hands to make sure all of the lettuce is coated with garlic, pepper and cheese.

Peel two very large carrots. Using the peeler, shave off long strips of carrot, letting them fall into the bowl. You want the carrot pieces to be thin and flexible, not stiff. Use your hands to mix them into the lettuce.

Cut a lemon in half, remove the seeds, and squeeze the juice (one half at a time, checking for taste) over the salad, then drizzle olive oil over the lemon juice. Adjust to taste. Grind some more black pepper over the top, toss again and serve.
posted by idest at 4:12 PM on February 28, 2005

In the "strong flavor but healthy" category: if you like spicy foods, you could try making your own spicy pickles. It's very easy. Just buy a jar of pickles from the store, and cut up some fresh peppers (I like to use habanero, but it's good with jalapeno, too) and some fresh garlic. Eat a couple of the pickles to make some room in the top of the jar. Put the garlic and the peppers in the pickle jar, close the lid, shake it up, and put it in the fridge. In a week or so, you'll have a jar of hot pickles. Pickles are something like 5 calories apiece, so they're pretty healthy, so long as you're not watching your sodium or anything. Plus, since they're so hot, they suppress the appetite a bit.

If you like to drink, try mixing tequila with some of the hot pickle juice. I know, it sounds nasty, but it's actually quite good!
posted by vorfeed at 4:57 PM on February 28, 2005

One reason you may think veggies are tasteless is that they often are. They get grown artificially in hothouses out of season, pumped up with hormones, and over-refrigerated.

I discovered vegetables when I moved from the US to Europe. I had never eaten a real summer tomato, which tastes more like a fruit than a vegetable. I thought that celery tasted like water, and didn't know that it could have dark green leaves that taste peppery. I didn't realize that there were 20 different kinds of mushrooms, each with its own flavor. And I thought "salad" meant iceberg lettuce, which is by far the most tasteless salad green imaginable.

It takes some hunting to find good veggies in the US, but it's possible. The most important thing is to try to buy veggies when they're in season. If you can find local or organic produce, or even better, a farmer's market nearby, check it out.

One trick to make a flavorful vinaigrette is to stir tomatoes, onions, garlic, and/or fresh herbs into the sauce and let them sit for 20 minutes or so. Toss the salad greens in at the last minute so they don't get soggy. Also, use red wine vinegar and good olive oil -- it makes a real difference.
posted by fuzz at 5:18 PM on February 28, 2005

Just a suggestion for the salad dressing:
1/3 ratio of oil to vinegar; a tablespoon of good mustard, salt and pepper to taste. Combine in a bowl, and vigorously wisk until emulsified.

You might want to go easy on the vinegar, since it can get pretty tart, otherwise, it's one of my favorite dressings without the greasy heaviness of the creamy dressings. Uck.
posted by scalespace at 5:22 PM on February 28, 2005

I'll echo a few of the suggestions made above. The first few things that come to my mind lately when I think of a good salad are:

Beets! I've got a newfound love for beets. They're very refreshing, and add some character to an otherwise boring salad.
Arugula + parmesan. These two things work magically together; throwing in olive oil and lemon make for a deliciously simple base.

I'm hardly a salad nut myself, but a good salad can make me very happy.
posted by swank6 at 5:40 PM on February 28, 2005

Best answer: Dude, I'm probably the most meat/fast-food centered guy here, so you can trust my recommendations. Try some non iceberg greens like mesclun, spinach and romaine. They have strong flavors and they don't have that annoying papery iceberg texture. Pecans are always a good add in, so are green onions, and any kind of hot peppers.

Fruit sald, with stuff like watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple and peaches (all very flavorful) might be worth a shot.
posted by jonmc at 5:43 PM on February 28, 2005

A second for arugula - tastes peppery

As far as dressings are concerned, make your own. Personally, I prefer my dressing to be sharp with a good bite to it, so I use a lot of vinegar compared to oil which cuts down on the calories. Most of the calories in a salad are in either dressing or cheese/meats/other add-ons.

Here's how I make dressing:
In a clean jar with a tight lid (think jelly jar or spaghetti sauce jar) add:
1/4 C olive oil (prefer extra virgin)
1/3-1/2 C cider vinegar or red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp salt
many grinds of black pepper
1 Tbs mustard (prefer Dijon, others work)

This is your starting point - it's a basic vinaigrette (actually, a basic vinaigrette is more like 2:1 oil:vinegar), but here's how to have some fun with it:

Provencal - add in 1/2 to 1 tsp herbes de provence (this is especially good with feta in your salad)
Italiano - cut back or eliminate the mustard, add 1/2 t each parsely, oregano, basil
Parmesan Peppercorn - add 2 Tbs parmesan cheese and a lot of pepper (prefer cider vinegar. this goes well with arugula)
Honey Mustard - Double the mustard and add about 2 tsp honey (prefer cider vinegar)
Balsamic - add 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
Lemon poppyseed - replace from 1/2 up to all of the vinegar with lemon juice, add 2 tsp poppyseed

You can use white vinegar, but it doesn't really add much flavor.

Once in the jar, cap it and shake well.
posted by plinth at 5:52 PM on February 28, 2005

I only started eating salad in my thirties, so I know your plight. One factor you hint at, that I will take as defining, is a reluctance to put any effort into food preparation.

For me, baby spinach leaves + lots more balsamic vinegar than anyone else can stand + crumbled goat cheese is a (small) meal ready in 60 seconds. Perhaps someday I shall bore of this and explore the many other ingredients suggested here; I just wanted to tell you that it's very possible to start small & nearly effortless.
posted by Aknaton at 6:30 PM on February 28, 2005

I had an amazing one once with nice greens and strawberries, walnuts, bacon, and a mayonaise-milk dressing. You could cut out the bacon for lower-cal. In general I think strawberries would work well with either a creamy, not-too-salty dressing or a fruity vinegrette.
posted by mai at 7:05 PM on February 28, 2005

If I can glom onto this question for a moment:

I had a salad once that had some greens in it that tasted distinctly like horseradish. What could they have been? It's probably something simple that I just never think to buy. I ask this because they were GREAT and I'd definitely add them to any salad for flavor.

- olives. Even a plain old can of California black olives can liven up a salad. A can of olives (with a little bit of juice on the greens) and some parmesan cheese is an easy fix.

- Asparagus. Lots of people have mentioned steaming. Another option: I worked in a restaurant kitchen for a week and one of the few things I learned there was how to blanch asparagus nicely. Throw it in a pot of lightly salted, boiling water and pluck it back out when it's vibrant green. Tender, with just a little bite. Roll around in some butter, salt and pepper.

- Celery. I agree with someone above that it is often maligned as "tasteless" but yet it is one of the main starting points of a mirepoix. I find that organic celery (if you can't get farmer's market fresh) is more flavorful... And is anything better with a jar of peanut butter?

- Baby bok choy. Very tasty. Saute it lightly and again, just a little salt and pepper.
posted by stefnet at 7:16 PM on February 28, 2005

Dried cranberries, sold as Craisins, or canned mandarin oranges, are very easy to keep on hand and are great in salad. Probably not together. Toasted almonds. A small amount of toasted sesame oil in the dressing. Well cooked pancetta. Don't overwhem the salad with extras. If you have access to fresh herbs, parsley, basil, cilantro or whatever herbs you like. Easily grown at home - parsley is easy to grow and keeps really well.
posted by theora55 at 9:00 PM on February 28, 2005

If you like strong flavors, it's hard to beat Thai food. Thai salads are amazing concoctions of unlikely ingredients, but somehow they work! There are several good Thai cookbooks, but for beginners I recommend Nancie McDermott's Real Thai.

One of the main ingredients of Thai food is fish sauce, which is available at Oriental grocery stores and even some supermarkets. It's a clear dark brown liquid that smells pretty bad but it gives a salty jolt of flavor. If you're desperate you could substitute Kikkoman soy sauce, but they taste very different (Chinese brands of soy sauce are way too different).

You can mix up a batch of "all-purpose Thai sauce" and use it on just about anything for a blast of flavor. This is one of the condiments that Thai and Vietnamese restaurants often have in little dishes on the tables. Here's my favorite recipe:

1 jalapeño pepper, cut into thin rings
3 T lime juice
4 T fish sauce
3 - 4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 -3 T sugar (or more, if you prefer)
1/2 cup water (more or less - dilute this recipe to taste)

Put everything into a jar with a lid, cover tightly, and shake to dissolve sugar. Store refrigerated. This sauce is good as a salad dressing, as a dip for veggies, or over plain white rice.

I've seen (but never tried) bottles of ready-made dipping sauce in well-stocked Oriental markets, so if you're feeling really lazy you could try to find a brand you like. It's a light brown clear liquid with little chunks of garlic and hot peppers floating around, and it's called something generic like "dipping sauce". Large bottles (500 or 750 ml), mostly yellow label, made in Vietnam or Thailand or maybe the Philippines.
posted by Quietgal at 9:22 PM on February 28, 2005

If you're trying to avoid rich dressings be doubly sure to include some protein and some carbs in your salad meal, or you'll be hungry again in an hour. Something like a little black forest ham will add a ton of flavor and protein without a lot of fat. I also like green onion and pepperoncini in my salad for a little kick.

The best fast food salad bars I've seen were at Carl's Jr and Wendy's, but I'm not sure if you have those chains where you are.
posted by cali at 9:36 PM on February 28, 2005

The vinaigrette recipes have been good so far. According to the Joy of Cooking, you should avoid serving vinegar-based dishes of any sort with wine, "if only to avoid reminding the wine of a relative gone bad." One of their suggested substitutions is lime juice. It goes like this:

1 shallot, minced
1/2 tsp dijon mustard
1/4 cup lime juice
salt, pepper to taste

Mix these ingredients thoroughly, then gradually whisk in 1/2 cup of olive oil. (If you do it this way it will never separate).

This has been my staple dressing for a couple months. I serve it on a bed of arugula, belgian endive & radicchio, with dry ricotta cheese (ricotta salada), sunflower seeds, crumbled flatbreads and coarse salt. This is a very bitter salad, and the comparatively sweet dressing is an excellent contrast.

Experiment, experiment, experiment. I strongly recommend making your own salads. For me the lessons just seem to stick better that way.
posted by coelecanth at 11:21 PM on February 28, 2005

Best answer: I just wanted to echo Fuzz. In my experience you can either buy vegetables at your grocery store and put them through elaborate recipes to give them some taste (or hide the taste they already have)--or you can buy vegetables at a local farmers market and serve them pretty much as is, with maybe a little salt or olive oil. It is amazing how different (and how much better) fresh, locally grown produce tastes; it's like a whole different species. All the stuff that has become a synonym for "bad tasting but good for you" --spinach, broccoli, and even brussell sprouts--actually tastes delicious if you find a good source of it.

The reason for this, as I understand it, is that produce that has been shipped a long way (which is almost all grocery store produce) has to be specially bred to stand up to shipping, and that involves selecting for hardiness rather than tastiness. Folks who are growing their veggies for the local market are free to breed for taste rather than sturdiness. (By the way, that supermarket produce is frequently also bred for appearance, and you may find that farmer's market produce looks less perfect than the stuff you find at your grocer. Don't be put off; this is actually the way that all fruits and vegetables once looked. )
posted by yankeefog at 5:19 AM on March 1, 2005

Does your local fast food chain produce a good salad?

Wendy's has a fairly acceptable mandarin chicken salad -- red romaine, grilled chicken, almonds, orange slices, decent dressing. If you're forced to eat fast food, try that.

I can't add much to the many wonderful suggestions here, but I can tell you what I did for a few years in graduate school: every time I went to the grocery store, I'd buy a new fruit or vegetable, one I'd never cooked with. I'd then go home and read all about it (The Joy of Cooking is very good for this). Then I'd cook something with it. It kept my food explorations from being overwhelming, and it was reasonably cheap, since I'd just buy what was on sale. If you focus on one new vegetable at a time like this, you'll be able to find out what you really like and what you don't.
posted by climalene at 5:27 AM on March 1, 2005

Kicking-Lemon Salad: Take two decent-sized cloves of garlic, put them in your mortar throw some salt over them, mash them up good with the pestle. Take a lemon, grate/zest about half of it (approx. 1 tablespoon). Cut it in half and juice it (approx. 1/4 cup o' juice). Put the zest and the juice in the mortar. Take about 2 tablespoons of whole-grain mustard (like the grey poupon, or better brand, country style) and put it in the mortar too. Now add some olive oil (maybe a 1/3 cup or so). Stir that all up. Now you have yummy salad dressing to put on your mixed greens (I like boston and some romaine maybe with a little bit of arugala too). Toast up some walnuts on the stove (maybe half to a whole cup). Throw those guys in the salad and toss it with the dressing. Top that with some grated parmagian or romano cheese (maybe a little fresh ground pepper, too) and you are good to go. Want stronger flavor? Add more Garlic, lemon and mustard to the mix. Need to bulk it up because that's all you are eating? Cut up some Ginger-marinated Seitan or Lemon Tofu in small cubes (my favorite is "lemon pepper tofu" by fresh tofu inc - it's already baked and so good). I eat this salad about twice a week and never tire of it! Enjoy.
posted by safetyfork at 7:28 AM on March 1, 2005

Stepping out of my vegetarian box: You can also cook up chicken and mix it in with the salad described above. No real need for the tofu then.
posted by safetyfork at 7:30 AM on March 1, 2005

My apologies, I intend for this to be the last post by me in this thread about my favorite salad ever. You can also slice up an avacado and mix it in with the salad for another variation on the flavor factory that is Kicking-Lemon Salad.
posted by safetyfork at 7:39 AM on March 1, 2005

A good way to get started eating more salad/fool yourself into not noticing that you are eating healthy is to add more and more lettuce to normal things. Make a taco, tuna sandwich or hamburger and quadruple the normal amount of lettuce that you use. Add more and more until you are suddenly eating a salad.

As someone suggested above, adding fresh herbs to your salad can make the blah into the yummy. Dill, cilantro, mint, heck. Go crazy. Add your favorite stuff and see what it tastes like.

Also, when I'm not in the mood for salad and I want to eat healthy I take a bag of mixed greens or, if you have Trader Joe's or similar nearby, a bag of mixed herbs and use salsa or hot sauce as a dressing. You can add a bit of light sour cream if you are into creamy dressings.

McDonalds has some good salads. Beware of salad dressing packets, however. In some cases you may as well be eating a burger as your salad ends up being just as unhealthy.
posted by tinamonster at 7:51 AM on March 1, 2005

I'm underlining the importance of sweet red pepper--it's sweet and crunchy and a cheerful color. I haven't explored the more recent mutant sweet peppers (yellow, orange, purple) so I can't say whether the flavor is as good.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 11:04 AM on March 1, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for their fantastic answers! I've got a lot of ground to explore now. :)
posted by WCityMike at 7:56 AM on March 4, 2005

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