What should I do for a simple salad to go with spaghetti and meatballs?
July 7, 2017 7:38 AM   Subscribe

Almost certainly overthinking this, but what's the best (easiest, liked by everyone, fancy enough to impress my mom) salad I can make to go with spaghetti and meatballs tomorrow? Also is there a VERY SIMPLE dressing I can make?

We have family coming into town for our kraken's first birthday so I am both anxious about everything looking nice and busy in terms of cooking and cleaning and making sure the baby doesn't bungie jump off the sofa so easy is very much appreciated. THAT SAID I would also like my parents and in-laws to enjoy themselves and also think "wow, they've really got this, Mr. and Mrs. Pterodactyl are amazing successes as both parents and human beings".


-Very easy to put together! I'm planning to go to Whole Foods tonight or tomorrow to get ingredients so anything they're likely to have is fine. Of course I know I'll need to do some prep but I'm not up for like roasting corn or whatever.

-Can't include any cheese (this is not about dairy, dairy is fine, this is about cheese specifically)

-Will be liked by people with a variety of tastes in salad, e.g. my mom prefers "nice" stuff and fancy microgreens and my dad is more like a taco salad fan and would probably be happy with just iceberg lettuce in a bowl

Should I just...get some greens? What greens? Should I put tomatoes in? What other stuff? What dressing should I get or, ideally, make but is VERY VERY SIMPLE? My goal here is for everyone (my mom) to say "oh Mrs. Pterodactyl, it's so impressive that you made a salad dressing and it's absolutely delicious, so fresh and simple, wow you're definitely a grownup who should be taken seriously". I know this probably seems like a stupid question but I'm feeling a little anxious about this. Thank you!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl to Food & Drink (37 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Get some kale. Take the big woody stem bits out. Put it in a bowl. Add some olive oil, lemon juice, good salt, and pepper. Then, with your hands, massage it for 2-4 minutes, until the kale goes from tough to tender. Slice up some radish and carrot if you feel like it, and toss.

The massaging part is fun because you can feel the cellulose (?) breaking down under your fingers. My mom, who doesn't like kale, likes this salad.
posted by coppermoss at 7:44 AM on July 7, 2017 [6 favorites]

our favorite dressing is something my german grandmother used to make. It is essentially a vinegarette, but the fat is heavy cream instead of oil. Just cream, salt and vinegar. unfortunately, she never measured so neither do it, but its about a cup of cream, add about a couple tablespoon of vinegar, and then teaspoon or two of salt. it should thicken on its own. i serve with mixed green with lots of cut of veggies and candied pecans.
posted by domino at 7:45 AM on July 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

Simple salad dressing: olive oil, balsamic vinegar, a little dijon-style mustard. Oil:vinegar ratio 2:1. Add a teaspoon of mustard, mainly to help emulsify it. The better the vinegar the better the dressing.
posted by mr vino at 7:46 AM on July 7, 2017 [6 favorites]

Arugula, shaved fennel, and some halved cherry tomatoes if you like, dressed very simply with fresh lemon juice (Meyer if you can get them, but fine if not), excellent olive oil, freshly ground black pepper and some crunchy salt.
posted by rtha at 7:46 AM on July 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

Caesar is really your only choice here. This version is beautiful, the dressing is incredibly simple and not that inedible vinegary bullshit you get in restaurants (there's no vinegar in Caesar dressing! There's also no anchovies, it's a dash of worcestershire!). Get yourself the good parmesan.

I like ciabatta for the croutons.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:46 AM on July 7, 2017 [9 favorites]

Mixed greens (Mesclun) with a vinaigrette, nothing else. Dressing: to make about one cup total. 2/3 cup olive oil. 1/3 cup red wine vinegar. 1-2 clove(s) garlic, pressed. ~2 tsp dried thyme. Sugar and Soy sauce (yes!) to taste. Probably 2 tsp sugar and more soy sauce than you'd think. Should take no more than 3 minutes if you have a garlic press, and only a little longer if you have to mince the garlic instead

Extremely simple, and easy. Make the dressing today so it can mellow overnight.
posted by Stewriffic at 7:46 AM on July 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Whoops, I mis-read the cheese part. Skip the cheese. The dressing is that good, it won't matter.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:47 AM on July 7, 2017

For me, spaghetti and meatballs screams for either a Caesar or a traditional "green" salad. Personally, I feel like Caesar is no good without some hard Italian cheese, so I'd go with a green salad - Romaine hearts, grape tomatoes (fancier and generally tastier than beefsteaks at the supermarket), cucumber, and Vidalia onion. I would chop the lettuce, split the tomatoes in half, halve and seed the cucumbers and then slice thinly, and halve and slice thinly the onion. Buy some croutons; WF has a decent house brand. You could get some Italian cold cuts like mortadella, slice up thin, and sprinkle that on the salad, too.

Simplest vinaigrette - in a blender (or better yet, use a stick blender if you have one), put a half cup of white wine vinegar and a squirt of dijon mustard. Turn on the blender and slowly add olive oil until it looks thick and tastes like salad dressing. Add salt and pepper to taste. Done. This will stay in emulsion basically forever.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:47 AM on July 7, 2017 [11 favorites]

I do Italian leaves (or any leafy thing) with pine nuts and a dressing which is a little bit of pesto diluted in as much nice olive oil as you like. You could throw in some cucumber or green peppers if you liked. Always liked by all.

Caesar is too hefty imo; it's a meal salad not a side salad. YMMV.
posted by Segundus at 7:56 AM on July 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

I second backseatpilot's suggestion for a "traditional green salad". Personally I prefer red onions over Vidalia onions - more colorful and clearly signifies "mild onion". You can make the salad "read" more Italian-American by adding pepperoncini (whole or sliced) and black or Kalamata olives, if your family will eat them.

Dressing: why bother with a fresh dressing? Bottled is so much easier. If you want to make it look fancier, just decant it into a glass dressing carafe.

Another dressing option: My mother-in-law gets raves for her "fresh dressing" when she brings it to parties. She admitted to me once that it's Good Seasons packet, mixed according to directions, except she swaps in extra-virgin olive oil and good balsamic vinegar, instead of the ordinary vegetable oil and white vinegar.
posted by Ardea alba at 8:00 AM on July 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

Does it have to be greens? During tomato season I like to do a capese (the one linked uses avocado instead of mozzarella to make it vegan) or a simple cucumber and tomato salad like this one, which includes feta that you could easily leave out (the recipe recommends replacing it with olives for a vegan salad).
posted by camyram at 8:03 AM on July 7, 2017 [5 favorites]

This is my basic vinaigrette. Super easy and tasty.
posted by gudrun at 8:09 AM on July 7, 2017

I recently discovered that, while salad pretty much has to be dressed at the moment to be at its freshest, coleslaw can also be very good and can be prepared in advance, even a day or two before serving. It also doesn't _have_ to contain mayonnaise, which was a relief to me.

Plus, without mayo, it can keep better at room temperature or for picnics.

Random vinegar coleslaw recipe with just a few ingredients.

The simplest Martha Stewart recipe I have ever seen - includes mayo.

Also, since it's refrigerated and the dressing along with it, it can be _colder_ than regular leaf salad without being _wet_. Also it's delicious if done right, and you have leftovers for a while.

It can also be made with a food processor rather than slicing everything on a cutting board, washing a knife, injuring yourself when your attention wanders, etc., which could be very efficient for the right circumstances.

I always hated coleslaw, but I'd developed a fondness for Asian pressed salad, then realized it was very similar to slaw without mayo. There are a lot of [coleslaw no mayo] recipes out there, so I started eating slaw more, and now I think it's great.
posted by amtho at 8:11 AM on July 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

I would skip the leaves and just do peeled diced cucumber and sliced cherry tomatoes (because they're less juicy) with olive oil, some mild vinegar, and dill. Add a half handful or so of coarse or flaky salt and diced bell peppers or onions to make it more of a rainbow. Don't go overboard with onions or people will taste nothing else and don't skip the salt.
posted by mattamatic at 8:12 AM on July 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

Should I just...get some greens? What greens?

Romaine, or romaine and some green leaf or butter. If your folks like stronger flavors, add a leeeedle bit of radicchio.

Should I put tomatoes in? What other stuff?

If the eaters' tastes differ, don't add anything else. Have an ickle dish of grape tomatoes, an ickle dish of sliced cucumbers ("English" is better than regular), and an ickle dish of diced vidalias or other sweet onions and let people add their own. Then you wouldn't, for example, have to watch me picking out the raw onions. This would also let you have an additional ickle dish of flaked-off parm regg if that seems permissible.

What dressing should I get or, ideally, make but is VERY VERY SIMPLE?

I think this is maximally simple:

(1) Buy one of those hidden valley kits with the cruet. The cruet has handy lines on it marked v, w, etc.
(2) Ignore their packet of stuff.
(3) Make dressing as indicated on the cruet but use good evoo and good balsamic. Add a little squirt of dijon. Add Italian seasoning to taste. SHAKEY SHAKEY! but keep your finger on the spout cover.

Query: how much contact have the Pterodactyls had with their grandkid? I only ask because if the answer is "Not much" you could just stand on the other side of the room and throw rotting iceberg lettuce at them while they were cooing over Li'l Kraken and they'd think you were the greatest parent ever.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:12 AM on July 7, 2017

I have been eating baby arugula like it's been going out of style this summer. It reads like lettuce but it's a little tart, a little spicy. Chop up the freshest tomatoes you can find to top it, and some super thinly sliced red onion if you want (my wife's allergic, so I don't usually bother, sigh), and use one of the dressings these fine folks have suggested.
posted by joycehealy at 8:14 AM on July 7, 2017

In this situation, I'd go with greens with a basic vinaigrette like this one. Use a dijon mustard like Grey Poupon that does not have visible mustard seeds. You can use a Microplane tool or the small holes of a cheese grater to mince the garlic and shallot.

I tried the "mason jar method" of making dressing earlier this month and it totally works! You just put the ingredients in a watertight jar, like a mason jar or jam jar, and shake it up and down until they combine into a uniform liquid. No whisking or blending needed.

They're using butter lettuce in the picture, which I usually buy in a head and tear the leaves off, but you could also just buy a bag of anything labeled "salad greens", just check if the greens look smushed or have brown spots before you buy them.

Dress it with your clean hands (toss the leaves with the vinaigrette then rub the leaves gently to make sure they are covered). Some shredded carrot (just the stuff you can buy pre-shredded) could give it a little more crunch, but optional.

I apologize if I've over-explained this!
posted by capricorn at 8:14 AM on July 7, 2017

My favorite salad that my dad would make with pasta is the following:

Make it ahead of time and throw in the fridge until you're ready to eat.

Chopped tomatoes, chopped cucumber and onion, fresh basil. Salt salt salt.

make a dressing with red wine vinegar and olive oil - I usually do a 1:1 ratio. Perhaps quarter cup of each.

let it marinate and before serving, sprinkle with parmesan. Heavenly.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 8:14 AM on July 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

If you go with a vinaigrette on greens (I like to toss mine with halved cherry tomatoes, grated carrot, diced avocado and diced cucumber, or any combo thereof), add a bit of minced shallot to the dressing. It really adds that extra something. And definitely add that bit of Dijon, too.
posted by paperback version at 8:21 AM on July 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I do a yummy salad that's very easy but feels fancy. Thinly slice fennel and green apples, toss with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Top with toasted pecans or walnuts just before serving.

You can also do a green salad -- if your dad likes iceberg and your mom likes fancier, Romaine might be a reasonable compromise? Do normal veg (for example: cherry tomatoes, shredded carrot, thinly sliced pepper, cubed avocado, sliced cucumber etc. -- not all of these, but whatever looks good and you like) and add one "fancy" thing like some chopped Marcona almonds, fresh herbs, fancy olives, figs, something like that.

For homemade dressing, I like to put in a jar with a tight lid: 2 parts olive oil, 1 part any nice vinegar (red wine, champagne, balsamic, white wine, sherry, etc.), a spoonfull of Dijon, salt and pepper. Minced fresh herbs for bonus points. Screw on the lid, shake well, and taste and adjust ingredients if needed -- can add a little honey if you want it a bit sweeter (taste first though).
posted by rainbowbrite at 8:40 AM on July 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

there's no vinegar in Caesar dressing! There's also no anchovies, it's a dash of worcestershire!
Worcestershire has both of those things in it....

You really can't beat vinaigrette for simple and fresh, and you don't even really need the blender - we just mix some in a glass ramekin with a fork. If you go with kale or spinach, I'd recommend tossing it with the dressing a couple hours before serving to give the acid a chance to wilt it a bit; other greens you can just add the dressing as you serve. I'd go with arugula, myself. Probably with other dishes I'd halve some cherry tomatoes, but not necessarily when the main is already a tomato sauce.
posted by solotoro at 8:41 AM on July 7, 2017

Make the dressing available on the side. Some people don't care for it, or only like a tiny amount. Also PLEASE skip the raw onions-- they are so strong and lend their flavor to the entire salad.
posted by bookworm4125 at 8:45 AM on July 7, 2017

Nthing an extremely simple salad, hand-dressed. Details here. I routinely impress guests with this because they don't expect to like such a simple salad, so they assume some magic is involved.
posted by tofu_crouton at 8:49 AM on July 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Here's what I would do -- because spaghetti and meatballs is relatively heavy and tomato-y, unless you're making an antipasto (which I would totally do--bed of arugula, fancy artichokes, peppers, salamis, etc.), you want a simple and lighter salad that cuts that with a bit of acidity and brightness.

Get any old bag of fancy greens and mix it with a bag of chopped romaine. Throw some olives, cucumber chunks, and very thinly sliced red onion ONLY if you're 100% certain your family LOVES red onion. That's it. Anything else turns it into a flavor explosion and that will compete with your pasta.

Dressing: a simple vinaigrette--blend 2:1 ratio of good olive oil and either balsamic or red wine vinegar (balsamic will provide a nice depth and sweetness, red wine is a bit more acid-y). Squirt in good mustard--either dijon or stoneground. Salt and pepper generously. For the love of god, do not add raw garlic, but DO add a pinch of fresh or jarred oregano. There's something about oregano that lifts dressings from simple yum to WOW THIS IS AMAZING CAN I HAVE THE RECIPE.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 8:50 AM on July 7, 2017

Here's my suggestion:

Butter lettuce bridges the gap between fancy and simple. You can get it already washed at Whole Foods.

It's summer: add sliced nectarines. You don't need a lot. Get ones that smell ok. Put a little salt on them before you put them in the salad.

Dressing: in a little jar or Tupperware, put 3 parts decent olive oil, 1 part apple cider vinegar (or other good vinegar), and a scoop of any mustard (Dijon is best) - the mustard emulsifies the oil and vinegar. You can put in a bit of honey or maple syrup if you have it. Shake it well in the jar or Tupperware.

Toss the greens with the dressing and put the fruit on top.

You could add some candied pecans or walnuts if you think people will like it. Almonds are good too but you have to toast them and that's a pain. But just the fruit will elevate the salad a little, plus it provides some contrast with the richer main meal.
posted by vunder at 9:15 AM on July 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

Chop up tomatoes, cucumbers, and a bit of red onion. Use sour cream + salt + pepper as dressing. Add dill or parsley if you're into that. The only people I've made this for who didn't like it were tomato haters.
posted by aaanastasia at 9:45 AM on July 7, 2017

The meatballs will be in tomato sauce, right? Probably a bit rich with fat from the meat. I'd do a crunchy lettuce - romaine is good, with some nice bitter arugula for contrast. Grated carrots for color and sweetness, thinly sliced red onion, sliced cucumbers. Put the carrots, red onion and cukes in a bowl, add a splash of vinegar, a little garlic, salt, pepper, a little bit of herbs - parsley if it's fresh, maybe a tiny bit of rosemary, possibly a dollop of dijon mustard. let sit. Before serving add olive oil. vinegar:oil should be about 1:7 Dress the salad very sparingly.

Or easy-peasy cucumber salad. Slice cukes pretty thinly. Add a splash cider vinegar, a splash of soy sauce, a little bit of water, salt & pepper. Before serving add a small drizzle of toasted sesame oil.

The pasta is full of carbs, but I would still serve bread.
posted by theora55 at 9:46 AM on July 7, 2017

So many good suggestions that I have favorited. But: think of serving the salads as antipasti before the pasta. I do this often and make a point of explaining how this is the Italian way and then everyone is all impressed though the work is the same.
Doing it this way gives a lot of freedom - it doesn't need to fit exactly with your pasta dish, and everyone doesn't need to like everything. I like to serve two or three small vegetarian salads and or a crostini before a main of pasta, because then people can choose. Otherwise I think a cheese-less caesar is a great choice.
posted by mumimor at 9:58 AM on July 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ok so this is one of my absolutely favorite salads, it's pretty easy and blows peoples minds, brussels sprouts, tangerine dressing and hazelnuts. Half the brussels sprouts are wilted with a little bit of salt, and half are kept raw and added at the end, so you get a nice double texture from them. You can take out the goat cheese, I know as I've done it when I've forgotten to get it at the store and it still works great.
posted by Carillon at 10:13 AM on July 7, 2017

I love cold cold iceberg lettuce with a cold cold dressing of oil vinegar and sugar. Sides of cucumbers, tomatoes to add if they want. So damn good. Simple fresh light.
posted by Ftsqg at 10:32 AM on July 7, 2017

Do you have a Trader Joe's? If so:

1 bag of mixed baby greens
1 bag of Canadian Wild Rocket (arugula)
1 package of heirloom tomatoes
1 bottle of their balsamic glaze.

Use a ratio of about 1/3 arugula to 2/3 mixed greens. Put a handful on each salad plate. Slice up the heirloom tomatoes and put some on each plate, making sure each plate gets some of each color. Then squeeze the balsamic glaze in a zigzag pattern over each plate, and top with a sprinkle of sea salt. Voila!
You can make it fancier by getting one of TJ's blister packs of fresh basil, and throwing some of that on top of the tomatoes before the glaze and the salt. I would normally throw on some fresh mozzarella, too, but you can skip it, obvously.
posted by MexicanYenta at 10:33 AM on July 7, 2017

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! I think we're going to go with a mix of butter lettuce and romaine with grape tomatoes, croutons, and possibly some nuts with the Serious Eats vinaigrette recipe. I really appreciate the help and also no one making fun of me for being so anxious about a salad.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 10:45 AM on July 7, 2017 [6 favorites]

Really simple way to make an easy salad fancy: add chopped-up fresh herbs. This really elevates lettuce-and-dressing way more than you would expect. For instance, in a bowl, mix:

- Chopped lettuce
- Chopped chives (your herb)
- Chopped tomatoes
- Sliced radishes

- Good olive oil
- About half as much good vinegar as olive oil (I like champagne or balsamic vinegar)
- Salt and pepper

Toss it all. If you'd prefer to make the dressing separately, then add a small amount (half a tablespoon) of dijon mustard, and shake to emulsify. But it is absolutely better to dress the salad in the bowl and toss it than to have people dress their own salad - this way the dressing coats the leaves.
posted by lunasol at 10:46 AM on July 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Simmer grocery store balsamic vinegar until it is reduced by half, like eight ounces to four ounces, add a scant tablespoon of maple syrup, a pinch of salt, and then slowly pour in, while whisking, a thin stream of olive at a rate that you find tedious (that's how I know I've got it right).

Alternatives to the maple syrup are brown sugar, honey, anything sweet. It stays emulsified and sugar makes everything better.

And the vinegar smells awesome as it's reducing.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 11:31 AM on July 7, 2017

This one's easy and fresh tasting - you don't have to put the cheese in, but the sunflower seeds really make it.
posted by hiker U. at 2:26 PM on July 7, 2017

nthing lunasol's green salad ideas - but toss the oil first before adding the herbs and vinegar and then toss it a second time. Coating the leaves with the oil first brings out the flavors better.
posted by cfraenkel at 4:15 PM on July 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Someone mentioned strong onion flavors. My remedy is to slice thinly (and make the pieces short!) And to soak in water to take out some of the harshness OR lightly pickle in vinegar for added zing.
posted by vespabelle at 8:58 AM on July 8, 2017

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