Grow My Salad Game
March 10, 2020 8:22 AM   Subscribe

I cook. A lot. Salads are my kryptonite. I need a book that teaches me how to think about salads.

I cook. I know what I'm doing. Recipes are guidelines, not how to's. Except for salads. I need a book that teaches me how to make delicious salads with what I have.

I've seen this ask, but that's much more "give me a list of salads." I want you to hit me with the salad equivalent of Ruhlman's Ratio or Myrhvold's Modernist Cuisine. If I end up with leftover kale or beet tops, I want to know how to make an awesome salad without another trip to the grocery store to buy the other things from some recipe.

Hope me, friends!
posted by bfranklin to Food & Drink (23 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
I make a lot of random salads with what's on hand.

To be satisfying to me they need:

-some crunch, raw vegetables, nuts, apples

-cheese, usually feta, but grated sharp cheddar is good

-some softer foods like tomatoes, cooked potatoes, avocados, tofu

-some beans, I keep lots of canned garbanzos lentils and cannellini white beans on hand

-a little bit of sweetness is nice, like dried cranberries or fresh strawberries

-fresh greens of any kind are great but also optional, red cabbage keeps well if you don't shop often

- a variety of colors

-olive oil mustard balsamic vinegar lemon plus fresh herbs if I haven't managed to kill whatever I've planted

I don't have a set ratio I just add ingredients until it looks right to me.

Experiment! Make small batches that you eat in one sitting, they don't keep well.
posted by mareli at 8:39 AM on March 10, 2020 [6 favorites]

I think that when it comes to salad, you're kind of asking the equivalent of "I need a schedule that will tell me when and how to be spontaneous."

Salads were invented to be a sort of improvisational, free-form fridge-cleaning catch-all, a way to stretch random bits of food longer. Haven't got enough cooked chicken to make an entire second serving? Chop it up and turn it into chicken salad. Have a couple different types of cooked meat? Throw that on some greens and add some chopped raw veggies and call it "chef's salad". Do you really kinda dig the way grapes go with chicken? Throw grapes in your chicken salad. Have some cold cooked rice from takeout, but it's too hot for fried rice? Chop some cucumbers and scallions and throw them in the rice and call it a rice salad.

You know? I think the "salad formula" you're looking for is more of an individual, "try it and see if it works, and if it works, you've invented a new recipe" kind of thing. One of the reasons I recommend the Moosewood Daily Special as much as I do (and it's in the AskMe you linked to) is not just because of its recipes - but because after I worked with it for a year, it sunk in for me that "wait.....these recipes are all the same recipe, it's just that they use different ingredients. So....I could just do the same thing." I did follow the recipes pretty slavishly for a while, but doing that helped me get to that penny-drop eventually, and now salad recipes are also guidelines for me.

I'd think for a bit about what kinds or categories of salads you want to make; mostly vegetable side-dish things? Main-dish salads you can take to work? Something else? Then you have a choice:

* If you think you're leaning more towards being able to improvise with vegetable salads, I'd look at what kind of dressings you can whip up. Oil plus acid plus herbs can give you a salad dressing, and you can change the kind of oil and acid and herb to suit whatever flavor palate you want (if the rest of your meal is more Middle Eastern, go with olive oil, lemon juice and cumin or something, or if it's Asian go with rice wine vinegar and peanut oil plus cilantro; you get the idea). If you can put a dressing together, you could probably throw any kind of vegetable under it and have it work.

* If you are leaning more towards main dish types of salads, I'd explore funky grains and pastas. If you cook up some grains, you can throw lots of cooked vegetables or herbs or meat in there and call it a salad. And the grain and flavors can be suited to whatever flavor palate you're going for as well.

But ultimately, I think this is a case where there is no single unified field theory for salads by definition. There's something I saw in a Discworld cookbook tie-in long ago - it was about Gumbo, but it kind of applies; "Gumbo is one of those things for which I think it's a bit silly to have a recipe. You just....make it." Salads will actually do okay with "don't like broccoli? Just leave it out" kinds of adaptations.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:48 AM on March 10, 2020 [6 favorites]

Two books that helped me rethink cooking in general and had different approaches to salad were:

The Nimble Cook by Ronna Welsh
An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler

Neither is specifically about salad, but each presented them in a way that helped me break out of my perception of salad as green lettuce - cucumber - shredded carrot - sliced tomato - dressing.
posted by carrioncomfort at 8:59 AM on March 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm old fashioned and don't love raw kale or beet parts in a salad, but each their own. I might be an outlier these days but I don't really understand putting a hundred things in a salad, so .. Idk you have permission to make simple salads. If you watch old julia child episodes, salads are not overly fussy. With salad, it's all about the dressing, I think. Experiment with making your own vinaigrette using four ingredients - nice olive oil, red or white or rice wine vinegar, salt, pepper-from-a-pepper-grinder. Mix it right on the salad but, crucially, add in teeny tiny amts of vinegar until you get a feel for it. Just err way way way on the side of less is more.

Taste a leaf as you go, if not acidic enough, add a tiny bit more vinegar. Go slow until it's right. Once you get the hang of that w the weaker vinegars, you can try balsamic .. Seems to me lately a lot of folks, even at restaurants, manage to go way too heavy on the balsamic. If you do find you *slightly* miss the mark and get too acidic, sometimes a little sugar can save it.

Go with scallions or thin sliced red onion over white onion, because they are milder. If you don't like raw onion sometimes a little cooked or fried onion can be nice added in the dressing if you have the patience for it.

In winter I like spinach and spring mix with goat cheese and pickled beets (yes, from a jar or can!) .. I find keeping these things on hand is fun bc it takes a while for everything but the spinach to go bad, and even that holds up longer than spring mix or some such. Also a few pine nuts, I think are nice. In summer, if you live somewhere where you can grow a pot of nasturtium, nasturtium petals are peppery and pretty in salad and look fancy, say w butter lettuce and romaine and a ripe (and * never * refrigerated ) tomato. Folks probs know this bc of all the food tv nowadays, but for the love of everything holy never refrigerate a tomato - it changes the chemistry of the sugar in them and they become mealy and icky.

I think it's easier to enjoy salad if you already really enjoy eating raw vegetables.. I do, so the dressing just makes them sparkly .. But , they're not everyone's jam and that's ok.. I guess that's what all the other dressing options are for (which I also like.. eg yay ceasar and yay thick mayo-ketchup russian, etc, just I guess those are beyond the scope of my comment here .. )

Also lemon juice can be subbed for vinegar. In any dish, lemon juice will amplify the salt quotient, so salt slowly and taste as you go.

Sorry for typos , writing on tiny screen. Hope this maybe helps!
posted by elgee at 9:01 AM on March 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Here is my suggestion for salad. Leave out the lettuce, unless you especially love lettuce. Here's why. A "salad" as we think of it is a vehicle for dressing a few morsels of other stuff. Aptly described above as a way to use leftover bits of things. And that's great if you've got the type of household where there are lots of leftover bits of things.

But many salad recipes are really a good way to create more leftover things. Anything that calls for one sprig of fresh rosemary, or four grapes per serving is going to leave the modern consumer with more leftovers.

Instead, think about what you are already eating at home, or wish you were eating at home. Build your salads around that.

Mark Bittman put 101 simple salads into the New York Times Dining section in 2009. One sentence descriptions. I can't recall how many of them actually involved lettuce.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is another good thing to think about for "salads" because you can think about what flavors you like together and the book can point you in the direction of figuring out what is missing from your salad as you compose it at home. (things like leftover shrimp, or chicken breast go very well on salad! If you haven't got the book, check it out at your library, watch the show.

For example, if I had some leftover shrimp, I might go with mango, and a lime yogurt dressing. I would just mix up shrimp and frozen mango, splash in two or three tablespoons of yogurt, and squeeze the juice of half a lime on, maybe adding salt depending on how the shrimp was cooked, and maybe adding cilantro if I had some. If no cilantro, I'd add something else that I like with those flavors, maybe lime? By the time I had mixed up the dressing, the mango might be perfectly thawed, maybe not. I might discover a carrot in the fridge, or some green onions, or half a yellow pepper. Sometimes I discover that I did not want half a yellow pepper in my shrimp mango salad. Then I either eat around the pepper and then finish those bites separately, or just eat the whole thing and make a mental note for later.

I guess what I'm taking a long time to say, is think about what you like in a meal, and have it with significantly less of the meat and a lot more veggies (and maybe some grains!), put it all in one bowl together, and call it salad.

I'm serious about the lettuce. It's not a requirement for salad.
posted by bilabial at 9:17 AM on March 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

I’ve found great salad recipes which have made me rethink salads, ingredients, ratios, etc entirely in Alison Roman’s cookbooks Nothing Fancy and Dining In.

You can also try Salt Fat Acid Heat, which has some good fundamental stuff.
posted by Hypatia at 9:20 AM on March 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Food Lab cookbook has a pretty good salad section. Good mix of recipes, tutorials, and guidelines.
posted by ripley_ at 9:26 AM on March 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Joshua McFadden's "Six Seasons" is not a book entirely about salads, but it's really great on creative ways to use vegetables. Great recipes, really thoughtful and useful commentary.

Here are some general salad thoughts from McFadden. You can find more of his recipes online with a little Googling.
posted by neroli at 9:29 AM on March 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

My vague salad formula:

Equal parts unctious stuff (oil, nut butter, yogurt, hummus, goat cheese etc.) + acidic or salty liquid (vinegar, lime juice, soy sauce) for dressings.

I use about 1 tablespoon dressing per 2 cups of base (I have never measured except by eye though.)

Two cups of base: whatever raw or cooked veggies, beans, and/or fruit you have kicking around.

For every two cups of base, I will often add a teaspoon worth of a dinger. The dinger is for things that are strong flavors in small doses. Chopped nuts, dried fruit, seeds, pickled ginger, feta.

Optional and hearty: per two cups base, add half a cup of protein.

I also like a nice shake of salt and pepper.
posted by prewar lemonade at 10:24 AM on March 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

2nding Salt Fat Acid Heat. The salad section changed my life.
posted by gnutron at 10:29 AM on March 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

I actually come from the other direction. I don't cook/make salads. Which is why I gave away my Mark Bittman's How to cook everything Vegetarian (this older edition can be had used for around 4 bucks!). It has a wonderful, looong salad section involving all different kinds, along with variations on a theme etc. If possible, get it from your local library and test it out before plonking money for it.

The friend I gave it to loves it.
posted by indianbadger1 at 10:35 AM on March 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

Salads are my kryptonite, too, despite otherwise being a competent cook.

Both Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and An Everlasting Meal changed the way I thought about salads. Like another poster said, I stopped thinking about salads as a delivery system for raw vegetables after I read An Everlasting Meal. I find myself not really wanting raw, green salads as much in the Winter, and I've given myself permission to not eat them unless I want them. I pretty consistently get enough vegetables in my diet, so I only make a salad if I have some ingredients that would make a nice one/complement a meal or if I specifically want a salad. I have almost entirely stopped doing the WASP meal formula I grew up with, which was always protein-based-entree/starch/salad, where the salad was romaine lettuce, some chopped up vegetables, and bottled dressing; was always the last thing sitting on my plate; and sometimes presented a barrier to getting a dessert. No wonder I thought I hated salad. If salad does not come naturally to you, or if you have these or other culturally-informed attitudes towards salads, I highly recommend reading one of the above books to shake up your ideas about what a salad is and can be.

If I do do a raw green salad, my own salad formula involves greens, no more than three add-in ingredients which should be tied together by a theme (season, region of the world, etc), and either a tahini based or red wine vinegar based dressing, unless the salad or meal specifically seems to call for something else. Care should be given to make sure this doesn't get soggy - think about the water content of the ingredients, and dress lightly, at the last minute. Don't forget that salads needs salt and pepper just like everything else.
posted by unstrungharp at 10:42 AM on March 10, 2020

My mental formula for dressing a salad: about equal parts oil and acid, lesser amounts of aromatics and and maybe mustard or honey as an emulsifier, something salty to taste.

1T best olive oil, 1T red wine vinegar, 1 clove garlic, 1tsp dijon. Whisk, taste, probably add more oil and a salt (anchovy paste maybe)

1/2 T canola oil, 1/2T sesame oil, juice of half a lime, shallot, dash soy sauce

1T canola oil, 1T rice vinegar, 1/4 of an onion, 4 baby carrots, 1tsp ginger root, 1tsp miso - put in blender until goopy

2T tahini, juice of one lemon, 1 clove garlic, chopped parsley. Taste and thin with water if too goopy.

What dressing goes where depends on what's in the veg drawer and what else is being served.
posted by bendybendy at 11:09 AM on March 10, 2020

I love Mediterranean Fresh for this! It has traditional leafy salads, grain salads, bread salads, etc. She breaks down many different ways to dress and change up salads which I appreciate!
posted by Mouse Army at 11:50 AM on March 10, 2020

I've mentioned before that Ottolenghi's recipes are an inspiration.
He always seems to use a gazillion ingredients and complicate things a lot. But I just adapt it to what is realistic for me, and it still works just fine. He has written several books and the ones I have are great.
That said, I feel you. I think I was traumatized by 1980's veganism. Or just 1980's food in general, I can't eat a quiche ever again. In my experience, going back to very simple classics got me back to enjoyment. A salad of lettuce and fresh green peas with a cream dressing is marvelous. Add in some blueberries for novelty and vitamins and you are on a roll.
Another classic with little effort but lots of taste is a duck breast salad. Starting from the principal in that you can go to a lot of combinations of grilled meat, fruit and veg.
posted by mumimor at 12:50 PM on March 10, 2020

How to Cook Without a Book has a section on salads. I don’t have it handy, but the whole idea is that the author equips you with formulas rather than recipes—so seems right up your alley. My apologies if this is a really obvious suggestion!
posted by saltypup at 2:30 PM on March 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

Mark Bitman is my goto for recipes combined with how to approach a food topic. How to Cook Everything is great cookbook reading and has a comprehensive section on Salad with lots of digressions and variations. There's a How to Cook Everything: Vegetarian that I had forgotten I had, with more salads.
posted by theora55 at 6:51 PM on March 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

This book is awesome and will put you on the right track... it's not just recipes, it's a general approach.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:31 AM on March 11, 2020

The beginning of Salad Love has basic structural salad framework, and then a salad a day for 365 days. It's very simple and straightforward and may not get intense enough for you, but pair it with Salt, Acid, Heat and I think you'll be good.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:14 PM on March 11, 2020

Salad dressing is key! Personally I don't like vinegars much unless there is sugar/honey in the dressing too. But I gobble up olive oil and lemon dressings or creamy ones with, e.g., tahini.

The ratio of oil to acid is important too. I prefer more oil, less acid, but many recipes call for 1:1 ratios. Experiment to find out what you like.

Dressing should ideally go in the bottom of the bowl, then add ingredients cut into chunks or small pieces, then any greens on top. Then toss. This allows the dressing to be more evenly incorporated onto all ingredients - and not too heavily on the greens.

Finally, chopped salads are great - all ingredients chopped to a uniform size. Different texture than a leafy salad.
posted by Red Desk at 12:08 AM on March 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

This article from Food & Wine has an even more explicit explanation of Red Desk's point about technique. I was surprised what a difference it made to my salads, even if I just used a bottled dressing. The sprinkle of salt just before tossing is a game-changer as well.
posted by slenderloris at 7:29 AM on March 13, 2020

Response by poster: Many thanks to those posting books that deal with abstracting what constitutes a good salad. For those posting specific recipes or techniques, I appreciate your assistance but that's not where I need help.
posted by bfranklin at 10:24 AM on March 14, 2020

Response by poster: Six Seasons has changed my salad game practically overnight. Really, it's changed how I think about vegetables in general. Many thanks, neroli.
posted by bfranklin at 2:02 PM on March 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

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