This story is part ofCNET’s collection of simple tips to improve your life fast.
Lettuce boasting is not something to be taken for granted. But it’s easier to learn than most things.
A salad of boring, raw ingredients — lettuce, carrots, tomatoes — is a devalued side dish. We eat it because we think we should. To make the salad edible, we often smother it with a store-bought dressing that’s loaded with sugar and preservatives (we should actually be calling it “salad icing”).
I believe salads should be the main attraction of a meal or even the main course. The trick to making a tasty salad is variety – a variety of ingredients, flavors, textures and aromas. All you have to do is check a few cardinal rules and remember this formula: Very good salads contain a lot from flavors. It’s easy and it works.
Cardinal rules for preparing great salads
The most important principle for making salads healthy and actually appetizing? Be creative and bold. Now that you’ve mastered that, and before you start thinking about specific ingredients, here are a few rules to guide you on your way to preparing next-level salads.
Rule #1: Don’t just go raw
The foods you put in a salad don’t have to come straight from the cupboard, crisper drawer, or can. Think of all the techniques you can make with a single ingredient, from frying and toasting to marinating and pickling. Don’t add boring canned chicken to your salad — cook up fresh chicken breasts by poaching them in herbs and broth. Don’t throw in plain chickpeas—spice them up with oregano and pepper. Don’t use raw carrots — roast them first in olive oil and salt, or pickle them in vinegar and dill.
Rule #2: Consider multiple textures and flavors
A good salad always has a range of tasty ingredients, as well as a strong balance of textures: creamy, crunchy, chewy and firm. Think bite with the crunch of a walnut, the smoothness of goat cheese, the juiciness of a pear and the fragility of arugula. That same bite also brings an explosion of contrasting flavors: earthy, rich, sweet and bitter.
Rule #3: Add spices and fresh herbs
If you don’t add flavoring to a salad, you’ve missed an opportunity. Even a little salt and pepper on your veggies can excite the taste buds. Also, consider throwing in a pinch of cumin, garlic salt, or a salad seasoning mix. Or even better, freshly chopped parsley, basil, dill, oregano, or cilantro.
Rule #4: Make your own acid-based dressing
Any good salad balances fat and protein with some sort of vinegar or citrus juice. There are many great homemade dressing recipes out there, but you can also make a simple dressing using just oil, vinegar, and spices. To make it even better, add some honey, mustard, tahini, or fresh herbs. You can also “dress up” a complex salad with a squeeze of lemon or a drizzle of your favorite vinegar—whether it’s balsamic, apple cider, rice, or red wine vinegar—and it’ll still taste delicious.
Select ingredients from these categories
Now that you have read the basic rules of salad preparation, we can start choosing our ingredients.
Remember those mnemonic devices that helped us memorize the sequence of mathematical operations (PEMDAS) or the order of the planets (My Very Excellent Mom Just Served Us Noodles)? You can apply the same idea here, where the first letter of each word stands for a different category of salad components: Very good salads contain a lot from flavorsor VGSCPF.
The trick is to choose ingredients from the six categories here. If you are restricted by a dietary restriction, simply choose something from a different category as a substitute. Feel free to add multiple ingredients from any category as long as she feel you get a strong range of flavors. The goal is to have at least six ingredients (or up to 10) in each salad.
Think hearty veggies like cauliflower, corn, green beans, asparagus, or squash. Don’t forget root vegetables like beets, carrots, sweet potatoes, and jicama, or lighter veggies like mushrooms, cabbage, and fennel.
Leafy greens are usually the base of your salad. There are so many options to choose from, all appealing to different taste preferences — spinach, arugula, kale, mixed leafy greens, iceberg lettuce, radicchio, and romaine lettuce.
This is how you get the crunch you need. Add sunflower seeds, peanuts, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, almonds, pistachios, sesame or cashew nuts.
C: Cheese (or Crisp)
Try adding some goat cheese, parmesan shavings, feta, blue cheese, or Mexican cotija cheese. You can be flexible in this category as some people don’t eat dairy. If dairy is off limits, substitute something crunchy like tortilla chips, plantain chips, rice chips, or croutons.
A protein makes your salad a solid main course, so add some chicken, grilled steak, shredded pork, or salmon. If you’re a vegetarian, go with broccoli or tofu. Grains like quinoa are just as high in protein as legumes like lentils, peas and kidney beans, chickpeas or black beans.
You’re probably eating more fruit in your salad than you realize. Avocados, cucumbers, tomatoes, and butternut squash are fruits, although they like to disguise themselves as vegetables. If you want your salad to have some sweet bites, add grapes, strawberries, apples, tangerines, dates, dried cranberries, or raisins.
So does this salad formula actually work?
Yes! I tested my salad formula by comparing some of my recipes to menu items from popular salad chains like Sweetgreen, Chopt, and Tender Greens. I also tested the formula with friends – they all gave me 5 stars on the “Salad Swagger Meter”.
Here are some incredible salads I made recently. Feel free to replicate these recipes and add your own variations or substitutions.
Mexican steak salad
Sliced Jicama (V), Romaine (G), Roasted Pumpkin Seeds (S), Cotija Cheese (C), Tortilla Chips (C), Grilled Steak (P), Garlic Black Beans (P), Sliced Avocado (F). Extra Flavor: Freshly chopped cilantro and lime-based vinaigrette.
Salmon Superfood Salad
Marinated Beets (V), Roasted Sweet Potatoes (V), Kale (G), Sunflower Seeds (S), Feta (C), Poached Salmon (P), Pomegranate Seeds (F). Extra Flavor: Ginger-based vinaigrette.
Sesame Chicken Salad
Shredded Carrots (V), Shredded Cabbage (V), Chopped Spring Onions (V), Butter Salad (G), Peanuts (S), Wantan Chips (C), Grilled Chicken (P), Edamame Beans (P), Mango ( F ). Extra flavor: freshly chopped mint and coriander and a sesame-based dressing.
Chopped Summer Salad
Grilled Corn (V), Iceberg Lettuce (G), Pistachios (S), Goat Cheese (C), Fried Chicken (P), Bacon (P), Apples (F), Cherry Tomatoes (F). Extra flavor: fresh basil and parsley and a lemon-based vinaigrette.
Celery (V), Pickled Red Onions (V), Arugula (G), Marcona Almonds or Walnuts (S), Blue Cheese (C), Poached Chicken (P), Quinoa (P), Grapes (F). Extra Flavor: Cider Vinaigrette.
Vegetarian feel-good salad
Marinated carrots (V), spinach (G), roasted almonds (S), beet chips (C), spiced lentils (P), chickpeas (P), roasted broccoli (P), grilled butternut squash (F). Extra Flavor: Creamy ranch yogurt with vinegar-based dressing.
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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions about a medical condition or health goals.
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