Salads were once relegated to small bowls of lettuce served as first courses while you anticipated the “real” meal that followed. As the world became more health conscious, ingredients became more varied and complex and salads gained stature. Lettuce varieties evolved and exotic greens once only served at restaurants became available at retail markets.
Today you can create hundreds of salads with a myriad of vegetables, fruits, meat, poultry, and seafood, incorporate pasta and grains into recipes, and dress them with light vinaigrettes or creamy dressings to serve as side dishes or satisfying entrees.
Salad green varieties such as arugula, radicchio, mesclun, chicory, and mizuna are great mixed with conventional greens like romaine, escarole, watercress, and spinach for starter or main meal salads. They have distinct flavors ranging from peppery to slightly sweet and more delicate leaves and stems than conventional lettuce. Add color and texture to green salads with grape, cherry, or diced beefsteak tomatoes in shades of red and yellow. Thinly sliced English cucumbers provide a cleansing freshness to salads, have minimal seeds, and require no peeling. Diced red and yellow bell peppers highlight the tastes of the greens with their subtle sweetness, and thin slices of radish add flavor and color. Chopped scallions add a bit of zip to each bite. Super size a green salad and top it with ham, chicken, and cheese for a traditional Chef’s Salad or chop all the ingredients into small pieces and build a beautiful Cobb Salad.
Add unconventional fruits such as mango, papaya, kiwi, tangelo, dragon fruit, and kumquat to more traditional kinds of fruit like apples, pear, bananas, melon, pineapple, blueberries, strawberries, and peaches for a fruit salad that bursts with different tastes and textures. Instead of dressing the entire salad, serve several varieties of dips and sauces on the side to treat your taste buds to a fruit smorgasbord of tart, sweet, and savory combinations. Serve the fruit on a bed of peppery arugula and top it with toasted pecans, walnuts, slivered almonds, or pine nuts or sprinkle the fruit with a seed combination of sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, and alfalfa seeds. For added flavor, briefly roast the seeds in the oven or on the stovetop beforehand.
Macaroni and rice salads are substantial enough to serve as main courses and are best made ahead of time to let the flavors marry. Use elbow, fusilli, small shell, rotini, pennette, or other short pastas to catch all the taste of the dressing and mix red and green colored pasta to give the dish more visual appeal. Pasta salads are delicious with diced raw or roasted vegetables mixed in and pasta pairs well with canned tuna, cooked baby shrimp and crab chunks as well as cubed ham, crisp bacon, and shredded meat or poultry. Select herbs and spices give pasta salads an Italian or Mexican flair. Leftover white, brown, or wild rice is easy to transform into a hearty salad by mixing it with dried, cooked beans, vegetables, fresh herbs, cheese, meat, seafood, and poultry. Spice it simply with salt and pepper or add flavor layers with curry powder, ground cumin, or saffron.
Diced, chilled chicken breast is the perfect base for a simple appetizer salad with grapes, apples, and walnuts tossed with a mixture of sweetened mayonnaise and sour cream. For a satisfying lunch or dinner chicken salad, make a big green salad and top it with leftover roasted or barbecued chicken. For a unique Buffalo chicken salad, dress chilled chicken pieces with hot pepper sauce and toss with lettuce, sliced celery, carrots, and blue cheese dressing. If you like a bit of sweetness with your chicken, try a peach chicken salad or turn a classic Caesar salad into a meal with roast chicken topping. Leftover boneless fried chicken adds magnificent taste and texture to a bowl of greens and fresh vegetables.
Sliced leftover steak turns a tossed green salad into a meal and is especially satisfying with a handful of crisp, hot French fries on top. Pulled pork is scrumptious piled atop a plate of mixed greens and dressed with a creamy sweet and sour salad dressing such as French or Catalina. Instead of having a BLT for lunch, forego the bread, add extra chunks of ripe tomato to a green salad, and top with big pieces of crisply cooked bacon. A simple dressing of mayonnaise thinned with a little milk and lots of freshly ground black pepper are the perfect finishing touches.
Crab Louie is the king of seafood salads, dating back to the 1900s where it reportedly was invented in San Francisco, California. It is traditionally served on a platter lined with romaine lettuce with crab meat down the center and flanked with hard cooked eggs, steamed, chilled asparagus, and English cucumber slices. Conventional Crab Louie dressings include Thousand Island, Green Goddess, or Louie dressing made with mayonnaise and chili sauce. Shrimp and lobster are good crab substitutes. A more economical but equally delicious seafood salad has drained chunks of canned solid albacore tuna on top of mixed greens and fresh garden vegetables.