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.
Pasta and Grain Salads
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 chicken makes a great salad.