What makes a great salad? Fresh, crisp produce. What makes a salad extraordinary? Balance and surprise.
Salads prove best when composed with in-season produce. There’s a wide selection of citrus in large supermarkets now. That means I can add wedges of satsuma mandarins, slices of grapefruit and blood orange to my salad and Meyer lemon in the dressing.
As for the greens, I turn to Deborah Madison for help understanding endive. These are greens with sturdy leaves and slightly bitter flavors, delicious for pairing with citrus. Most of us can find plump heads of Belgian endive and magenta-red Chioggia radicchio. It’s more unusual to find Treviso — those oblong heads that taste milder than Chioggia radicchio. Curly endive and escarole tend to be readily available, but require just the right dressing to counter their bitter toughness.
I employ vinegars with deep flavor, strong cheese and rich toppings such as toasted nuts, smoked ham, hard-cooked eggs.
Another favorite salad combines roast chicken with pickles. Yes, chicken salad can be relevant during chillier weather. The trick is to serve the combination without chilling it as we do in summer. Plus, a bit of smoky chipotle in the dressing warms up everything.
The key to good chicken salad is using top-notch chicken, of course. In a pinch, I’ll use a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store and pull the meat away from the skin and bones. However, most rotisserie chickens tend to have a mushy texture and dry meat.
Better is homemade roasted chicken — there’s no prep time, just oven time. So, when I’m roasting chicken for Sunday dinner, I make an extra for weeknight cooking. One small chicken yields about 4 cups of shredded meat.
For super-moist chicken, I poach boneless skinless pieces in chicken broth. It takes less than 15 minutes to poach chicken this way and the texture is worth the time. A bonus: Flavorful poaching liquid to use in soups or stews later or season with salt and a pinch of curry powder for a liquid, low-calorie snack.
Tips to make a salad great
Homemade dressing: The single best way to improve your salads is to blend a few ingredients in a jar for a superior-tasting, low-sugar, no-preservative topping. Dressings can range from vinegar and oil to more elaborate concoctions with cream, fresh herbs or interesting spices. Homemade vinaigrettes and salad dressings keep well in the refrigerator — a week or so for cream-based, longer for simple vinaigrettes. Use them at room temperature for maximum flavor and palatability.
Freshness: Think freshness from crisp salad greens, crunchy green onions and perfectly ripe tomatoes when in season.
Crunch: Nuts and croutons, obviously, but other options include crisp apples, raw root vegetables such as diced kohlrabi, shredded beets, carrot curls and paper-thin radish slices.
Richness: This could come from a delicious olive oil drizzle, shreds or cubes of cheese, avocado chunks or bits of cooked bacon. A tiny portion of cream, yogurt or sour cream added to a vinaigrette enriches a salad with minimal calories.
Acid: Brighten any salad, any season, with delicious vinegar. I change it up a bit by keeping a stash of cider, malt, sherry, red and white wine vinegars and balsamic vinegars (affordable bottles of red and white as well as a more expensive aged balsamic for judicious drizzling). Fresh lemon, lime and grapefruit juices and bottled yuzu can also form the base of a great vinaigrette.
Salt: Yes, salt can make or break a salad. Most vegetables benefit from a little salt to enhance their natural flavors. Salt can also come in the form of shredded or grated aged cheese, such as Romano or Parmesan.
Protein: Even a side salad offers more long-lasting satisfaction with a bit of protein added. This can be as simple as a few nuts or shreds of cheese. Wedges of hard cooked-egg and canned beans, along with their low cost, have the benefit of adding unique texture. With a bit of planning, diced or shredded fully cooked meat, poultry and seafood make a salad a main-dish contender
Surprise: One surprising ingredient can ward off salad boredom no matter the season. In cold months, clementine or grapefruit segments, sliced olives and diced pickled vegetables prove welcome in just about any salad. During the growing season, I add slices of ripe tomatoes and peaches, asparagus tips and sliced stalks, fresh peas in or out of the pod, ripe berries and shaved summer squash.