That that don't kill me, can only make me stronger. I need you to hurry up now, cause I can't wait much longer. Kanye West, Stronger

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Art of Salad Making

Several readers have asked me about salads, and I have to say salad making is an art. The proper combinations of creamy, crunchy, sweet, bitter, acidic, and rich paired with a stunning dressing can make each salad a sumptuous meal. Conversely, over doing it with way too many ingredients or under doing by limiting the beautiful potential of vegetables can turn one off to salads rather quickly.

I could probably post pages upon pages about salads, but I will do my best to be as succinct as possible!
I have pretty much always loved salads, but two women in particular taught me the art of salad making, and I would love to share the lessons I have learned, and where you can get more detail too.

Reading Raw Food Real World by Sarma Melngalis taught me how to balance flavors and textures, after a few weeks of using her techniques all I ever wanted to eat was salad--at least one massive one a day. Obviously I can't copy the amazing passage on salad making directly, but I will leave you with a few great quotes and a summary of the advice. Read the book for more info and recipes.

"We think salads are a great opportunity for creativity because you can easily combine many ingredients, and because you can unite so many varying textures and flavors and get them all in one bite...Constructing salads is easy but keep in mind that some factors do apply to making a great salad. Think of them as vegetable sundaes..." Raw Food Real World page 99.

The most important rules are to make sure you balance your flavors and textures. Contrast acidic ingredients like balsamic and citrus fruits with rich, creamy ingredients like avocados or goat cheese. You might use a soft mild lettuce like butter lettuce with a crunchy sharp vegetables and nuts.

Aim to have a delicate balance of:
- acid/citrus
-tart/bitter with sweet
-chewy/crunchy with smooth
-salty/watery or juicy ingredients--celtic sea salt tends to balance and intensify flavors in recipes.
You don't need every single one of these elements in each, but having some contrasts in texture and depths of flavor makes salad more interesting.
Sundried tomatoes, heirloom Tomatoes, goat cheese (raw of regular), with fresh basil and oregano, red and green peppers, cucumber and jicama tossed with balsamic and some sea salt, is a delicious example. You might not need to include all of those ingredients, but I wanted to give options. There are so many textures: crunchy, creamy, crisp, and chewy, and flavors rich, salty, spicy, acidic.
Here's one last classic example: Pecan crusted goat/gorgonzola cheese with pears and dried cherries and balasamic. So you have got a rich creamy cheese contrasting a sweet juicy fruit, crunchy nutty pecans, and tart/sweet/chewy dried cherries, balanced with acid from the dressing.

Remember that your choose of base greens in limitless, you can find soft lettuces like mesclun, peppery greens like arugula, watery ones like romaine, bold flavors like spinach, bitter ones such as chard or kale, and sweet, substantial bases like shredded cabbages. Research and explore your options they all offer different benefits. Personally I love baby spinach and purple cabbage.

For one of my favorite salads look here, for one of Sarma's favorites look here. (I was really into raw a while back, but I found that I needed more balance in my life although clearly I enjoy raw food.)

Rule number two, you are creating a salad not a chopped meal. This is from Natalia Rose. Her books are worth buying for the salad recipes alone, totally amazing!

While many restaurants chop up a meal throw it on lettuce and call it a salad. A really salad consists of mainly vegetables with one or two other elements like a protein or nuts. If you are eating a salad with lettuce, chicken, cheese, beans and croutons, you are not going to feel light energized and radiant afterwards.

Which brings me to my third tip. Limit your salads to one or two fatty items, such as avocado (which I encourage you to try until you love. It took me a long time, but they are amazing for you! To start, make sure they are the perfect ripeness (too hard and they taste like soap) and spread them on whole grain toast--then tell me you don't love them!) cheese, nuts, or dressing. Although when you are starting don't worry too much about the dressing, if it makes you love salad and it is made of high quality ingredients, you should digest it seamlessly. That being said you need at least one fat to keep you full and to digest the fat soluble vitamins in vegetables. Fat is really essential to feel all the amazing effects of the nutrients you are consuming.

Keep ingredients to around 5. Too many more than that and you start to lose the individual tastes. I count cucumber, jicama and diakon radish as freebies.

Tip four, add sweet, juicy and chewy and you will be diving in for more. When I started adding mango to my salad, I couldn't get enough. Juicy fruits like mango, kiwi and grapefruit makes salads refreshing, hydrating and uber delicious.
Apples and pears make them crunchy and hearty.

The vast array of dried fruits like golden raisins, dried cherries, etc. add a great sweet flavor and chewy texture that is just divine. Corn is also a great sweet, chewy addition, fresh not canned!

If you are confused on salty-sea vegetables, dulse, many seeds, corn, tomatoes, cheeses are just a few examples of salty.

Now that you now how to make salads sinfully delicious through flavor combinations, here are some tips to keep you full and lean:

Start with your leafy base
-add 3+ fresh vegetables, with no more than one starchy-like corn or peas
-add protein of choice
-add fat
-add an optional fun ingredient, such as nuts, fresh/dried fruit, or other item you love-1-2 TBSP.
-somethings, like laughing cow cheese fall into many categories (protein, fat, creamy) so you can get some bang for your buck and a nice dressing as well.
-Nuts and dried fruits go very well together with an all vegetable salad, so think of nuts as your fat/protein and dried fruit as your fun item. Top with balsamic, agave, or a fruity dressing like the All Natural Maple Grove Farms ones.

If that's not enough to get you started, I went through the menus of some NYC restaurants that make great salads (Chopt, tossed, FreeFoods NYC, benvenuto, Angelica Kitchen, Candle 79, Caravan of Dreams--look them up on menupages or google them for full menus, I was too lazy to include all the links!)and listed them as ideas for you to make your own! Some may not follow all the rules, but I tried to pick ones that came close.

Summer Salad with Strawberry Balsamic Vinaigrette baby field greens, roasted corn, grape tomatoes, cucumber, golden raisins, strawberries, homemade plantain chips.

Chopped Greek with Two Virgins baby field greens, grape tomatoes, cucumber, kalamata olives, feta, fresh peppers, red onion.

Garden Salad baby field greens, grape tomatoes, cucumber, shredded carrots, golden raisins, sunflower seeds.

Spinach Salad With Balsamic Vinaigrette baby spinach, shiitake mushrooms, roasted portobello, roasted sweet onions, toasted hazelnuts, homemade croutons.

Chop't Ten Vegetable iceberg lettuce, grilled asparagus, green peas, hearts of palm, carrots, broccoli, beets, white mushrooms, cucumbers, tomatoes and corn we recommend chop't secret house blend

Teriaki Shrimp a blend of spinach and romaine lettuces, carrots, slivered almonds, real oranges, snow peas.

Sea Caesar crisp romaine lettuce tossed with creamy garlic dressing. Topped with seasoned sourdough croutons, a sprinkle of smoked dulse & nori strips

Orchard mesclun lettuces, apple, toasted pecans, dried bing cherries & sourdough croutons; tossed in a rosemary vinaigrette

Mixed Sprout a refreshing toss of snow pea shoots, sunflower sprouts & seeds, & mint; mixed with cabbage, daikon & carrots in a cool mint vinaigrette. Adorned with toasted peanuts, onion sprouts & watercress

Balsamic roasted cherry tomatoes & basil marinated chickpeas, over local greens tossed with extra virgin olive oil, fresh squeezed lemon juice, & coarse sea salt.

Baby Greens Salad baby greens, cranberry beans, roasted butternut squash, quinoa, avocado, toasted sunflower seeds, poblano dressing

Roasted Beet Salad mache, arugula, beets, baby carrots, haricots verts, ginger gold apples, fennel, toasted pecans, vanilla-fig dressing

Formaggio Di Capra E Noci pistachio encrusted goal cheese, beets and seasoned pecans, on a bed of arugula, endive and radicchio

Final notes: The salad above is a mix of all kinds of romaines and rainbow chards, carrots, snow peas, kiwi, a sprinkle of pure food and wine cheesy raw crackers (to make it more fun for you guys), cucumber, and cherry tomatoes. After I dressed it lightly with Newman's Light Honey Dijon. I served it fage mixed with cinnamon and strawberries.


Leslie said...

You are SO sweet and I can't wait to read this post! :)

Nicole said...

This post was so informative! You are right, it is an art. I've tried the green tea yogurt, while, I didn't like it, it really had more to do with the fact that I don't like greek type yogurts than the actual yogurt itself. It's a very mild flavor, so if you like fage, I am sure you will like it as well. I don't like fage.

Since you eat a mostly (maybe completely?) vegetarian lifestyle and are health conscious do you cook your own veggie burgers, soups,granola bars etc? I always feel guilty purchasing pre-packaged veggie burgers, granola bars etc knowing that I should be making them myself, rather than buy artificial stuff. If not, which brands do you recommend? I know people love kashi, but they put so much soy in all their products, which I am allergic to :(

Lisa said...

Those books look interesting, what made you decide to be a raw foodist (or at least so into it)? How did your family react? My family does not totally accept my decision to be a vegetarian.

Melissa said...

Hi Lisa,

I don't make my own veggie burgers or granola bars.

I have never been a big fake meat person. I recently tried eggplant burgers by Dominex, they were pretty good but they do have soy. Maybe you can find a restaurant or store that has grain-based veggie burgers and ask to buy several to freeze. Hungry-girl had a homemade veggie burger up yesterday, maybe you could try that recipe.

My favorite non-soy bars are lara, think organic and gnu.

Thanks for the heads up on the yogurt!

Lisa-I became interested in raw food (I'm not a raw foodist)when I took a job as a hostess at Pure Food and Wine. I wasn't a vegetarian than and had no intention of becoming one. However, a few months in I had done enough reading about the health myths of the meat industry put out by sponsoring goverment organizations, the horrible treatment of animals, and the effects of huge farms on the enviroment,plus how amazing a plant based diet could be. So I stopped eating all meats and most dairy. Now that I don't work there it is harder to eat tons of raw. I also added fish. I try to be very particular about researching my dairy sources, but I should do better.

I haven't lived with my family for a long time, so they weren't very effected by it. It bothers me that they don't have options for me on holidays, but I make a delicious veggie dish for everyone. I don't preach my beliefs, unless provoked, in which case a few lines from Diet for a New America shuts everyone up.

Nicole said...


I read your answer to the post below as well, that's really interesting and cool that you worked at a raw food restaurant- I doubt my city even has a raw food restuarant!

Thanks for the bar suggestions. I guess my question also was do you feel guilty buying prepackaged items? I always do even though I really am not that into cooking, it's just all processed foods put so many additives and preservatives in them-even the natural food brands!