A few years ago, I decided to eat a salad for lunch at least 5 days a week. It’s a great way to make sure you get a lot of vegetables, and if you do it right, it’s very satisfying. I didn’t want to do Bittman’s “vegan before 6pm” diet, but this is a similar approach. It also takes a lot of the guesswork out of what I’ll have for lunch on any given day. I usually make my own. If you’re on the go, Fit & Fresh makes a very convenient shaker container with a dressing compartment and a removable ice pack.
For me, a salad is at minimum: a green leafy vegetable (lettuce or spinach), cucumber, some sort of tomato, and dressing. Everything else is optional, but I try to mix in at least one ingredient from the following categories. The key is getting a range of interlocking textures and complementary flavors. Buy the best ingredients you can find.
Lettuce: I usually use a heartier crunchy lettuce (romaine) or a greens mix. Local greens are always preferable, and you can still find farmers who do greenhouse greens in the winter. People will tell you not to cut lettuce but to tear it up with your hands. I don’t find that it makes a difference either way. Always rinse lettuce a few times in a salad spinner and then soak it in very cold water for 5-10 minutes before drying and using it. Unwashed lettuce will usually last about a week in the fridge if it’s fresh. Washed lettuce may last 2-3 days – store it in an airtight container with a folded paper towel to absorb excess moisture. If there isn’t good lettuce to be found, baby spinach makes a nice alternative. You can wash grape or cherry tomatoes with the lettuce.
Cucumber: Local is always better. Generally, the smaller varieties will have more flavor and crunch – I usually use kirbys or small pickling cucumbers. Peel any cucumbers that have been shipped loose – they’re coated with a paraffin layer to protect them.
Tomato: If local tomatoes are in season, use the big ones, preferably heirlooms. They’ll dominate the salad, and when they’re in season that’s probably fine. Otherwise, tomatoes for salad should always be the smaller cherry or grape tomatoes. Out of peak season, these are the only ones that are tolerable, and they get less so as the winter wears on. I usually include them anyway for some color and texture.
Other vegetables: Depending on my mood, I’ll include some diced red, orange or yellow pepper (but almost never green – I’m not that fond of bitter flavors). Cooked beets add a nice sweetness if you like them. Shredded carrots can be nice, but I usually find their flavor too strong. To the detriment of my breath, I’ve been cursed with whatever Eastern European gene causes me to crave raw red onions, especially in the winter. In the summer, I like to use raw local corn.
Animal Protein: I often omit the animal proteins for side salads, but without them it doesn’t really feel like a meal, so I always include at least one in my lunch salads – a hard boiled egg (use eggs that are 2-4 weeks old, start in cold water, bring to a boil, cover, let sit for 8-9 mins, shock in ice water), crumbled bacon, diced leftover chicken or steak, or a few cooked shrimp (thaw frozen shrimp in water, then boil for 3 minutes and shock in ice water).
Fruit: In the summer, this will be a sliced peach or plum, in the fall it’ll be apple or pear. Dried fruits work well – raisins or cranberries. Raisins pair well with honey mustard dressing and bright vinaigrettes, cranberries go better with creamy dressings.
Cheese: I usually avoid cheese, but I have a periodic craving for the combination of blue cheese, roasted garlic vinaigrette, beets, and nuts. I think most cheese doesn’t mix well with dressing, but there are a few combinations that work.
Dressing: My favorite dressing of all time is Brianna’s Poppy Seed Dressing. It’s creamy and thick, and goes with just about everything, and is the exception to my belief that most bottled dressings aren’t very good. I also like some varieties of honey mustard, or I’ll make a vinaigrette. In the summer, I like to make a vinaigrette with a bold raspberry vinegar. Use whatever you like. I’d avoid lowfat dressings, because they generally don’t taste very good. You’re eating a salad instead of a chalupa! You can have a little fat.
Crunch: I like to include at least one crunchy element – croutons or slightly toasted (300F for 6-8 mins) walnuts or pecans. If you buy croutons instead of making your own, look for those without HFCS.
A few suggestions:
My standard winter salad: romaine lettuce, persian pickling cucumbers, grape tomatoes, sliced red onion, diced cold chicken/bacon/hardboiled egg, croutons, dried cranberries, poppy dressing.
My alternate salad: mixed green lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion, shrimp, crumbled bacon, diced beets, croutons, plus either raisins and honey mustard dressing or crumbled blue cheese and roasted garlic vinaigrette.
My favorite summer salad: mixed green/red lettuce, cucumbers, heirloom tomatoes, sliced red onion, sliced cold skirt/flank steak, raw corn, sliced peaches, croutons, poppy dressing.
Suggest some of your favorites in the comments or on twitter.