Killer Salads

Wow I have been gone a while, I do apologizes. Life really has gotten in the way of my blogging this month. How have you been? Is summer in full force were you live? It is gorgeous here in Toronto. The winters here are long and cold, but our amazing summers make up for it! I spend every moment that I can outside in an attempt to make up for all the winter months spent inside.

Here in Toronto a big part of our summer culture is patios. In fact, a lot of us refer to the warmer months as patio season. We spend lazy afternoons and evenings soaking up the heat of the sun in preparation for next winter's hibernation. Along with this comes sangria, beer, fried food and other not so healthy pub fair.  I try to fight summer weight gain by eating at home and just joining my friends for a couple patio drinks. This saves both my wallet and my waistline. This time of year at least one meal a day tends to come in the form of a salad.

Chances are you have been to a restaurant and have had an amazing salad, much better then you have ever managed to make at home. Since salads aren't cooked (or at least not usually) a lot a people get frustrated when they can't make restaurant worthy salads. So what makes a restaurant salad so good? And why is it that people will pay $15 for one on a patio when they could make it at home for a fraction of the price and enjoy it in a park on their lunch break? Well with a few simple guidelines you can make amazing salads. 

Let's start at the bottom, the base. What kind of salad are you going to make? Traditionally greens are used, which makes for a pretty healthy start. Depending on what flavor you are going for, and how long you need the salad to last, you have a huge amount of choice. Restaurants will often use mixed baby greens as the base for their green salads. These come pre-washed and ready to go at most grocery stores. As you all know I am a huge fan of kale, so I often used this as my salad base. It lasts longer than the baby greens and I find it more filling. To change things up I also like to use a mix of arugula (which is peppery) and baby spinach (which is high in iron). These are only a few options though, there are tons of different varieties of greens out there; Boston, iceberg, romaine, bib, and butter lettuce are just a few. You can also think outside the box as well, I have made great salads using broccoli or cabbage as a base.   

Now that you have the biggest part taken care of let's talk about the dressing. Make it from scratch. Salad dressings are super easy to make at home and will easily last for a week in your fridge, they are way more tasty then store bought versions and are cheaper. You can make your dressings creamy or thin, and in any flavor that you can imagine. I often will make a simple vinaigrette with herbs for a more basic salad (like this one), or a honey mustard dressing for a salad with fruit.

Since I eat salads as a meal and not just a side dish I like to add protein. Most of the time this isn't meat for me, but this is definitely an option is you aren't vegetarian. Growing up my mom would often add chopped ham, but these days I lean towards legumes, eggs and cheese. Canned beans are an easy way to make a salad more filling. A good example would be a salad with black beans, tomatoes, cheddar and a cilantro lime vinaigrette. I like adding chickpeas to my Greek salads to make them a bit heartier. Cheese is another protein to add. I put cheese into almost every salad that I make; Havarti with apples and spinach, Feta with tomatoes and cucumber, Gouda with pears and arugula... the list goes on and on.

It is important to balance the other flavors in your salads. There should be elements of sweet, sour, bitter and salty in you bowl. Often the greens will impart the bitterness, but the other ingredients need to balance out the rest. Some salad dressings will give the sour note, and fruit is a great way to add sweetness. Think outside the box here, salads don't have to be all vegetables. Briny olives or capers can add saltiness. Consider the size of what you add to the bowl here as well. Everything needs to be bite sized, you should never need a knife for a well made salad.

Texture is key to keeping your salad interesting, this is why so many places add croutons to their offerings. Personally I shy away from croutons and I try to get my crunch through other more flavorful means. My favorite way to add crunch to salads is with nuts and seeds; when toasted they add a great hit of flavor. I'll add creamy elements to my bowl with avocado or goat's cheese. Every bite should be a blend of textures and flavors to keep you interested down to the last forkful. 

Once you have all the basics down, go ahead and experiment. I enjoy using different blends of greens, or throwing an unexpected vegetable in the mix. If all else fails and I'm short on time I'll throw in a handful of broccoli slaw for a hit of flavor and nutrition. 

Here are some examples of salads you might not normally think of:

Arugula, pear, fennel, Havarti in a mustard vinaigrette

Celery, apple, raisins and walnuts with canned tuna in a mayonnaise based dressing 

Spinach, mandarin oranges and bacon 

Black beans, tomato, and roasted corn with a cumin dressing