Friday, March 27, 2009

The Wonderful World of Salad

I recently had a request (that's right, I'm kind of a big deal) to post some recipes on the site that are quick and translate well into the following day's lunch. My first thought was, "What do I eat for lunch?" The answer is almost invariably, "Salad." But before you give up and stop reading, hear me out. I'm not talking about the lifeless, near-green iceberg lettuce of your corner deli or the prepackaged, preprocessed meats and cheeses in your average lunch facility. I'm talking about a legitimate mid-day meal that is satisfying, and allows you to really enjoy foods in their natural state.  In fact, I used to get excited when David would be gone during dinner so I could just make myself a salad. I got tired of waiting for him to have plans, so I started making him eat salads too. David actually now loves salad night. I hope I haven't just impugned his manhood. 

The thing that makes salad a great lunch meal is that it can be prepared in no time, even the night before, and stashed in your work fridge until you're ready for it. I even have some tricks for making it perfectly portable, and some serious strategy about how to make this concoction your own. Don't worry, there will be lunch-friendly posts in the future. But before I get in the kitchen, here's something to hold you over.  

Ok, making a really good salad. As I see it, there are 6, maybe 7, components (I told you there was strategy):
  1. The Lettuce -- you have many, many options on this front. I am a simple girl, and I almost always go with romaine. I find it is crunchy and substantial enough to make me feel like I just had lunch, not the precursor to what should be lunch. Green and red leaf are too soft for this purpose; those mesclun mixes, watercress, and arugula--while they have their places--do not a meal make.  Baby spinach, on the other hand, can be quite substantial. 
  2. The Vegetables -- this is where you get creative. Anything that can be eaten raw can go on a salad. Anything that must be cooked, can be cooked ahead of time and put on a salad. For me, this is always dependent on what lurks in our vegetable drawer. I like at least 3–4 different vegetables at a time. Also grains are good ... got some leftover barley or wheat berries? Toss them in! 
  3. The Sweet/Juicy -- an important element of the overall equation. I like to add at least one item to the salad that brightens it up, maybe it's tomatoes, maybe it's apple, pear, or plum chunks, maybe it's raisins or other dried fruit. 
  4. The Cheese -- cheese adds a soft, creamy note to the party. (Warning, life-lecture impending) Do me a favor and buy real cheese. This means that, instead of the 8-oz block of factory cheddar, maybe you choose the 4-oz gouda with herbs. Make a choice to purchase quality over quantity in your food, when possible. Not only will you be sophisticating your palette, you will be encouraging the production of small-batch cheeses, and you're less likely to pound through it mindlessly if it's dearer to your wallet. 
  5. The Kick -- onions, usually, or peppers. I like thinly sliced red or green onions. And always, always salt and pepper. 
  6. The Protein (optional) -- if I have leftover meat in the fridge or something that really needs to be cooked (and can be done quickly), I'll usually throw it on. Nuts and beans are good choices here, or a hard-boiled egg, which makes an appearance on many of my salads. 
  7. The Dressing -- Keep 2 types of dressing on hand: a vinegar-base and a creamy one. You can even make these yourself. That way, no matter what your vegetable drawer spits at you, the resulting salad with have an appropriate dressing. Also stash different kinds of vinegars (as well as lemons) for an easy splash.  
Now, the combination of above items can be tricky, especially when the dressing shows up. Take care, and learn what you like. Trial and error is likely, but you'll get the hang of it. If it helps, think of regions: Classic Americana (tomato, cucumber, celery, cheddar, ranch), Californian (apples, walnuts, green onions, blue cheese); Asian (carrots, edamame, cabbage, green onions, rice vinegar); Italian (tomatoes, peppers, feta or parmesan, vinaigrette); Mexican (carrots, corn, black beans, onions, monty jack, cilantro); vaguely European (potatoes, green beans, hard boiled egg, swiss cheese, vinaigrette). 

Two final bits of wisdom: Don't be afraid to use lots of different ingredients in a single salad, but don't use a ton. Maybe you only need half a carrot and celery stick, a couple of cauliflower florets, a quarter of a tomato and 3–4 walnuts. And secondly, texture is key. Mix slimy roasted red peppers with crunchy celery or mushy leftover sweet potatoes with crisp, toasted pecans. Really, the secret is variety, so you don't get bored after 2 bites. 

Time-saving tips:
  • Buy your lettuce, bring it home, wash and chop it, then store it in a zipper bag in your fridge. Instant handfuls of romaine at your disposal. It's like the bagged mixes, only cheaper. 
  • Wash everything when you bring it home from the grocery. This way, you can just pull and chop at will. 

 Tips for making your salad office-friendly:
  • Invest in two or three appropriately sized snap-lid containers. My favorites happen to be salvaged from chinese takeout. You want something long and low, so you can fork around and get all the goods, not eat in layers. 
  • Likewise, buy or steal some plastic forks to get the salad from your plate to your mouth. 
  • Buy a box of fold-top sandwich bags. Squeeze a tablespoon of dressing into one corner, tie a knot in the baggie, and slip it in your tupperware. Pop it open when you're ready to eat.
  • Round out the meal with a piece of bread (with which I like to sop up the leftover dressing). 

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