The Salad Whisperer

Remember that scene in “City Slickers” where everyone has just finished eating dinner and the “Ice Cream Brothers” (who I suspect were not-so-loosely-based on Ben and Jerry) decide what flavor would be best for dessert?

Well, I’m kinda like that.  Except my specialty is side salads.  Give me the main course – fish, beef, chicken, turkey, grilled, roasted, steamed, whatever, and I can create the perfect side salad.  (I also make a pretty mean main course salad, just ask every co-worker I’ve ever shared a lunchroom with since 2001.)   I “invented” the cranberry-goat cheese-mixed green-candied walnut-salad long before it was on every menu from Applebee’s to Wendy’s.

Obviously with my commitment to seasonality the available ingredients have changed a bit over the years, but my mental process is still the same – I picture the flavors of the meal then decide what salad would go best.  And I also have a simple trick: no more than 5-6 ingredients, including the greens and dressing.  I’ve found that the best side salads are the simplest because they highlight the ingredients both individually and as a whole.

Summer is my favorite time to make salads for a few reasons:  1) it’s usually so hot outside the last thing I want to eat are hot, heavy foods, and 2) there are so many ingredients from which to choose.  I really like using fruit because it’s typically an unexpected ingredient.  Nectarines, peaches, watermelon and berries all make awesome additions to the salad.  Cucumbers and tomatoes are in abundant supply.  The variety of available greens are staggering, (at least at my farmers market.)

One of my favorite early-summer salads is arugula, blueberries, feta, red onion, pine nuts and balsamic vinaigrette.  At the height of summer I love making a watermelon, feta and basil salad with a rice wine vinaigrette. And as summer is just winding down, I take advantage of last summer greens and toss them with the freshest tomatoes, VERY LIGHTLY sauteed summer squash and fresh mozzarella.

In the winter, I tend to load up more on cheeses, dried fruit and nuts.  Parmesan, blue cheese, dried apricots or cranberries and almonds, walnuts and pecans are great in cold weather salads.  Plus, the ingredients are usually easier to find.

At the risk of divulging all of my trade secrets (should I ever actually get around to opening a lunch counter,)  Here is a quick “cheater list” of basic ingredients:

Greens -arugula, green leaf lettuce, red leaf lettuce, kale, cabbage

Proteins -diced chicken, fresh bacon bits, hard-boiled eggs, cooked shrimp

Cheese -feta, fresh mozzarella, Parmesan, blue cheese, goat

Fruit -peaches, nectarines, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, watermelon, pineapple, tomato

Dried Fruit -cranberries, apricots, raisins

Vegetables -cucumber, celery, carrot, red/yellow pepper, red onion, green onion, sprouts

Dressings -rice wine vinaigrette, balsamic vinaigrette, grape seed oil, olive oil

Nuts – pine nuts, almonds, pecans, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds

Try mixing and matching 5-6 ingredients and don’t be afraid to experiment!

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2 comments on “The Salad Whisperer

  1. Susan Weisberger
    June 1, 2011 at 10:58 am #

    My favorite that Heather makes in the summer is the one were she uses several types of tomatoes, mozzarella, cucumber a balsamic vinegar dressing. I think that’s it. I tend to eat it all. lol
    The first time I tired this salad was when she was staying with me and I had my garden. she got a kick out of picking all the ingredients from my garden, which was right outside the back door. We had to go to town for the cheese. I did catch her in the garden several times figuring out our next salad. It was great fun…

  2. Christa
    June 1, 2011 at 1:57 pm #

    To this day I still make the pasta salad that you made for me when we lived in those apartments in the trees that one summer. If I make it once for someone, they always ask me to make it again!

    BTW–I have a mission for you. Are you any good at reverse engineering processed foods? I am currently in love with the Ranch/Bacon flavor of Suddenly Salad, but I’d really like to make it from scratch. Any ideas? I just made it from the package this past weekend and added diced tomatoes, real chopped bacon and blue cheese. Divine!

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