To me, October is one of my favorite times of year. Not because the weather has changed or the kids are back in school. No, to me October means the harvest. This time of year, farmer’s markets and gardens are overflowing with produce: juicy heirloom tomatoes, plump zucchinis, crisp peppers, tender eggplants, sweet carrots… I could go on and on. It’s a great opportunity to enjoy all those fresh vegetables. And what better way than in a salad?
Now, I know what you may be thinking. Salads are best in summer and now that the weather has changed, you want something a little heartier. But I’m here to tell you this is truly the best time for salad days. And the possibilities are endless!
The great thing about salad is anyone can make one, no matter your level of cooking experience. Sure, you can throw a bunch of vegetables on top of some greens and call it good, but I think there’s an art to making a well-balanced one.
So, let’s talk about salad basics.
To make a great salad, you need a good foundation and that means good greens. You can buy that plastic bag of mixed greens from the store, but making your own mix is less expensive, you get exactly what you want and it tastes better. Check out your local farmers market for the freshest greens around. If you don’t have access to a market, select greens that are in season for your location at the grocery store. If you do buy already bagged salad mix, make sure you check the expiration date and look for signs of wilting or browning in the bag.
When you get your greens home, give them a quick rinse. I like to break down heads of lettuce and soak them in cold water for about 15 minutes. This cleans off any residual dirt and helps to refresh the leaves. Lift the leaves out of the water with your hands, give them a little shake and then take them for a spin in a salad spinner. Loosely pack dry greens in breathable bags (I like Debbie Meyer Green Bags) with a paper towel on the bottom. Be careful not to pack bags too full as the greens can become slimy after a couple days.
When it comes to building the perfect green mix, I usually choose at least one from each of these category for a nice base:
Kale – all kinds
Next let’s talk about salad dressing, in particular, vinaigrette. If you can, make your own versions at home. Not only is it easy but it’s less expensive and you’re not eating a bunch of chemicals and fillers. (Don’t believe me? Read a bottle of salad dressing. I think you’ll be surprised!)
First, buy a couple of plastic squeeze bottles at your local kitchen store. You know, the ones that ketchup and mustard come in at diners. Use these to make and store your dressing.
The basic formula for most vinaigrettes is 3:1 – three parts oil to one part acid. That means if you want about 2 cups of dressing, you’ll need 1 ½ cups of oil and ½ cup of acid. Then you can add other fun stuff like garlic, but we’ll get to that in a minute. And you don’t have to just use olive oil. Today you can find so many amazing different flavors of oils that will take your vinaigrette from bland to bold. Here are some to try:
- Extra virgin olive oil
These oils act as a great as a base and are relatively neutral in flavor.
- Pumpkin seed
- Toasted sesame
- Lemon or blood orange
- Herb infused
These oils are much stronger in flavor and should not make up the entire three parts of oil in the original formula. Instead, pair them with a neutral flavored oil above to create your own amazing combination.
Once you’ve chosen your oil, now it’s time to look at the acid part. And I say acid because you don’t have to use just vinegar. Here are some of my personal favorites:
- Red or white wine vinegar
- Fruit infused like raspberry, passion fruit or fig
- Herb infused like tarragon
- Lemon, lime or orange juice
Is your mouth watering yet? But I’m not done! Now it’s time to choose what I like to call additions. These are things you can add to the oil + acid combination above.
- Fresh herbs like thyme or mint
- Chopped garlic, shallots or ginger
- Fruit such as grated apple or orange zest
- Mustard – my favorite is Dijon
- Honey or fruit syrup such as pomegranate
- Ground spices such as smoked paprika, cumin or turmeric
- Salt and pepper
Now it’s time to make your dressing: pour everything into the plastic squeeze bottle, put your finger over the hole and shake vigorously. Easy, right?
A couple pieces of advice …
- If you add any of the items in the additions category, it’s a good idea to refrigerate your dressings to prevent food borne illnessesWhen you’re ready to use your salad dressing, simply take it out of the refrigerator 15 minutes in advance and give it a good shake. Don’t worry if the salad dressing looks cloudy or viscous – olive oil solidifies under refrigeration.
- If you plan to salt your vinaigrette, always add the salt to the acid first. Dissolve the salt in the acid by shaking, then add the oil. Salt does not dissolve in fats such as oil.
- Keep it simple. You may be excited by all the options of oils, vinegars and additions out there, but less is more. When making a vinaigrette, I like to choose one neutral oil, one flavored oil, one acid and one or two additions. If you add too many flavors, the vinaigrette may overpower your salad.
It can be hard to pick and choose when there are so many choices, so here are some of my personal favorite flavor combinations:
- Olive oil + white wine vinegar + garlic + thyme
- Canola oil + blood orange oil + champagne vinegar + grated orange zest + honey
- Olive oil + balsamic vinegar + Dijon mustard + honey
- Canola oil + sesame oil + garlic + ginger + soy sauce
- Olive oil + tarragon vinegar + lots of fresh herbs + Dijon mustard
- Vegetable oil + passion fruit vinegar + honey + lime zest
You now have a great foundation on which to build your salad. Stay tuned for the next installment of Salad Days next week where we’ll talk about what goes in your salad!