The best part of salad preparation, especially when the market is bursting with fresh colors and textures of veggies, is that you have ample options in hand. But that does not mean you can treat your salad as a dumping ground for greens, veggies and dressing. It indeed is the time to experiment, but only with the help of a good checklist. This list should include: The hero vegetable, something salty and fatty, something for texture and toastiness, a vegetable sidekick, a leafy garnish and a sharp vinaigrette. Combining too much or too little of any could in turn disturb the balance of a good salad. To better understand, read the steps below on how you can compose your perfect salad.
Here are some general principles to keep in mind:
• A salad is like a balance beam, where you are trying to pair flavors, textures, and colors. If you have something sweet and mild (like a tomato), you will want a salty, more aggressive cheese. If you have something soft with a tendency towards mush (eggplant), you might need to add extra crunch. If you have something raw, offset with something cooked. And if your salad is monochromatic—the buttercup-yellow of sweet corn—think about a punctuating color: torn mint or a topping of sliced cherry tomatoes.
• Season not only with salt and pepper, but with acid too. Be it in the form of vinegar or lemon added at the beginning of the cooking process, acid is what keeps the dish interesting through the halfway point.
• Think about what you can take away rather than what you can add. What you should do is home in one ingredient and then brainstorm some ideas for complementary flavors: corn and mint, corn and ricotta, corn and chili pepper. After this it is all about narrowing down those ideas so that the star ingredient will be at its best.
The general constituents of the salad—outlined below—remain the same, but within those categories, the ingredients can change.
The hero ingredient: When preparing, fight the urge to put all of your available products in one salad, instead, prolong the bounty and focus on one ingredient (for example, heirloom tomatoes). This will not only make your shopping list smaller, but will also make it easier to focus on one item and the preparation techniques that will make it its best possible self.
The peak performance: Once you have selected your main ingredient, the next step is to focus on its performance. If you go with Heirloom tomatoes, this means slicing them up, seasoning with salt, pepper, and olive oil, and letting them hang out for 30 to 45 minutes. It provides a fuller flavor than if you sprinkled them with salt and devoured them immediately. It also draws the juices out —that flavorful tomato water will mix with your dressing and coat the other salad components. This preparation will vary based on your champion ingredient. You might roast eggplant, sear zucchini, blanch green beans, shave summer squash or shred radicchio. Once you find a salad hero you are satisfied with, you can keep that constant and change up the other parts at your will.
Add a handful of something salty and fatty: You could go for cheese: feta, ricotta, burrata, mozzarella, goat cheese—something with a milky, savory vibe to counter tomatoes' sweet acidity. If eggplant is your star, you might consider a smoky cheese, like smoked mozzarella; if raw, sweet corn is your foundation, you could choose something sharp and salty, like crumbled Parmesan.
Toss in some crunch: To add some crunch in your salad you could opt for grilled bread, toasted bread crumbs, crispy fried shallots, or any other kind of nuts — pine nuts, toasted almonds, walnuts, or pistachios.
The vegetable sidekick: You have an opportunity to introduce another color, texture, and flavor. If your main ingredient is cooked, add something raw, if not, then do the opposite.
A leafy garnish: With leaves as the accessory, there is less risk involved in exploring the zanier areas of the farmers market. Try bold-flavored greens, like purslane, watercress, lamb's quarters, sorrel or spicy mustard leaves, without fear of getting overwhelmed.
Finish with vinaigrette: Vinaigrette in salads should be simple and light—either tossed with the green garnish and corn so it barely clings, or drizzled over once it has been laid down. Use whatever vinaigrette you favor; and if the flavors of the salad are bold and brash, you might even want to add a tablespoon of yogurt or buttermilk for a creamy soothing element.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
• Charred corn + crumbled Parmesan + tiny sourdough croutons + sliced cherry tomatoes + watercress + chive vinaigrette
• Silky roasted eggplant + smoked mozzarella + chopped roasted, salted almonds + quick-pickled peppers + mint and cilantro garnish + lemony tahini vinaigrette
• Seared green bean + shaved Manchego + chopped pistachios + diced shallot + torn basil + balsamic vinaigrette