Learn how to take your lettuce salad from boring to breathtaking.
Green salad is one of my favorite foods in the world, but only when it's done properly. That is why I hardly ever order it at restaurants because it rarely lives up to my standards. The secret, I've realized over years of experimenting, lies in having diverse textures.
Let me explain. When lettuce is paired with tomato, cucumber, and a couple slices of red onion, it's boring. Sure, there are subtle differences in texture between the different vegetables, but it's minimal, and they all meld together after a few quick chews.When it comes to lettuce salad, you have to accentuate those differences. You go over the top, taking it to a level that might seem overdramatic, but never actually is. I like to think of it as music. Years of practicing violin have taught me that one must exaggerate dynamics because they're never as clear to the listener's ear as they are to the performer's. What sounds like fortissimo to me will only be a forte to my audience.
Now, realize that salad is one of the only foods to which this advice should apply. Do not overdo the salting of your meat or the baking of your cakes unless you want disappointed guests; but pile those lettuce leaves with accoutrements of every imaginable type, and they'll shower you with praise!
I approach my salad bowl and cutting board with a few basic criteria. First, please choose a nice salad bowl. I maintain it makes a difference. Second, the lettuce must be fresh, and a mix of greens is preferable (arugula, endive, etc). If it's at all limp, I reconstitute in a bowl of ice and water for several minutes while prepping other vegetables. I add herbs for mini jolts of flavor -- dill, basil, oregano, cilantro.
Next come the vegetables. I'm not a fan of chopped tomatoes in lettuce salads because they are watery. (They're glorious in standalone tomato salad recipes.) I prefer sweet cherry tomatoes, left whole, because they pop beautifully in the mouth. I cut up cucumbers, thinly slice kohlrabi or celery, grate carrots, dice radishes, slice cooked corn off the cob, and cut bell peppers into matchsticks.
Then comes the garnishing stage, which is by far the most fun. This is what makes a salad interesting and truly delicious. I go for a mix of the following textures and tastes:
Soft: Goat cheese, diced avocado, hardboiled egg, chickpeas, cooked beets, marinated artichokes, roasted red peppers, marinated eggplant
Crunchy: Croutons, sunflower seeds, pepitas, toasted walnuts or pecans, alfalfa sprouts, scallions, red onion
Salty: Feta, bacon, prosciutto, blue cheese, grilled halloumi, canned fish (like smoked herring), capers, anchovy (in the dressing), olives
Sweetness: Blueberries, sliced strawberries, thin pear slices
The goal is to get something (really, several items) from each category, although sweet happens less often than the others because it's more season-dependent.
Finally, I dress the salad. Depending on how complex the salad is, I may choose to keep the dressing very simple -- drizzling olive oil and red wine vinegar over top, grating a half-clove of garlic with a Microplane, and sprinkling salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. I tend toward more a more vinagery taste than some people like, but I think it keeps every bite lively and fresh.
If I haven't been too successful with my quest for toppings, then I make a fancier dressing to flesh things out a bit. I may shake a basic vinaigrette in a mason jar with olive oil, vinegar, a spoonful of Dijon, a bit of grated garlic, and some dried herbs, or I'll make one of my favorite large-batch recipes, like lime-cumin dressing or miso dressing.
The salad must be eaten immediately and entirely. It will not keep. Fortunately, I've raised a family of little salad lovers who will scrape the bowl in their effort to get every bit, but if you cannot eat it, then make it a practice to hold the dressing and have each person add their own; that way, you can refrigerate the salad without it wilting.
Bon appétit and happy salad-eating!