How to Make the Salad of your Dreams (without a recipe)

How to Make the Salad of your Dreams (without a recipe)

In What Would Nigella Do we explore the basics of cooking and being comfortable in a kitchen. The title is a hat-tip to our favourite home cook who approaches cooking with resourcefulness, practicality, and most importantly, a sense of humour. Although this is a series that may appear to be directed at beginners alone, it is also for that cook who makes the perfect pavlova, but never seems to get that pot of rice right. In the time of MasterChef and molecular gastronomy, we are sometimes a little sheepish to ask the seemingly obvious questions. When faced with such a dilemma, we ask ourselves, What Would Nigella Do?

Remember the days when salad meant slices of onion, cucumber and tomatoes neatly lined up on a plate like a many-layered kashi maala? There is still a place for this tri-coloured salad, but thanks to Instagram, a growing need to eat healthier and Keeping up with the Kardashians, salads are no longer that afterthought when you’re making biryani for lunch.

More people are excited about salad than ever before and what constitutes a salad is also broader and more forgiving these days. Rice is seen as an acceptable ingredient, provided it is of the wild or brown variety; grains like quinoa are also welcome additions and usually accompanied by more pretentious ingredients like shaved asparagus or massaged kale. Pasta salads might be looked down upon and considered terribly retro, but for some reason, noodle salads get a free pass.

In my favourite food memoir, A Homemade Life, Molly Wizenberg writes that “Salad will never be a swear word in my house,” and as I grow older, I’m starting to feel the same way. I will still never be caught dead ordering salad at a restaurant, but I do like a good homemade salad. With a few pantry ingredients, good chopping skills and a little imagination, the salad world is yours to conquer.

When putting together a salad, think in terms of texture. I find that the only way to not fall asleep from eating a salad is to make sure that each bite of the salad is a surprise. Once you have your basics a leafy green (like lettuce, spinach, cabbage), a few standard salad vegetables (cucumber, tomatoes, carrots) – start adding layers of texture that fall roughly into these categories.

Crisp – vegetables like capsicum, beans, onions, cucumber, corn.
Creamy chickpeas, avocados, eggs, goat cheese.
Soft cheeses like haloumi and paneer, smoked salmon, grilled meats like chicken and beef, tuna, roasted squash.
Juicy stone fruits or a squishy pear, oranges, cherry tomatoes.
Crunchy toasted nuts, croutons, toasted pita chips, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds.

Add one or two from the categories above and if you’ve done it right, you will have also covered the basic flavours that make for a great salad: Bitter, sweet, salty, and sour.

Equally important, if not more, is a good salad dressing. Even if you have a salad of three ingredients, a good dressing can knock it out of the park. Like the salad itself, making a dressing is all about balance: Acidity from the vinegar or citrus, saltiness from salt (or soy sauce or miso in an Asian dressing), and sweetness from honey, maple syrup, sugar or jaggery. To make good vinaigrette without a recipe, it is helpful to remember that the oil to vinegar ratio is 3:1. If using lime juice, it is 4:1.

Most salad dressings can easily last in the refrigerator for a week. So when you’re making dressing, pour out the ingredients into a jar, close it and shake well, then put away for whenever you need it. Jamie Oliver suggests you make measurement markings on your dressing jar, so you know just how much oil and vinegar to pour in without having to bring out your measuring spoons every time you make a salad.

A salad is also a great lunch to pack for work. You can prep most of the salad ingredients ahead of time except for maybe the apples, pears and avocados. To make sure you don’t end up with mushy vegetables when lunchtime rolls around, pour the dressing just before you eat it.

Some other tips to keep in mind when making salad:

  • Make sure the salad leaves are dry water prevents the oil-based dressing from coating the leaves.
  • Don’t chop the lettuce leaves, tear them with your hands you want the leaves to break along the natural lines, or else they lose too much moisture.
  • Make sure the vegetables are chopped to roughly the same size. It makes eating it a lot easier.

Aysha Tanya is the co-founder of Goya Media. When not working at Goya, she enjoys reading and marvelling at the wide range of mustard types available in the supermarket.