Take your salad from so-so to stunning with these 7 tips — and when something looks this fabulous and fresh it’s a pleasure to serve, and even more fun to eat.
It dawned on me recently that so many of my personal favorite posts are salads. They’re fun to put together and to photograph, and I feel good about sharing them because a beautiful salad can entice everybody to eat healthier, and maybe even steal some thunder away from the meat and potatoes. The fresher and more vibrant the ingredients, the bigger the nutritional boost, so it’s a win win for everyone. Here are my top 7 tips for constructing the perfect centerpiece salad at home ~ all the photos are clickable and will take you to the recipes…
Tip #1 Keep it Fresh
This sounds like a no-brainer but seriously, if you want a gorgeous salad you’ve got to get the freshest greens, and that’s not always easy. If you can’t make it to the farmer’s market, or grow your own, I suggest picking up the greens packed in the plastic tubs over the bags. And check dates, even if it means making a nuisance of yourself. Some stores are notoriously bad about stocking past-their-prime greens (I’m looking at you Trader Joe’s.) Ideally I like to buy salad greens like I buy fresh fish — to use the same day. Of course you can also buy lettuce by the head, but then you have to wash it and dry it really well. There’s nothing like wet greens to ruin a salad.
Green salads aren’t meant to be made ahead of time, so plan accordingly and put together your masterpiece shortly before serving. Fresh greens, especially baby lettuces, can wilt after just a short while at room temperature, or even when they’re exposed to the cold air of the fridge.
As for herbs, living is best, so if your grocery store has them I suggest buying the herbs planted in little pots…they’re grown hydroponically, or in soil, with the roots attached. If you can’t find those it even makes sense to stop by your local nursery and pick up a few small pots, not for planting, but to keep on the window sill and plucking as you need them. Unless you need scads of herbs for a recipe, they’ll be more cost effective and so much fresher. Fresh plucked herbs are not only beautiful as garnishes, they pack quite a flavor punch, and a few go a long way. The fresh herbs in my Saffron, Chicken and Herb Salad, above, and in my Jeweled Tabbouleh, below, make statement both ways.
Tip # 2 Get the Right Stuff
Fabulous salads don’t just happen, they are crafted, and a craftsman needs the right tools. A great bowl is essential. The one above is a handmade by Nelsonwood, one of my American Artisans. A good quality wooden salad bowl like this can become a family heirloom — I like the broad shallow shape because it allows you to showcase your ingredients, whereas a deep bowl just buries them. You can find beautiful and inexpensive ceramic salad bowls at discount department stores like Marshalls and Home Goods. It’s best to keep to a plain neutral color if you want to show off the salad itself.
From there you need great knife, and a mandoline slicer for finer jobs like my Blood Orange and Jicama Salad. The mandoline makes it possible to instantly slice up almost anything into ultra thin, even slices.
Crisp even slicing can mean the difference between an everyday salad and a sloppy one and sometimes even a sharp knife can’t cut it. A mandoline gives your dish a professional look. If you want to slice sweet peppers like I did for my Bell Pepper and Onion Salad, slice the whole pepper and remove the veins and seeds after slicing.
If you loved chopped salads, a handy Veggie Chopper comes in very handy.
Tip # 3 Show your Colors
There are tons of choices in the produce aisle and farmers markets these days, so don’t get stuck in a color rut…tomatoes don’t have to be red and peppers don’t have to be green, in fact there’s a rainbow of varieties for each. And you might not realize it but the color variations in vegetables also signal flavor and nutritional variation, so branching out can pay off in a lot of ways.
I deliberately chose the yellow heirloom tomatoes to play against the rosy figs in my Fig and Fried Goat Cheese Salad. Red tomatoes just wouldn’t have been as appetizing, both in color, and taste. The heirlooms have a softer, less astringent flavor and pair well with the other ingredients. Edible flowers are another fun way to add a pop of color to a salad. Lots of common varieties are edible, you probably have some growing around you. You can use the whole blossoms, or just the petals.
Tip # 4 Layer Don’t Toss
If you want to create a truly spectacular salad, layering is the way to go. This way all the components are displayed to their best advantage, allowing the colors and textures to play off each other. You can arrange the ingredients on a platter, like I did with my delicate Shaved Apple and Radish Salad, or you can also arrange your ingredients on top of a bed of greens like the Harvest Salad.
You can create stripes, or arrange everything in little piles, like in this Chopped Salad. The possibilities are endless. Just be sure to arrange your salad shortly before serving because you don’t want the toppings to dry out. Cover with a damp cloth in the fridge if you need to keep it for a short while.
You can toss the lot just as everybody is ready to eat. It makes for great theater.
Tip # 5 Lose the lettuce
Salads don’t have to be leafy and green. Think about using grains, or beans, or even fruit as your base. Add a bit of protein like tuna or eggs, and you’ve got a main meal. The Tomato and Pomegranate Salad, below, is a novel ideal for a salad, and there isn’t a leafy green in sight.
The salad below makes use of various citrus fruits as a stand in for tomatoes in the classic caprese.
Tip # 6 Dress for Success
This is one of my favorite tips because I’m passionate about salad dressing. I think it makes the salad, and that’s no exaggeration. They’re super easy to whip up at home, so there’s no excuse for bottles and packets. I believe in strong bright flavors like Rhubarb Vinaigrette, Pomegranate Allspice, and Spicy Tomato just to name a few. Above I collected 5 of my favorite fruity dressings to get you a summer’s worth of tasty salads.
My 30-Second Authentic Caesar Dressing is so good you’ll just want to skip the bowl and dunk your greens right in.
Tip # 7 Think Outside the Bowl
Let your imagination loose a little, salad doesn’t have to be served in a bowl. One thing I like to do is create individual servings in unusual vessels. It can be as simple as clear plastic cups, like my Individual Salad Cups with Rhubarb Vinaigrette. Spoon your best dressing in the bottoms and arrange the veggies on top. Everybody can grab their own and mingle while they nibble.
The Micro Caprese Salad above is served right in the tomato itself! I used the tiniest pearl sized mozzarella and micro basil to complete the theme. Below, my 7-Bean Salad is layered into mason jars, with a lemony vinaigrette at the bottom.
Think about other ways to present your salads…this Summer Melon Salad is literally a checkerboard of mixed melon cubes…
and the simplest salad of all, no recipe needed, is just a slice of a ripe tomato, topped with fresh mozzarella, a little prosciutto, and a basil leaf!
Want to see more? Here’s a link to all the beautiful salads on TVFGI.