Secrets to best salads: Freshness, crunch, balance and a surprise element
I love salad. What makes a great salad? Fresh, crisp produce. What makes a salad extraordinary? Balance and surprise.
As in a stunning salad made from four citrus fruits, hearty endives and colorful chicories on the menu at The Progress in San Francisco. There, chef-owners Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski shave ricotta salata in thin curls over the salad to transport it well beyond any predictable bowl of greens.
Of course, salads prove best when composed with in-season produce. The neat and tidy piles of red and green radicchios, endives and chicories we spied on a visit to the San Francisco farmers market in the Ferry Building help demystify the chefs’ creation. Likewise, the inspiring variety of fresh, seasonal citrus at nearby stalls.
Back home, I am happy to find a wide selection of citrus in large supermarkets. That means I can add wedges of satsuma mandarins, slices of Oro Blanco grapefruit and blood orange to my salad and Meyer lemon in the dressing.
As for the greens, I turn to Deborah Madison for help understanding endive. In her "Vegetable Literacy," Madison writes of the confusing nomenclature of chicories and endive. She gives their Latin names, Chichorium intybus and Chichorium endivia. What really matters to me is that these are greens with sturdy leaves and slightly bitter flavors. Delicious for pairing with the citrus.
Most of us can find plump heads of Belgian endive and magenta-red Chioggia radicchio. It’s more unusual to find Treviso — those oblong heads that taste milder than Chioggia radicchio. Curly endive and escarole tend to be readily available, but require just the right dressing to counter their bitter toughness. I employ vinegars with deep flavor, strong cheese and rich toppings such as toasted nuts, smoked ham, hard-cooked eggs.
Another favorite cold weather salad combines roast chicken with pickles. Yes, chicken salad can be relevant during cold weather months. The trick is to serve the combination without chilling it like we do in summer. Plus, a bit of smoky chipotle in the dressing warms up everything.
The key to good chicken salad is using top-notch chicken, of course. In a pinch, I’ll use a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store and pull the meat away from the skin and bones. However, most rotisserie chickens tend to have a mushy texture and dry meat.
Better is homemade roasted chicken — there’s no prep time, just oven time. So, when I’m roasting chicken for Sunday dinner, I make an extra for weeknight cooking. One small chicken yields about 4 cups of shredded meat.
For supermoist chicken, I poach boneless skinless pieces in chicken broth. It takes less than 15 minutes to poach chicken this way and the texture is worth the time. A bonus: Flavorful poaching liquid to use in soups or stews later or season with salt and a pinch of curry powder for a liquid, low-calorie snack.
TIPS FOR SALAD GREATNESS
Homemade dressing. The single best way to improve your salads is to blend a few ingredients in a jar for a superior-tasting, low sugar, no preservative topping. Dressings can range from vinegar and oil to more elaborate concoctions with cream, fresh herbs or interesting spices. Homemade vinaigrettes and salad dressings keep well in the refrigerator — a week or so for cream-based, longer for simple vinaigrettes. Use them at room temperature for maximum flavor and palatability.
Freshness.Think freshness from crisp salad greens, crunchy green onions and perfectly ripe tomatoes when in season.
Crunch.Nuts and croutons, obviously, but other options include crisp apples, raw root vegetables such as diced kohlrabi, shredded beets, carrot curls and paper-thin radish slices.
Richness.This could come from a delicious olive oil drizzle, shreds or cubes of cheese, avocado chunks or bits of cooked bacon. A tiny portion of cream, yogurt or sour cream added to a vinaigrette enriches a salad with minimal calories.
Acid.Brighten any salad, any season, with delicious vinegar. I change it up a bit by keeping a stash of cider, malt, sherry, red and white wine vinegars and balsamic vinegars (affordable bottles of red and white as well as a more expensive aged balsamic for judicious drizzling). Fresh lemon, lime and grapefruit juices and bottled yuzu can also form the base of a great vinaigrette.
Salt.Yes, salt can make or break a salad. Most vegetables benefit from a little salt to enhance their natural flavors. Salt can also come in the form of shredded or grated aged cheese, such as Romano or Parmesan.
Protein.Even a side salad offers more long-lasting satisfaction with a bit of protein added. This can be as simple as a few nuts or shreds of cheese. Wedges of hard cooked-egg and canned beans, along with their low cost, have the benefit of adding unique texture too. With a bit of planning, diced or shredded fully cooked meat, poultry and seafood make a salad a main-dish contender
Surprise.One surprising ingredient can ward off salad boredom no matter the season. In winter months, clementine or grapefruit segments, sliced olives and diced pickled vegetables prove welcome in just about any salad. During the growing season, I add slices of ripe tomatoes and peaches, asparagus tips and sliced stalks, fresh peas in or out of the pod, ripe berries and shaved summer squash.
HOW TO POACH CHICKEN
Put 1 pound boneless skinless chicken thighs and 2 cups chicken broth into a shallow pan. Heat over medium-low heat to a simmer. Reduce heat to low, cover loosely and let chicken cook until the meat feels almost firm when pressed, usually 10 to 14 minutes. Remove with tongs to a board to cool. Add 1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts to the poaching liquid and add water if needed so the breasts are mostly immersed in liquid. Heat to a very gentle simmer; cover loosely and let poach until nearly firm, usually 8 to 12 minutes. Remove with tongs to the board and let cool. When cool, pull the chicken into large shreds (or dice with a knife). Refrigerate covered up to several days. Strain the poaching liquid and use it in soups or stews within a few days; or freeze and use later to poach more chicken.
CLASSIC ALL-PURPOSE VINAIGRETTE
Prep: 5 minutes
Makes: a generous 1/2 cup
Change the types of oil, vinegar and mustard for flavor variations. Use the agave syrup for a hint of sweetness.
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons mild-tasting oil, such as safflower oil, or bold-flavored oil, such as walnut oil, hazelnut oil
3 tablespoons delicious vinegar, such as Banyuls wine vinegar, red wine vinegar or white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon agave syrup or 1/4 teaspoon sugar, optional
1/4 teaspoon grated lemon rind, optional
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Put oils, vinegar, mustard and salt into a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake well. Add pepper and mix again. Refrigerate covered up to 2 weeks. Use at room temperature.
Nutrition information per tablespoon: 91 calories, 10 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 0 g protein, 161 mg sodium, 0 g fiber
CITRUS SALAD WITH ENDIVES AND RICOTTA SALATA
Prep: 20 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
I like to use Meyer lemon, walnut oil and Banyuls vinegar in the dressing for this special salad.
3 to 4 tablespoons classic all-purpose vinaigrette (above) made with walnut oil and Meyer lemon zest
1 Oro blanco grapefruit or pomelo
2 blood oranges
1 Satsuma mandarin or 2 clementines, peeled, sectioned, each section cut into thirds
1 large ripe avocado, halved, pitted, diced
1 large head or 2 small heads Belgian endive, ends trimmed
1/2 small head red radicchio, thinly sliced
2 cups torn small leaves of escarole or curly endive
1 chunk (about 2 ounces) ricotta salata (or pecorino Romano)
1/4 cup roasted and salted pistachio nuts
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Make the vinaigrette.
2. Peel the grapefruit with a knife as follows: Slice the ends off. Put the grapefruit on the cutting board cut side down. Use a large knife to cut away all the rind and white pith, curving the knife with the curve of the fruit. Then use the knife to slice the grapefruit horizontally into 1/4-inch thick slices. Do the same with the blood oranges.
3. Arrange the grapefruit and blood orange slices in alternate colors in a ring on a large serving platter. Sprinkle with mandarin segment pieces and then the diced avocado.
4. Cut the endive in halve lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-wide slices. Put into a large bowl with radicchio and escarole. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of the vinaigrette and toss to mix. Drizzle remaining 1 or 2 tablespoons vinaigrette over the citrus.
5. Arrange the dressed lettuces in the center of the citrus. Use a vegetable peeler to shave the ricotta over the whole plate. Sprinkle with nuts and pepper. Serve immediately.
Nutrition information per serving: 329 calories, 23 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 27 g carbohydrates, 10 g sugar, 9 g protein, 367 mg sodium, 8 g fiber
ROASTED CHICKEN AND ROMAINE SALAD WITH CREAMY BASIL CHIPOTLE DRESSING
Prep: 30 minutes
Makes: 6 servings, 4 as a main dish
When I am short on time, I substitute 1/2 cup ranch dressing blended with 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar and 1 teaspoon pureed chipotle in adobo for the homemade dressing.
1 recipe creamy basil chipotle dressing, recipe follows
1/4 to 1/3 cup pecan halves
1 medium Honeycrisp apple, quartered, cored, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (11/2 cups)
1 small kohlrabi bulb (about 5 ounces), peeled, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (or 1/2 cup diced radishes)
5 green onions, trimmed, thinly sliced (2/3 cup)
2/3 cup diced dill pickles, pickled green beans or pickled okra (from a jar)
1/2 cup halved or sliced green or Castelvetrano olives
4 cups diced or coarsely shredded roasted or poached chicken (boneless and skinless)
1 small head (7 ounces) romaine, quartered lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 1 inch pieces (about 4 cups loosely packed)
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh or dehydrated parsley, chives or a combination
2 to 4 tablespoons crumbled Cotija or Romano cheese
1. Make the dressing.
2. Put pecans into a small dry skillet. Set over medium heat. Cook and stir until toasted and fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Do not walk away or they may burn. Transfer to a cutting board. When cool, cut into small pieces.
3. Put apple, kohlrabi, green onions, pickles and olives into a large bowl; toss to mix. Add chicken and dressing. Toss to mix again. Let stand, 10 minutes.
4. Add romaine and herbs. Toss to mix. Arrange on serving plates. Top with pecans and sprinkle with cheese. Serve.
Nutrition information per serving: 419 calories, 32 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 95 mg cholesterol, 11 g carbohydrates, 6 g sugar, 24 g protein, 911 mg sodium, 3 g fiber
Creamy basil chipotle dressing
With the blender running, drop 1 peeled shallot and 1 peeled garlic clove into the machine to chop it. Turn off blender and add 1/3 cup olive oil and 1/4 cup creme fraiche or mascarpone. Add 2 tablespoons aged sherry vinegar (or white balsamic vinegar) and 1 teaspoon pureed chipotle in adobo; blend smooth. Add 1 tablespoon dried basil and 1/2 teaspoon each salt and sugar. Process to mix. Transfer to a container with a lid; refrigerate covered up to several days. Use at room temperature.