Have you ever thought, why do salads always taste better at a restaurant? I did for many years. I often avoided making entrée salads at home when I was younger as they were just never as good. However, as the years wentby, I began to take it as a challenge. It can't be that hard, I told myself, so I began to spend more time researching salad recipes, deconstructing my saladwhen out for dinner and learning techniques that I could apply to making entrée salads. The result? I declared victory the night my husband said to me "This salad is as good as anything I have had at a restaurant."
So, what are the keys to a good entrée salad at home? I will break it down into 4 components: the dressing, the lettuce, the accenting ingredients and the protein.
One of the keys to a great salad is the dressing. It is time to stop buying bottled dressings for use as an actual dressing. (I do like to use them for marinades so they still do have a place in the refrigerator door.) First, they are really not that hard to doand they are so much better tasting and also better for you. Have you ever read the ingredient list on abottle of dressing? If you can master the two basic dressing types--the vinaigrette and the creamy dressing, you can play with these basic formulas and develop a wide range of tasty variations.
The Vinaigrette Formula= Acid + Oil + Stabilizer (optional) + Seasonings
The acid can be any type citrus juice or vinegar. Once you get the basic formula down you can switch out the acid, adjusting the quantity based on the strength and acidity of the ingredient.
As for oil, I generally use extra virgin oil in most of my dressings. However, if I don't want to have the flavor the oil as prominent in the dressing, I will use a canola oil. For example, in Asian-style dressings I will use a small amount of sesame oil and then use canola oil for the rest.
The most common stabilizer is mustard, typically Dijon. The stabilizer allows the dressing to be emulsified on a semi-permanent basis so the dressing does not separate as quickly. Mayonnaise can also be used to stabilize a dressing since it is a permanent emulsion itself.
Seasoning are where you can add depth of flavor to your vinaigrette. It can be as simple as salt and pepper or as complex as curry powder, ginger and garlic. For simple basic vinaigrette, shallots and garlic are my go toseasonings. Start by adding a little attime, blend and add more until you reach your desired taste.
The Creamy Dressing
Creamy dressings are essentially a vinaigrette plus something to add the creamy flavor and texture to the dressing.
Many creamy dressing are mayonnaise-based. But that is not the only way to make a creamy dressing. You can use crème fraiche or heavy cream or Greek yogurt.
Using Greek yogurt in your creamy dressing allows you to get the creaminess without the guilt and it also gives it a nice tang. I really like how it behaves in a dressing.
I also like to use fresh herbs in my creamy dressings. Chives and parsley are two fundamental herbs you can add to make a great creamy dressing. From there, you can mix and match just about any herb that would pair well with the salad ingredients and the protein. For example, add cilantro if you for aTex-Mex flare or dill for a salmon salad. Trust me, once you start making your own, the bottled ranch will find a quiet corner in your fridge door to grow old and you may not buy another again.
Lettuce is usually one of the main ingredients in most salads. But, how many soggy salads have you have over the years where the dressing is watery and doesn't coat the leaves? It is important that you wash you lettuce to ensure you get off any dirt that remains. Lettuce can also spread food-borne illnesses so washing does help minimize the risk as well. But the key is that you need to dry your lettuce before you use it. Invest in a salad spinner and spin it dry and then pull the basic out of the bowl and let it continue to dry as you prepare the dressing and other ingredients.
Also, the type of lettuce you use will also determine how best to dress your lettuce. Some lettuce types go limp quite quickly, like butter lettuce, so you want to keep that in mind as well so you don't end up with a soggy salad. Dress these salads immediately before serving or allow you guests to dressing their own salad.
The Accent Ingredients
The accent ingredients are where you add flare and interest to your salad. Don't limit yourself by just adding tomatoes or carrots. Think about texture and flavor. Add crunch with jicama or nuts, add sweetness with pineapple or strawberries, add tartness with pomegranate seeds, add salty nutty flavor with cheese. These are the ingredients that really make a salad interesting to eat.
Lastly, the protein. I like to marinade my proteins for an entrée salad with one that will complement the accent ingredients and the dressing. Or if you have leftovers from another night, you can build your salad around the flavor of that meat. Grilled chicken breast in a ginger-soy marinade or with a Chile-rub are going make that salad come together much better than just a plain grilled chicken breast for example. If you are making a vinaigrette, you can make a double batch and use that to marinade your chicken, shrimp, pork or beef.
I hope that you will find by focusing in on each of these key components, you will to start making entrée salads at home that are even healthier and tastier than those your used to eat in the restaurant.