Myself and salad.
It was the best hour of my recent life.
But let’s back up a teensy bit. Earlier this year, College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine asked if I would be interested in being part of their Sherry Geyelin speaker series. Based on my background, they thought it would be fun for me to have the event at the college’s organic farm. I could give a talk about blogging and salad pairings, followed by a “make your own salad” luncheon with produce from their very own Beech Hill Farm.
One whole hour to talk about Domesticate ME! and my love of salad? To potential adoring fans? Sold!
Not gonna lie, as the date drew closer, I got increasingly nervous about what I had affectionately started calling my “salad talk.” What if nobody showed up for Fifty Shades of Green? (Yes, that was the name they chose for the event.) Would the audience love salads as much as I do, or would they be Logan-esque salad snobs? What if I got nervous and sliced a finger off during the demo? Most importantly, what would the humidity be like?! (I really couldn’t handle being the weird salad lady and have crazy hair. Too much.)
Mercifully, my fears turned out to be unfounded, and on the morning I arrived, the fabulous COA team informed me that they had sold out the event. All the produce for the luncheon was harvested that morning, and I felt confident that the glorious spread would get people psyched about salad. Everyone arrived on time and enthusiastic, and once I got talking, my anxiety disappeared. The audience was shockingly excited to watch me massage kale, shave vegetables, and discuss seasonal produce, and they laughed at all my jokes. I wanted to kiss each and every one of them.
The talk transitioned into a lively Q&A session, during which I answered thoughtful questions on everything from why I started this blog to which types of lettuces could be put on the grill. I felt so knowledgeable and important!
Because most of you were not present at this event, I thought I’d share some of the more valuable informational tidbits from the presentation, which I’ve compiled into a handy list of salad-making tips below.
9 Tips for Making Perfect Salads:
1. Choose the proper lettuce. I don’t want to overwhelm you right from the get-go, but there are a LOT of lettuces out there, and you’ll want to pick one that fits with your overall salad concept. For example, Romaine is a heartier, crunchy lettuce, while Boston/bibb is more delicate and slightly sweet. Arugula has a peppery taste, and Radicchio is bitter. Not sure which direction you want to go? Don’t panic. A mesclun mix is always a safe bet.
NOTE: Back away from the iceberg. Iceberg has zero taste or nutritional value, and honestly, it’s a poor excuse for lettuce. Unless you’re making a wedge salad, you have no reason to use it. Ever.
2. Make sure your lettuce is DRY. If you’re buying pre-washed lettuce, this is irrelevant, but if you wash your greens, make sure you dry them very well, or they’ll get all sad and limp. If you don’t own a salad spinner, consider buying one. They’re fun.
3. Season your greens! Sprinkle a pinch of salt and pepper on your greens and vegetables before dressing them. I learned this handy tip from Bobby Flay, and it really does magically draw out their flavors.
4. Pay attention to texture. When building your salad masterpiece, consider how each ingredient will contribute to the whole. I always like to have something crunchy (shaved vegetables or nuts), something creamy (avocado or cheese), and something a little bit more toothsome (faro, dried fruit, beans, etc.), but as always, you do you. Experiment with grains like quinoa, faro, and barley, as well as different types of nuts, cheeses, fruits, and vegetables. Don’t be afraid to get a little weird, friends. What’s the worst that could happen?
5. Think seasonally. I read somewhere that our bodies are built to digest foods on a seasonal basis. This could be total BS, but I like the idea. Take a stroll through your local farmers market (or grocery store if you’re lazy), grab the produce that looks the sexiest, and go from there.
6. Pick the perfect dressing. Lighter greens pair well with light dressings, while heartier greens can stand up to heavier/creamier dressings. For example, Caesar dressing works on sturdy greens like kale and romaine, but it would overwhelm delicate baby lettuces.
7. Use your hands. Nothing is worse than an overdressed salad, people. To avoid soaking your greens, make the salad in a large mixing bowl and drizzle dressing around the sides. Gently push the greens into the dressing with your hands until the leaves are just glistening, and then transfer the salad to a serving bowl/platter or plates. Using your hands will also prevent crushing/bruising your fancy lettuce.
8. Speaking of using your hands, always massage kale. If you decide to use kale as your salad base, you need to give it a little massage first. When I say “massage,” I literally mean that you should give the leaves a rub down with dressing (or straight up olive oil and salt) before adding anything else into the mix. Drizzle dressing/oil on the kale and rub handfuls of the leaves between your hands for a solid 3-5 minutes until they become tender and slightly darkened. I know that massaging food sounds creepy, but I swear this process will totally change your outlook on kale. NEVER SKIP THIS STEP.
9. Don’t toss EVERYTHING in your salad at once. Unless you’re making a chopped salad, take a second to think about the weight of each add-in. Tossing very light ingredients with the greens (i.e. very thinly sliced vegetables, fruits, and chopped nuts) is fine, but if you mix a bunch of heavy ingredients like cherry tomatoes, whole nuts, beans, olives, etc. with the lettuces, all the good stuff will sink to the bottom of the bowl, which sucks for everyone except the last person served (gold mine!). I recommend tossing half the heavy ingredients with the salad and adding the rest on top just before serving. Sprinkle cheese on last. Capiche?
Did you get all that?
In the spirit of leading by example, I thought I’d whip up a festive seasonal salad to reinforce all these life-changing tips. So, without further ado, I give you Summer Kale Salad with Strawberries and Avocado.
I mean, just look at her. She’s so pretty! Belle of the summer salad ball! (I feel that all salads, like boats, should be female.)
And she’s a rules girl, friends. First, the kale is massaged with a simple lemon-Dijon vinaigrette until it’s nice and soft. Then creamy avocado gets added into the mix, along with the juiciest fresh summer strawberries, crunchy toasted pinenuts, and spicy shaved red onion. Crumbled goat cheese is sprinkled on top (unless you’re doing the vegan thing) for a little added creaminess and tang, and then you’ve got a tender, seasonal, hand-tossed kale salad with layer upon layer of fresh flavor and mind-blowing texture. Hallelujah.
Ooooh, and one of my favorite questions from the Q&A was from a particularly adorable man who asked me about wine pairings for different salads. While I’m not exactly a wine connoisseur, I do know a thing or two about drinking with greens, and you can’t go wrong with a crisp white when it comes to a summer salad. However, in the case of this kale, I strongly suggest going with a light rosé.
Or champagne. Champagne is always a good choice.
Summer Kale Salad with Strawberries and Avocado: (Serves 2 as an entrée, 4 as a side)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
¾ teaspoon honey
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Coarse black pepper
1 bunch lacinato kale (or curly kale if you prefer), center ribs removed and finely chopped
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
½ small red onion, very thinly sliced
1 cup fresh strawberries, sliced
½ ripe avocado, diced
1-2 ounces goat cheese, crumbled (optional)
Preparing your Summer Kale Salad with Strawberries and Avocado:
-In a medium bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, zest, mustard, honey, and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. (Be generous with your seasoning!)
-Use your hands to massage the kale with the dressing for a solid 3 minutes until the kale has softened slightly. When I say “massage” I literally mean massage, people. Take handfuls of kale and rub them between your hands. It’s kinda weird and gross, but it will be worth it. DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP.
-While the kale is marinating, toast your pine nuts. Heat a small saucepan over medium heat. (Do not put any oil in the pan!) When hot, add the pine nuts. Toast for 2-3 minutes, shaking the pan periodically, until the nuts are golden brown and fragrant. Remove from the pan and let cool to room temperature.
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
- ½ teaspoon lemon zest
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- ¾ teaspoon honey
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt
- Coarse black pepper
- 1 bunch lacinato kale (or curly kale if you prefer), center ribs removed and finely chopped
- ¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
- ½ small red onion, very thinly sliced
- 1 cup fresh strawberries, sliced
- ½ ripe avocado, diced
- 1-2 ounces goat cheese, crumbled (optional)
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, zest, mustard, honey, and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. (Be generous with your seasoning!)
- Add the chopped kale to the bowl with the dressing. Use your hands to massage the kale with the dressing for about 3 minutes until the kale has softened slightly. Set your kale aside to marinate for 15 minutes.
- While your kale is marinating, toast your pine nuts. Heat a small saucepan over medium heat. (Do not put any oil in the pan!) When hot, add the pine nuts. Toast for 2-3 minutes, shaking the pan periodically, until the nuts are golden brown and fragrant. Remove from the pan and let cool to room temperature.
- Add the red onion, avocado, half of the strawberries, and half of the pinenuts to the marinated kale. Gently toss and transfer the salad to a serving dish or individual plates.
- Top with the remaining pine nuts and strawberries, sprinkle with goat cheese, and serve immediately.