Growing up, I always thought I wasn’t much of a salad person.
But that’s because my idea of what constituted a salad was very limited and sad.
The only salad I’d ever encountered was that of the Kraft variety — gluey bottled dressing drizzled over iceberg lettuce, wedges of watery greenhouse tomatoes, and slices of cucumbers, sprinkled with solid blocks called croutons. As far as I knew, there were five types of salad in the world: Ranch, French, Italian, Caesar, and Thousand Islands. All of them were pretty meh.
Even when I got older and started experimenting with other flavours from the bottled dressing aisle — creamy poppyseed, sweet onion, raspberry vinaigrette — I found myself terribly dissatisfied. Everything tasted flat and plastic-y. They would sit in my fridge door for literally years before I’d finally toss them.
And honestly, if that’s all there was to salad, I wasn’t missing out on much nutritionally. Iceberg lettuce and imported or hydroponically-grown vegetables are almost useless to the body, and bottled dressing is mostly just preservatives. No thanks.
In my later twenties, when I started getting serious about food, I finally discovered the glorious variety and spectacular flavours of real green salads. Garden-fresh romaine, spinach, mesclun, arugula, kale, and broccoli; tossed with zippy creamy dressings or sweet and zingy vinaigrettes. Salads topped with tangy fruit, crispy nuts, grilled meats, fresh herbs, and crumbled cheeses. They were packed with vitamins, protein, probiotics, and intrigue. They could even be a complete meal!
But they were a lot of work. Composing a salad with hand-shredded leaves, homemade dressing, toasted nuts, and some kind of fruit took a lot of planning and hands-on time. It was too much effort for a side dish when I was already cooking the main dish from scratch. So salads were still pretty rare in our house, even though we loved them and they were so good for us.
Until I discovered that having a few key ingredients on hand at all times made me salad-ready anytime the passion for something crisp and cool took over.
See, the problem is that the main ingredient in most salads — greens — are terribly perishable. They don’t last long once you pick them and or/take them home from the market. So the key to seizing the salady moment is making sure you always have all the other ingredients handy when you get your hands on some fresh, crispy greens.
Here’s what I do and what I recommend, so that you always have the necessary elements on hand to make delicious, fresh, homemade salads all through salad season. (I’m just going to point out that winter is not green salad season here in Canada. I don’t eat green salads in winter, unless you count cole slaw. Although I sure do long for them!!)
So here are my tips for getting salad on your table on a more regular basis:
Experiment with different homemade salad recipes until you find some that you love.
If you’re not a big salad eater already, keep trying new ones until you hit on a favourite. It took me a long time to find ours. Even try kinds that you think you don’t like due to early exposure to the Kraft version. I always thought I hated Greek salad until I tasted homemade Greek salad. Not even the same category!!
They’re a ton of work at first but persevere until you find a few your family loves. There is hardly anything more nutritious and refreshing you can serve your family. And they will get easier once you are comfortable preparing all the other parts.
Once you have these figured out, you can start prepping big batches of dressing and other toppings so you can throw together a quick salad at meal times without hassle.
The toppings I list below are the elements of our favourite salads. Yours might be a little different.
Make big(ger) batches of a few favourite dressings to keep on hand.
Ours are Caesar, sweet balsamic vinaigrette, and more recently, Greek. Homemade dressings can be a pain to mix up last-minute, but if you make them ahead of time you’ll be so grateful when you’re scrambling for a last-minute side dish. I like to keep our fridge stocked with these throughout the spring and summer so that they’re always handy.
I also find it essential to always have my fridge stocked with a batch of homemade mayo. With a bit of vinegar and other flavours or spices, homemade mayo can quickly be transformed into some of the most delicious creamy salad dressings you’ve ever tasted.
Toast batches of nuts.
Most salads benefit from a crunchy element. Nuts usually fit the bill perfectly, especially with sweet dressings.
And all nuts benefit from some toasting. It makes them crispier and enhances their flavour. But you don’t want to be toasting nuts while you’re also preparing the rest of your dinner. If you’re like me, you’ll burn them 75% of the time.
So here’s what I do.
My favourite nut is slices or slivered almonds; chopped pecans also make a terrific change.
I do about a cup or two at a time, which will last for quite a few salads.
Just pour your nuts into a dry large pan, and heat them over medium heat. DON’T LEAVE THE STOVE. Attend to them, stirring gently but continuously, until they’re a light golden colour. Remove from stove to cool, and store in an airtight container. (I like to keep them in a small mason jar.)
They’re ready to sprinkle onto a salad at a moment’s notice.
Keep your pantry stocked with nonperishable fruit.
I adore fresh fruit (strawberries, blueberries, sliced apple, etc) on my salads. But I don’t always have fresh fruit on hand. (Canada, remember? We only have fresh fruit available five months out of the year). Dried and canned fruit are a wonderful, convenient substitute when fresh isn’t available.
I find we eat salad much more often when I keep canned mandarin slices, canned pineapple, and dried cranberries on hand. They are a delightful addition to leafy salads!
Keep your fridge stocked with feta, fresh Parmesan and/or other cheeses.
Feta cheese is another ingredient I try to keep on hand during salad season. It really zips up an otherwise boring salad, and takes little effort to crumble on top of your greens (or tomatoes or cucumbers.) If you don’t care for feta, you might prefer goat cheese or even Parmesan. Just a suggestion.
Our Favourite Salads
To get you inspired, here are our favourite salad varieties that use combinations of the above ingredients:
- Fruity: mixed sweet greens (lettuces, baby spinach, field greens, etc), sweet balsamic vinaigrette, fresh cilantro leaves, toasted almonds, and any fruit (fresh berries, dried cranberries, mandarin slices, pineapple chunks, etc)
- Greek: romaine lettuce, sliced cucumbers, garden-fresh tomatoes, Greek dressing, crumbled feta. (For a small batch of dressing: 6 Tbsp olive oil, 1.5 Tbsp lemon juice, 1 Tbsp red wine vinegar, 2 pressed garlic gloves, 1 tsp oregano)
What are your favourite salads? I could always use some more ideas!