Growing up in the Shaanthram household meant that there was ALWAYS a salad with our main meal/lunch. It could be as simple as sliced cucumbers and carrots or something more like a sprout salad or peanut salad. This was in addition to the regular fare of sambar, rasam, kari (stir-fry) and the other assortment of things my amma made to satisfy us all. I did not particularly care for them and was more than happy to let my brother eat my share too. Not that he cared enough to ask any of us before eating the entire bowl of salad the minute he spotted it, still. Anyway, in spite of not caring enough for salads all that time, I’m now a person that feels like a meal is incomplete if there isn’t salad to round it off. I’m also now a person who can eat a salad as a meal. who would’ve thunk?! But that is mostly thanks to myself for being experimental enough to not stick to the basics all the time.
A question I get asked a LOT is how I go about choosing what goes in my salad and the dressing for it. So today I’ll be sharing some of my secrets with you. Okay, that’s just me hyping up the whole process. It’s actually rather simple and easy to put together salads (as a meal itself or as a side) once you keep in mind a few things and also take into consideration the textures and flavors that you enjoy.
Before I begin, I’d like to add that I’m no nutritionist and I’m merely sharing what has made me enjoy my salads on a daily basis. Now that we’re clear about that, let’s begin putting together our salad bowl, shall we?
First things first, what do we building our salad on? a.k.a choosing a base for the salad:
This is the best way to get your greens in. Choose what’s available to you locally or is in season. I usually buy a lettuce premix when I do my weekly grocery shopping. I also love baby spinach and rocket/arugula for it’s slight bitter taste. Use what you have/get and use a couple of handfuls at least.
Tip: I dump the greens in a bucket/large bowl with water+vinegar/turmeric powder and let it sit for a few mins for any sand/soil to settle down. Then rinse thoroughly a few times. Transfer it to a salad spinner and dry it as much as I can or I let it air dry if I have the time. I loosely wrap them in paper towels/brown paper and store it in a ziplock.
Now, let’s add some colour:
I enjoy using a mix of fruits and vegetables while making a salad. Fruits, especially ones that sometimes end up being tart are great in salads – think berries, apple, kiwi, citrus, etc.
Choose at least 3 different ones to make the salad interesting. If I choose a carby vegetable like potato/sweet potato, I keep the rest of the veggies light/high in water content like cucumber, broccoli, cauliflower, tomato etc.
Mixing raw with roasted veggies and adding pickled veggies are other ways to make a salad interesting. Adding fruits like pomegranate, pineapple (grilled pineapple is even better) and dried fruits like dates, apricots, raisins add a good contrast in taste.
Roasting carrots, beets, pumpkin, sweet corn etc. (either in the oven or stove top) makes them tastier.
Melons go well with cucumber and adding some onion adds just the right amount of sharpness to the overall taste.
Tip: Try to have some basic salad vegetables available always – cucumbers, carrots, onions, tomatoes can help add the necessary crunch/volume to most salads.
Now, add some protein:
My favorite protein that I also think makes a salad feel more satisfying are beans and lentils. Think chickpeas, rajma/kidney beans, black eyed peas, dried peas or any other bean that you have in your pantry will work. I’ve used whole masoor/red lentil, whole mung and the likes too. You can up the health quotient by adding sprouts to your salad.
I also like adding tofu to Asian inspired salads and grilled paneer chunks (to almost anything). One other ingredient I love in is soya chunks. They absorb flavors so well. You can choose to crisp them up a bit in a pan before adding them if you’d like.
Tip: Crisping up your chickpeas/beans in the oven or a pan makes them tastier in a salad.
I soak and cook a bunch of beans over the weekend and use it through the week. Better than canned stuff and also saves you from having to remember to soak/cook them during busy weekdays.
Then comes some healthy fat:
This is optional but I love adding a healthy dosage of fat to my salad. I frequently add nuts (roasted cashews, peanuts and candied walnuts are my top picks), seeds (pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds etc.), avocado, or full fat cheese – my favorites are feta, halloumi, goat’s cheese and fresh mozzarella.
But what about carbs? Poor things always get the bad rep.
Some days, I feel compelled to add a carb to my salad to make it feel fuller or if I feel like eating carbs on a day that I planned to have a salad meal, I try and add a complex carb. This could be quinoa or couscous, red or brown rice or cooked whole grains or sweet potato etc. This also takes care of the fiber part. Just make sure you use it in moderation and not overload your salad with it.
And finally, the extras:
Fresh herbs – mint and coriander especially are pantry must-haves for me and I love the punch these can pack into a salad. Oh, and also the freshness. I also love adding basil to fruit salads.
Something crunchy – When I want my salad to feel like unhealthy food or when a fruit or veggies turns out to be mushy, I usually try and salvage it by adding something crunchy – think croutons, tortilla chips, pita chips, crisped up paratha/chapathi bits, seed crackers etc.
You can also give in to whatever the current fad is add that ‘superfood’ to your salad (if you like).
Now that all the is taken care of, let’s proceed to choose what is finally going to make or break the deal (or salad, in this case) – the dressing.
My salad dressing totally depends on what vegetables I’ve chosen and how indulgent or light I want the salad to feel. If all else fails, there is always good old lemon juice + pepper + salt.
A basic vinaigrette (extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) + lemon juice/vinegar + salt + pepper + brown sugar or honey) goes really well with most salads. It’s fresh, zingy and can be customized to your liking easily.
Add-ins like whole-grain mustard/kasundi, fresh or dried herbs or switching the type of vinegar you use can give you a different result every time. I almost always use dates syrup instead of sugar/honey in my vinaigrette and love it.
You can use some pickle oil with the olive oil for a change. Use flavored/infused oils to give an added oomph to your salad. Oh, and minced garlic can make a huge difference too.
Another absolute favorite (actually my most favorite salad dressing of all) is a date syrup/honey-ginger dressing. This elevates salads to a whole new level. Fruit, citrus and melon salads are best had with this dressing. This also works with tofu, paneer based Asian-ish salads. This dressing also pairs exceptionally well with fresh mozzarella cheese.
I make mine by grating a knob of ginger and adding to a mix of lemon/lime juice (fresh orange juice works too), dates syrup, freshly cracked black pepper and salt as needed.
If I’m in the mood to make my salad feel indulgent, I opt for a creamy dressing. Easy ways to make a healthy (and creamy) dressing is by using things like nut butters, avocado, hung curd or thick/Greek yogurt as a base for the dressing.
Asian inspired salads taste great with a peanut butter based dressing. Mediterranean inspired salads taste great with a Tahini/Sesame butter based dressing. Vegetables like potato, beets, carrots or even cauliflower taste great with a creamy dressing.
Avocado based creamy dressing goes well with bean/lentil based salads. If you’re making this, make sure you do it just before you eat or refrigerate in an airtight container until ready to eat. You can also thin down pesto, green chutney or hummus as dressings for salads.
One very important thing to remember when making salads is to add the dressing only before you eat. This will ensure your greens and vegetables stay crunchy and not go limp. If you’re packing a salad for lunch (wow, is it just me or does this feel like an alien concept now?), pack the dressing separately and mix it in just before eating.
I didn’t realize I have so much to say about salads until now and I have more, so I’ll stop for now, leave you with three salad dressing recipes and add the rest of my salad gyan to another post, another time. Okay? Okay.