The Big Ol’ Dinner Salad

IMG_0366Salads are amazing. People, back me up on this: when it comes to healthy eating, salads are what make the world go round. I think everyone can agree with that – If a salad is meant to be healthy, it probably is. I added this little addendum to rule out the dressing-smothered iceberg salads served at every fast-food place imaginable. Those were never meant to be healthy, no matter what the menu says. A salad you make at home will tend to be healthy, if a healthy salad is your goal.

Salad-philosophy takes a turn here, of course – it doesn’t have to be healthy. Potato salad smothered in mayonnaise-buttermilk dressing probably isn’t the healthy choice in large quantities – although it’s damned delicious. What I’m talking about here is the salad the size of your head that you can eat and then feel immortal.

I’m going to break down the salad-structure that guides my existence. This will not only help the home cook avoid the expensive, ammonia-washed salad mixes at the supermarket, but will also foster creativity and variety, and knowledge – to me, these are the most important bits.

I made one of these the other night so I could have some nice visuals – it was a beautiful salad indeed. I followed these steps, really – greens, protein, crunch, vinaigrette, and a little something extra. This works for endless combinations:

IMG_0353The Greens

As long as it’s not Iceberg, which pretty much nutrient-free, this can be pretty much anything – lettuce, spinach, spring mix, whatever. My favorite is a mix of basil and arugula – this time I went the super-health route and used red kale.

The trick here is to buy the whole head – the cheapest and healthiest route. All that’s needed is a quick rinse, and they’re ready to prep. If it’s lettuce, cut off the root and chop into manageable pieces. For spinach, arugula and the like, cut off the bottom part of the stem and leave the rest as-is. For kale, like I used, cut out the inner rib – good for braising, not to eat raw. You can save these for another application… or don’t. I’m not your boss.

By the way, for all of these, I highly recommend a knife. Some places tell you to tear the lettuce into pieces – I find that this tears along the fibers and makes for some inconvenient shapes. As long as the knife is decently sharp, there shouldn’t be any bruising – especially not with kale.

The Protein

I have quite a few things I tend to do here, all are good. The idea here is to add some nutritional balance – tastiness, too! It’s hard to go wrong here:

- For the lazy, A handful of sliced almonds or walnuts. That’s what I did here, and it’s my favorite. Always easy, always tasty, always in the pantry.

- A handful of chickpeas or some other hearty bean works very well. Also very easy, also very delicious.

- Tofu – pound-for-pound, some of the cheapest protein around. Cut into pieces, throw into salad. Not quite as easy, but it gets the job done.

- Chicken – Those tenderloins under the breasts from a whole chicken are perfect here, but I’ll describe that in another post. I like to lightly bread it, bake it, and slice.

IMG_0357Crunch

Croutons are awesome. I used croutons here.

I will also never buy packaged croutons. You can, if you want. But still, you really shouldn’t. Trust me.

Before these went in the pan, they were bread. Then they were cut into cubes. Then they were fried in olive oil with some salt and pepper until golden brown, in about five minutes. Some garlic powder thrown in right at the end does wonders, too.

The crunch can also be something like diced bell peppers or carrots – anything with a little texture to offset the greens. Nothing wrong with some croutons every now and then, though.

IMG_0362Vinaigrette

Technically, I should just call this dressing – but if we’re going for an easy, cheap homemade salad method, this is the best. If you keep oil, vinegar and mustard on hand, you have vinaigrette.

1 part vinegar. 2-3 parts oil. Small spoon of mustard. Salt & pepper. Combine in small container. Shake well – I use a small plastic bottle I picked up at the restaurant supply store.

In this case, I used balsamic vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, and dijon. If you don’t like mustard, no worries – you won’t taste it aside from a satisfying tang, and it’s main purpose is to act as an emulsifier to make the dressing well-blended, creamy and delicious. Lemon juice is also good here; and don’t be afraid to throw in some herbs.

The Extra

Before this, you have a complete salad. Here’s my rule for the extra stuff – stand back for a moment, and look at your salad. Then look in your fridge/pantry. Then back at your salad. If you feel like something is needed to push the salad over the top in some way, then by all means, do it. In this case, I had some Pecorino Romano cheese in the fridge. I remember when I’ve added a little diced avocado. Bacon is good to. Bacon is always good.

To hell with it, I added bacon, too.

If you’re feeling uninspired or have nothing more to offer, skip this step – the extra stuff is a bit of optional creativity.

IMG_0364Putting Everything Together

Until you dress the salad, things just have to look right – take a bowl full of your greens, add a handful of crunch, and a handful of the extra stuff – if you’re using nuts or beans as your protein, throw them in here, too. I like to arrange chicken and tofu on the salad later on.

Add a bit of vinaigrette and start tossing – start small and add more, if you need. You only need enough dressing to lightly coat the leaves. Once all the leaves are lightly coated and everything looks mixed, you can probably guess that it’s done. Put it in an ornate serving bowl, or if you’re like me and you’re eating alone, just put it all on a plate.

Something like this has become a go-to weeknight meal for me. It has all the components – Good, fast, easy, and cheap. The green are the most expensive part, and all things considered, this mega-healthy, hippie kale salad cost about $2.00 for a whole meal. If you use another kind of green, like a regular person, it will cost even less.

As long as you start with something green, add some texture, a little protein, a handful of something you love, and bring it together with some good, homemade dressing, a salad can give you exactly what you want from it – a complete meal, as healthy as you need it to be.

 

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