The arrival of summer brings the promise of warm sunshine, bountiful produce, and plenty of backyard BBQs and potlucks. At a summer celebration, you will likely find a pack of hungry guests clustered around the grill, awaiting the next hot dog, hamburger, or charred ear of corn.
In my humble opinion, though, the most overlooked contender in this backyard feast is the summer salad. And no, I'm not talking about a mayo-drenched coleslaw or a bland pile of greens. I'm talking about a refreshing show-stopping salad that stands up to the rich, flavor-packed grilled meats and the hot summer weather (think: bold flavors, crunchy bites, and well-seasoned greens). With a few essential tips and some great recipes for inspiration, you'll be on your way to creating a highly memorable summer salad.
Start With a Bigger Bowl
Before getting started, I highly recommend using a large bowl to make your salad. You'll want a bowl that can easily hold all of your ingredients and have plenty of extra space to toss it with salad dressing. Have you ever seen salad greens fly out of a too-small bowl? The easiest solution is to size up the container you're using!
Prioritize Punchier Ingredients
I'm a huge fan of rich, creamy dressings in salads, but they can be trickier in the warmer weather. Consider the event logistics: can you keep the dressing in the fridge and dress the salad last minute? Or, will the salad be pre-dressed and sitting out all day as it would at a picnic?
With the former, you have more room to work with dairy-based dressings, meats, and cheeses; for the latter, you may want to consider a punchier set of ingredients with a more refreshing bite in hotter weather. A vinegar or spicy dressing works well here, as do more acidic components, including marinated vegetables or pickles. And don't forget the herbs! Soft herbs, such as basil, parsley, and cilantro, supply fresh flavors that round out the whole dish.
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Add a Fruity Element
With abundant amounts of ripe, sweet produce, summer is the perfect time to incorporate fruit into your salad. You can also add summer fruit to balance out other flavors. Peaches, plums, and berries offer sweet-and-sour notes. Most melons add sweetness and a refreshing texture.
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Bring in Texture
Some of my favorite salads have a key textural component that makes them shine. For example, I love the crunchy croutons in a Caesar salad, the thin and flaky pita in fattoush, and the crispy cabbage in a slaw. And sturdier ingredients, like cabbage, hold up better over time.
There are many options for bringing in textures. For example, toasted bread adds crispiness, chopped nuts contribute crunch, avocados offer soft, creamy bites, and cooked grains and dried fruits deliver chewiness. The important thing to remember is to choose a variety of different textures; you don't want to overdo the crunch.
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Season, Season, Season
As you prepare the salad and salad dressing, keep tasting as you go. A great tip is to dip your lettuce into the dressing to make any changes before dressing the salad. As you taste, think through the components of salt, fat, acid, and sweetness to adjust for seasoning. Is the dressing too oily? You may need to add more acid. Too sweet? Try adding a bit more salt.
It is equally essential to season the salad itself, too, and according to Mark Bittman, when you season those components matters. Salt cabbage and cucumbers well ahead of time to retain flavor and crispness. Salad greens, however, should be salted just before serving.