Stuck in a salad rut? Try one of these ideas for side salads that go beyond plain lettuce! From grains to fruit to beans, there are lots of ways to change up your salad game.
My favorite salad of all time was not a salad in the traditional sense. It was a vegetarian dish that was merely sprinkled with arugula.
The greens served as a garnish to add a peppery flavor to the rest of the meal: a quarter of a roasted acorn squash, dressed in olive oil. Toasted nuts, garlicky roasted tomatoes, and creamy chevre were the celebrated final touches.
The café where I ate that salad is gone now, but I’m still impacted by my meal there.
SALADS DON’T HAVE TO BE JUST LETTUCE
A good salad can be made of anything—no lettuce required.
In the summer, you can build salads out of thinly sliced tomatoes, peaches, and onions dressed in freshly cracked pepper and drizzled with basil- infused olive oil.
In the cooler months, you can use the remains of last night’s roasted potatoes to dress today’s lunch of frisee and soft-boiled egg for a riff on a classic Salad Lyonnaise.
HOW TO BUILD A GOOD SIDE SALAD
When building a basic salad, with or without greens, anything goes. But it’s nice to include a combination of flavor and textural elements.
When prepping a side salad, I usually think, “Do I have something sweet, spicy, salty, bitter, crunchy, or creamy?”
My squash salad, for example, had sweetness from the squash, crunch from the nuts, creaminess from the cheese, and a bit of spice from the arugula. The combination of those elements made my mouth sing.
You can do the same thing at home, as long as you know a little bit about the different elements and what they have to offer.
TRY THESE SALADS THAT GO BEYOND LETTUCE!
Below are different side salads that go beyond leafy greens, and some recipes you might like to try! Any of these would work alongside a main course like roast chicken, pork chops, or seared fish.
SALADS WITH GRAINS
Grain salads are some of my favorites. The chewy texture of farro or wheat berries pair well with the soft green anise-flavored fennel, roasted tomatoes, cabbage, and red onions. Add a handful of minced parsley and fennel fronds, and then finish it with glug of olive oil.
Fluffy, protein-rich quinoa loves a combination of olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, sliced sweet peppers of any color and cucumbers. Toss in some Kalamata olives to add a briny flavor, and add crumbled feta to add another sharp note, because feta loves olives.
Roasted, pickled, or raw vegetables contribute layers of flavor and texture to salad. Decide what to add based on your end goal.
Do you want something light and cooling? Then opt for cucumbers, peas or shaved fennel. Do you need something sharp to stand out? Use thinly sliced pickled carrots, beets or onions.
Here are just a few vegetable ideas to get you started: cucumbers, peas, carrots, asparagus, beets, onions, kohlrabi, shaved fennel, radish, zucchini, peppers (hot and sweet), jicama, avocado, potatoes, butternut squash, acorn squash.
Beans are a wonderful way to add texture, fiber, and protein to a meal. Eat them lightly dressed in a vinaigrette and dotted with freshly chopped herbs or combine them crunchy vegetables for a sharp contrast between the creaminess of the beans and the bite of thinly sliced raw vegetables.
Fruit can add body, sweet or sour flavors and texture to a salad at any time of year. To add an extra layer of flavor, soak dried fruit in port, rum, or brandy just until the fruit plumps up.
Fennel and orange segments are a classic combination. Dried cranberries, thinly sliced red onion, and mix of mild, delicate greens like spinach dressed in a red wine vinaigrette make a simple side salad. Combine cantaloupe, watermelon and cucumbers with feta for a sweet and salty flavor explosion.
Tomatoes, oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, dried cranberries, raisins, cantaloupe, watermelon, raisins, cherries (dried and fresh), grapes, mangos, plums, apples are just a few of the fruits to consider.
Of course, there’s a place for a salad that’s heavy on the greens in all of their leafy glory.
However, lettuce salads are only one type of salad. Greens can range in texture from delicate to sturdy and can be peppery, bitter or mild. Some, like kale, need to be roughed up—or massaged. Others tossed gently.
Let’s look at a few common greens. I’ve divided them by flavor, and listed the tougher greens first followed by more delicate greens in each category.
Mild or Neutral-to-Sweet: Iceberg, Romaine, Spinach, Butter Lettuce, Oak Leaf Lettuce, Mache
Spicy/Peppery: Mustard Greens, Dandelion, Arugula (also known as rocket), Mizuna, Watercress
Bitter: Kale (lacinato, Red Russian, Curly), Frisee, Radicchio, Escarole, Belgian Endive
Dressing is just one more ingredient in the salad. It shouldn’t overwhelm every other flavor you’ve worked to build. Less is more. That’s the rule.
If you pre-dress a salad, do it just before serving. With delicate greens put a little bit of dressing in a mixing bowl and lightly toss the greens with your hands. Taste it and add a little more if you think it needs it. Serve it immediately.
Use creamy dressings with a heartier greens such as iceberg or romaine. (There’s a reason why many delicate greens are tossed with vinaigrettes; heavy cream-based dressings can weigh down them down.)
If you’re serving a kale or mustard green salad, they benefit from a good massage to soften them up. I use a touch of olive oil. Then rub and kneed the leaves before building the rest of my salad.
Summer Miller is the Senior Editor for Simply Recipes based in Nebraska. Her work has appeared in Bon Appetit, Eating Well, Grit, SAVEUR, and Every Day with Rachael Ray, among others. Her first book is New Prairie Kitchen (Agate Publishing, 2015).