The Art Of Salad: Create a canvas of fresh ingredients

Published on Wednesday, 26 March 2014 00:19 - Written by Christine Gardner


Consider the plate a canvas, the greens as the background, and additional ingredients are brush strokes of paint. Let the dressing be your frame, the garnish serve as the finishing touch, and soon you will have an artist’s masterpiece.

Don’t get stuck making the same old salad – romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, shredded carrots and a couple of cucumbers. Instead, make the salad course a work of art and every ingredient a part of the palette.

Lots To Love About Lettuce

A walk through the produce department reveals many varieties of lettuce. Mixing some of these greens to achieve various levels of flavor, texture and color is a great way to capitalize on the many minerals and vitamins they possess and give your salad a layer of character.

Romaine: Elongated loosely packed head with dark green, coarse leaves. Crisp texture with full sweet flavor. One of the best vegetable sources of beta-carotene with 712 micrograms per cup.

Butterhead Lettuce (or Boston and Bibb): This variety has small, round, loosely formed heads and soft, supple leaves that bruise easily. Boston is a larger and fluffier head. Both Boston and Bibb lettuce make perfect cups for cooked ground chicken or shrimp. Bibb is sweet and extra small.

Green, Red and Oak Leaf: These leaves branch from a single stalk. For this reason, leaf lettuce is generally more perishable than head varieties; you’ll often see it in “baby lettuce” mixes because of its tenderness. Red leaf has a burgundy tint and mild flavor, similar to that of green leaf. Oak is spicier and nuttier. To avoid instant wilting, postpone dressing leaf lettuce until just before serving.

Escarole: Broad, thick leaves in bunches rather than heads. Texture is coarse and slightly tough and flavor is somewhat bitter. Mix with sweeter greens to vary flavor and texture, but do not use alone because of the bitterness. It is frequently braised with olive oil and garlic and served as a vegetable in Italian cuisine.

Belgian Endive: Narrow, lightly packed, pointed heads resembling spearheads, 4 to 6 inches long. Pale yellow-green to white in color. Leaves are crisp, with a waxy texture and pleasantly bitter flavor.

Chicory or Curly Endive: Narrow, curly twisted leaves with firm texture and bitter flavor. Outside leaves are dark green; core is yellow or white. Attractive when mixed with other greens or used as a base or garnish, but may be too bitter to be used alone.

Radicchio: A red leaf Italian variety of chicory has creamy white ribs or veins and generally comes in small, round heads. It has a crunchy texture and a slightly bitter flavor. Its round leaves make a great bowl for the base of your salad.

Treviso (Red Endive): Elongated red leaves with white veins. Like radicchio and endive, it belongs to the chicory family and has a slightly bitter flavor.

Frisee: From the same plant as curly endive/chicory, but grown in a way that makes it more tender and less bitter. Except for the outer layer, the leaves are pale yellow, slender and feathery, with a distinct mild taste.

Chinese Cabbage: Elongated, light green heads with broad, white center ribs. Available in two forms: narrow elongated head, often called celery cabbage and thicker, blunt head, and called napa cabbage. Tender but crisp, with a mild cabbage flavor. Adds flavor and texture to mixed green salads.

Arugula (or Rocket): Long, spiked, dark green leaves and a peppery flavor. Cultivated arugula is widely available and varies in strength of flavor. In general, larger leaves tend to be stronger tasting, but if pungency is a concern, be sure to taste the batch before using. They are very tender and perishable.

Mustard Greens: These spicy, crunchy greens are packed with the amino acid tyrosine. In a recent U.S. military study, researchers found that eating a tyrosine-rich meal an hour before taking a test helped soldiers significantly improve both their memories and their concentration.

Spinach: Large leaf or baby varieties, a study found frequent spinach eaters had a 43 percent lower risk of age-related macular degeneration.

Watercress: Most commonly used as garnish, watercress is also excellent in salads. Small, dark green, oval leaves with a pungent, peppery flavor. Remove the thick stems before using in a salad.

Mesclun: A mixture of young tender baby lettuces. It is available as a mixture. Could include baby versions of romaine, spinach, arugula, mache, oak leaf lola rossa and red kale.

Sprouts: Young plants that have just emerged from their seeds, before the true leaves develop. Popular varieties include bean, alfalfa, daikon radish and mustard. Alfalfa and bean have a mild flavor, while radish and mustard sprouts have a peppery flavor.

Microgreens: These are the first true leaves that develop after a seed sprouts. Tiny herb leaves and tiny leaves from lettuce and other salad greens. Mostly used as garnish.

Mache: Also called lamb’s lettuce, lamb’s tongue and field salad, mache is small, very tender green with spoon shaped leaves. It has a delicate nutty flavor.

Dandelion Greens: The familiar lawn ornament is also cultivated for the kitchen. Only young, tender leaves are used. They have a peppery and bitter flavor with a beautiful fuschia-colored stem.


Tantalizing Textures

Once you’ve chosen the leafy base of your salad, it’s time to add the components that will define the flavor and texture of the dish. Sweet, sour, crunchy, fresh, juicy, fleshy or juicy – these ingredients add layers of visual and flavorful interest.

Vegetables: Cherry tomatoes, sliced tomatoes, carrots, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, green peas, pea pods, artichoke hearts, olives, beets, cucumbers, celery, fennel, squash, zucchini, avocado, chickpeas, white beans, black beans, radishes, asparagus, chard, potatoes, bell peppers, mushrooms, edamame and corn.

Fruits: Apples, pears, pineapple, mango, blueberries, strawberries, papaya, melons, raspberries, pomegranate seeds, orange segments, peaches, kiwi, grapes, figs and cherries.


Gorgeous Garnishes

Salad toppers are part of the guilty pleasures of eating a bowl of vegetables. They also serve as another layer of texture and typically add the final touch of seasoning – either salty or sweet.

Fresh Herbs: Mint, basil, cilantro and parsley leaves can add a zing of unexpected flavor to any salad.

Nuts: Pecans, walnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, peanuts, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, cashews, macadamia nuts. Roast slowly in a pan that has been heated and then turned off or toss with honey to add a bit of sweetness.

Dried Fruit: Cherries, blueberries, coconut, raisins, figs, dates and cranberries.

Cheese: Grated, shaved, diced or crumbled – there are a number of cheeses that work well in a salad. Goat cheese can give a creamy texture when tossed in a salad with vinaigrette. Blue cheese crumbles add a pungent flavor that is slightly sweet and salty. Other great additions are feta, parmesan, pecorino and varieties of Swiss and cheddar.

Seasoning: Crumbled bacon, cracked black pepper, celery salt, sea salt, lemon pepper, grill seasoning or dried herbs.

Crunchy Cravings: Croutons, toasted bread crumbs, tortilla chips/strips, fried wontons and corn chips.


Variations on Vinaigrette

The classic recipe for vinaigrette or Italian dressing is a 3:1 ratio of oil to vinegar, a splash of mustard for emulsification, salt and pepper.

Try any of these additions or substitutions to create a different flavor profile.

Vinegar: The most common vinegar in salad dressings is red or white wine vinegar. Instead try balsamic, white balsamic, apple cider vinegar or other flavored vinegars – such as raspberry, cherry or tarragon. Vinegar infusions can also be made by placing one cup of fresh herbs, vegetables or fruit in a jar and covering with balsamic or white wine vinegar. Let sit in the refrigerator for one week and then strain and use in your vinaigrette.

Oil: Substitute salad oil or olive oil with grapeseed oil, walnut oil or sesame oil.

Seasoning: Add dried or fresh herbs, paprika, chili powder, minced shallots or garlic, lavender, lemon pepper, flavored salts, ground peppercorns

Flavorings: Lemon, lime or fruit juice, preserves, honey, pureed fruit, fresh grated ginger, cheese, mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, tomato paste, milk, buttermilk, maple syrup, agave nectar, brown sugar, minced bacon or ham.

Smoke Salmon and Fennel-Endive Salad



1 bulb of fennel

2 heads Belgian or Red endive

1/2 cucumber, slice thin

1 orange, segmented

4 ounce package of smoke salmon (sold at Brookshire’s at the seafood counter)

1/2 cup mascarpone cheese

10 mint leaves, finely chopped

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper



Remove the stalks and fronds from the bulb of fennel. Reserve some of the stringy fronds and chop fine until you have two tablespoons of finely chopped fronds. Set aside. Discard the fennel stalks. Cut off the root end of the fennel bulb. Set the bulb upright and cut down the middle from top to bottom. Thinly slice the bulb.

(Use a mandoline for best results.) In a small bowl combine the mascarpone, mint leaves, fennel fronds, vinegar, salt and pepper. Spread the cheese mixture into the endive leaves. To arrange the salad scatter the fennel and cucumber slices over a large platter. Place the endive leaves around the edges of the platter. Roll the salmon slices and stand up right or lay flat on top of the cucumber and fennel slices. Garnish with cracked black pepper, orange segments and more of the fennel fronds. Serves 2 to 4 people.


Red Cabbage and Carrot Slaw with Creamy Cider-Mustard Dressing



For The Dressing:

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon honey

1/4 cup vegetable oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the Slaw:

1/2 head red cabbage

2 carrots, peeled

2 apples

1/2 cup slivered almonds



Place all the dressing ingredients in a jar and shake to combine. Using a food processor with the shredding attachment shred the red cabbage, carrots and apples. Pour enough of the Creamy-Cider Mustard Dressing over the slaw to moisten completely. Add the almonds and toss to combine. Add a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Makes 6 to 8 servings.


Dandelion Greens & Avocado Salad with Polenta Croutons & Honey-Lemon Vinaigrette



For the Vinaigrette:

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons honey

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the Croutons:

1 cup instant polenta

1 cup milk

1 cup water

1/2 cup finely grated parmesan

2 tablespoons grapeseed oil

For the Salad:

1 bunch of dandelion greens

1 avocado, sliced

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

1/4 cup dried cranberries, chopped

1/4 cup chopped pecans

20 mint leaves, finely chopped

Garnish, parmesan cheese shavings


To make the dressing, whisk together first four ingredients in a bowl. Slowly add oil, still whisking, to emulsify. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

To make the croutons, in a saucepan heat milk and water to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in polenta. When the mixture begins to thicken add the cheese and continue to stir. Spray an 8x8 baking pan with nonstick spray. Using a spatula, spread the polenta evenly across the bottom of the pan. Spray the spatula to smooth the polenta into a clean layer. Refrigerate for four hours or overnight. Carefully remove the polenta from the pan keeping it in one piece. Cut the polenta into small 1/2 inch squares. Heat oil in a sauté pan and cook the polenta cubes until they are toasted and brown.

To assemble the salad, place the dandelion greens in a large bowl and toss with three tablespoons of dressing. Spread the greens across a platter. Top with the avocado slices, cherry tomatoes, dried cranberries and chopped pecans. Using a vegetable peeler, shave pieces of parmesan over the salad. Serve additional vinaigrette at the table.


Modern Waldorf Salad with Raspberry Vinaigrette



For the Vinaigrette:

1/4 cup raspberry vinegar

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons honey

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

For the Salad:

2 cups mixed greens

1 large apple, cored and cut into wedges

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 cup apple juice

2 teaspoons honey

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 red onion, sliced

1/2 cup pecans

1/2 cup blue cheese crumbles



To make the vinaigrette, combine the vinegar, mustard, lemon juice, salt, pepper and oil in a jar and shaking vigorously to combine. Taste and adjust the tartness to your liking. To make the salad, heat a sauté pan over medium heat. Melt the butter and add the apples. Sauté lightly until they begin to soften. Add the apple juice, two teaspoons of honey, and cinnamon and cook until most of the liquid is absorbed. Remove the apples from the pan and set aside in a bowl. Do not clean the pan. Immediately add the onions and remaining teaspoon of honey and sauté until soft and caramelized over low heat. Add a small amount of water if more moisture is needed in the pan. Remove the onions and place in the bowl with the apples. Add the pecans and toss to combine. Place the greens in a large bowl. Add two tablespoons of the dressing and toss to combine. Top with the onions, apples, pecans and blue cheese. Serve with remaining dressing at the table. Makes four salads.


Basic Vinaigrette



1/4 cup vinegar

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon mustard

1/2 cup olive oil



In a bowl combine the vinegar, pepper, salt and mustard. Slowly stream in the olive oil while whisking. Alternately, add all ingredients to a jar and shake vigorously. Makes 3/4 cup.