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Guidelines for a Great Salad

Usually my salads consist of nothing more than Bibb lettuce and vinaigrette. Yes, I like to keep things simple, but also (mostly) I don't like washing vegetables and chopping things into salad-sized pieces. That's why I buy pre-washed lettuce, (And I don't care about the should-we-rewash-pre-washed-lettuce-or-shouldn't-we controversy. The fact is, lettuce should be dry and salad spinners are such unnecessary dishes.) dress it, and call it a day. There are a few greens, though, that need a little something more. Frisee, kale, arugula, and those healthier of leafs need a little something to break up  their tougher texture or bitterness. Plus, every once in a while, you want salad to be your whole meal, and in those instances, a bowl of lettuce simply will not do. That's where the secret formula comes in.

Cooking, in general, is all about balancing flavors. If a lettuce is naturally bitter, you need to counter that with some fat. If something is too salty, you need to balance that with some sweetness. If something is too creamy, a little acid. That's why a sea salt brownie with vanilla ice cream and raspberry sauce is the most perfect bite of all time... in my humble opinion.

Building a great entree-style salad means hitting all of these flavors with enough heartiness to leave you satisfied. A wedge salad, a Nicoise, Waldorf, Cobb, they all have the same delicious elements: something leafy, something meaty, something creamy, something sweet, and something nutty.

These elements can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Meatiness can come from lardons, shredded chicken, or the pleasant chew of dried fruit. Nuttiness can come from pecans, candied walnuts, or a nutty and earthy-flavored lettuce. Creaminess can mean cheese, avocado, or egg yolks. Make sense? Now you're on your way to pleasing guests with a "healthy," filling dinner.

In the salad in these photos, I used frisee, goat cheese, chopped dates, candied pecans and a simple, lemony dressing. I won't give you a recipe, but just some guidelines, because, really, all of the parts are more-or-less interchangeable. Cover all of the essential elements in your favorite way for guaranteed deliciousness.

Greens/Bittnerness: I like frisee. For a hearty sort of salad, you want to go with a green or a combination of greens with a study mouthfeel and a strong flavor on their own. This is the, generally bitter, base that you're building your salad on, so make sure you know the flavor well. Arugula, radicchio, endive, swiss chard, red lead lettuce are all good choices.

Creaminess: I like to add cheese to cover this part of the puzzle. Goat cheese, feta, or gorgonzola all add creaminess along with an umami complexity. Another classic idea would be some creamy burrata, but if you go this route, the rest of your salad should be pretty simple (nuttiness and fat from a great olive oil, say, instead of added ingredients). You might also want to go with a poached egg or a creamy dressing.

Sweetness:  If it's the middle of the summer, fresh raspberries or strawberries. If you want to go savory, small tomatoes. If you're making a Caesar salad, your crisp romaine covers the sweetness. Otherwise, dried fruit is usually my go-to (because I hate sweet veggies like squash, beets, or carrots, all of which would work!). If you're going with dried fruit, you can get creative with dates, figs, or other dried fruits that you might not otherwise know what to do with.

Nuttiness: A lot of times the lettuce might cover this flavor, or complex cheese could do the trick, too. But if you aren't allergic to nuts, quickly candying walnuts or pecans in maple syrup or brown sugar and butter can only add to the tasty. Nuts can add earthiness, sweetness and healthy fats, all of which will just make your salad more complex.

Meatiness: By now, you might have covered the meatiness with cheese, or chewy fruits. But don't neglect this part, which is totally necessary if your salad is going to feel filling. If your salad needs a little more substance, you might want to add a little something. Lardons are always a great go-to, and mushrooms can work. Poached egg, again, can be the trick here, so can shredded chicken. I've also had great salads where the "meatiness" is accomplished with quinoa, rye berries, or farro.

Last, your dressing should make things a bit acidic/sour. If you (like me) need a little bit of carbs to feel full, serve with some bread and butter... and wine.

Once you've composed a salad, taste it and if it feels like something's missing, think about these elements. Chances are, that last little tweak will make it memorable.

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