Celebrate Spring with Salads

There’s something about spring that makes us naturally crave lighter, more refreshing foods. Salads are infinitely versatile, whether served at lunch or dinner, as a side dish or entrée. But if you find yourself in the rut of tossing together the same lettuce, carrots and tomatoes with dressing that no longer excites, now’s the time to try something new.

Salad Dressing

If you learn one cooking basic this spring, learn to master homemade salad dressing. You’ll never return to bottled after you taste your own, and it couldn’t be easier to make. Basic vinaigrette is 3 parts oil to 1 part acid, or slightly more acid if you prefer a very tangy dressing. You can change the flavor quite a bit by changing oils—I stick to extra virgin olive oil as my standard, but often use hazelnut, walnut, or other specialty oils when I create a dinner for friends. And while most people think of red wine vinegar as their acid for salad dressing, try sherry vinegar, lemon juice, champagne vinegar, lime juice, flavored vinegars (like raspberry), or orange juice to add other interesting notes to the dressing.

Once you’ve selected your oil and acid, try adding a small dollop of Dijon mustard to the dressing to help it thicken and emulsify, then season with salt and pepper. No need for fancy whisking when you make your own dressing—simply put all the ingredients in a small covered container and shake vigorously until it’s creamy. Basic vinaigrettes will last a long time in the refrigerator, but if you add any fresh ingredients like herbs, garlic or shallots, use within a week. 

I know it’s spring in Colorado when I begin to see herbs poking up through the ground, and they are great additions to salads. Tarragon leaves, chopped basil, mint leaves, or chopped cilantro all add a layer of complexity and interest when you toss a handful into your salad before dressing it. 

Adding protein to a salad takes it from side dish to center stage, and doesn’t everyone welcome the simplicity of a one dish meal on a busy weeknight? Consider meat sources of protein—like chicken, steak, bacon, shrimp, shredded pork, tuna, or salmon—as well as plant-based proteins like nuts and beans. 

Parmesan cheese is an obvious choice for a Caesar salad, but how about switching the dressing to something with lime in it and adding queso fresco? Feta cheese pairs well with roasted vegetables, and goat cheese works well with French-inspired vinaigrettes. Cheddar is a natural choice for taco salads. A little bit of cheese (you don’t need to go overboard here and turn a healthy salad into a calorie-laden plate) adds great flavor and complements the vegetables in the dish. 

Fruits and vegetables
There are literally thousands of fruits and vegetables in the world. From citrus to berries, tubers to flowering vegetables, the combinations are mind boggling. So why do most of us grab a cucumber, carrots and tomatoes, toss them with lettuce, and call it a salad? Start thinking of different combinations, like roasted beets and garlic, strawberries and spinach, tomatoes and watermelon, or even grapefruit and avocado, which when mixed with fennel (like the salad below) is surprisingly refreshing. 

Skip the Lettuce
While many of us think of salad as resting on a base of lettuce, a salad can be made up of all sorts of other ingredients and not even use lettuce at all. It’s a nice change from mixed greens, like this easy white bean salad.

Easy White Bean Salad

Serves 2-4

Grapefruit and Fennel Salad with Avocado

Serves 4

Roasted Beet and Goat Cheese Napoleons

Serves 4

About the author: Michele Morris leads cooking dinner parties, teaches private and group cooking classes for both kids and adults, and caters in home events. For more great recipes, cooking tips, and resources, visit her website cookingwithmichele.com.

Categories: Entertaining, Recipes