Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
Salad Bar Ideas: Lettuce Entertain You
French cuisine is known for fine wines, perfect pastries, and the culinary genius of Auguste Escoffier. Italian foods are distinctly regionalized with the highest-quality locally sourced ingredients. And then, there's American gastronomy—a true melting pot, a blending of cultures and contributions from around the world.
American cuisine can be bland or spicy, casual or formal, simplicity or fusion. But often, it is excessive, and the quintessential example of that excess is the restaurant salad bar. Why not create your own at home?
Benefits of a Salad Bar Meal
- All of the components can be prepared ahead of time.
- It's a great way to entertain a large gathering.
- With an emphasis on fresh produce, it can be an inexpensive meal.
- There is something for every dietary need and preference—vegan, vegetarian, meat-lover, dairy-free, gluten-free, Keto, etc.
Do you need some inspiration?
Start With a Foundation of Greens
When I was growing up there was one lettuce, and only one in our house—iceberg lettuce, the nutritional equivalent of a glass of water. There are so many other better, healthier, tastier choices. Try to have at least two of these for your salad:
Arugula (aka rocket)
Green or red lettuce
Shredded red cabbage
Then Add Some More
There are some lettuces and "greens" that are amazing in a salad but pack so much flavor that they're simply too assertive to stand on their own. However, they provide essential nutrients and vitamins, texture, and pops of color. If you can, please consider one or two of these as well:
Next, Add Some Protein
You can easily find meat and/or vegetarian options in your pantry or the local delicatessen. Everything can be prepared ahead of time.
Crisp cooked bacon
Hard cooked eggs
Set out some of your favorite cheeses. I like crumbled feta for a nice salty bite or grated Parmesan.
Vegetables are a great source of vitamins and minerals; they offer a variety of colors, flavors, and textures; they have plenty of fiber to fill you up (and keep you going); they are low-calorie, low-fat, and gluten- and dairy-free; vegetables are low in sodium and cholesterol. Add these nutritional powerhouses to your salad to boost your daily number of servings (we all need to do that).
Asparagus spears (cooked)
Carrot (fresh, shredded or sliced)
Corn (fresh or frozen)
Green beans (steamed)
Green peas (fresh or frozen)
Wax beans (steamed)
Sweet or Punchy Pops of Flavor
Finish off your masterpiece with some crunch; give your salad some interest with some crispy/chewy texture on top. (My husband says it isn't a salad if there are no croutons).
Chow mein noodles
French fried onions
My dearly beloved insists on creamy French dressing for his salad, and it doesn't matter what type of salad he is eating. (The emoji eye-roll is starting to get weary.) Some people swear by creamy ranch, blue cheese, or mayonnaise-based dressings. Have one of these available—but may I also suggest a light vinaigrette?
What are you really tasting when you place a heavy, assertive dressing on this salad you have so carefully orchestrated? To my provincial way of thinking (and you are free to disagree), it's like dousing French fries with ketchup, covering everything on your breakfast with maple syrup, or insisting on salt-and-peppering your plate before taking a bite.
Do you want to taste the seasonings, or do you want to taste the food? Rather than cover up the subtle flavors of your perfect salad greens, I'm suggesting that you add a gentle dressing that will enhance and elevate, not blanket and deflate, your perfect salad.
And this is why God created the vinaigrette.
Ingredients for the Perfect Dressing
You don't need a recipe for the perfect vinaigrette. Just remember 3:1. Three parts of oil to 1 part of acid. It's that simple, folks. But there's still room for a bit of fun and inventiveness here.
Anything labeled "salad oil" could work. This is the place for a neutral-tasting oil. (Save the sesame, walnut, or avocado oils for another time and place).
Here's where we can be creative. I wouldn't recommend white vinegar. If there is nothing else, apple cider could work in a pinch. But consider one of these and the subtle flavors their origins provide:
- rice wine
Part of the acid could be replaced with citrus juice (orange, lemon, lime). Note that not all kinds of vinegar have the same intensity. Some have more "sour power" than others. Experiment to find exactly what proportion of oil plus acid works for you.
Salt and pepper are a natural choice. Want to liven it up a bit? I won't mind if you introduce some finely minced garlic or chives. A drop of honey might be the perfect high note to counterbalance a bold vinegar.
Mixing the Vinaigrette
You've no doubt heard the expression "oil and water don't mix," and when you are creating a vinaigrette, that is exactly what you are doing—mixing oil and water. But it can be done with a process called emulsion.
A blender can certainly do the job. A food processor could handle the task as well. But I think the simplest method is to simply place your room-temperature oil, acid(s), and seasonings in a jar with a good sealing lid. And then shake-shake-shake. Let it sit for a while (an hour or more is ideal), but don't refrigerate.
© 2021 Linda Lum