Restaurant salads are something of a mystery. No matter how carefully you gather all the ingredients and try to make the same thing at home, the invisible x-factor that differentiates a merely edible salad from the heaven-in-a-mouthful sort always seems tantalizingly out of reach.
The problem, I think, is partly of expectation. You expect salads to be a quick toss-up job. You expect to make do with whatever greens and veggies there happen to be in the fridge. You expect pretty-looking bottles of rich dressings to be the magic source of the high salad deliciousness. And when the result falls far short of expectation, you give up and go out to get your salad fix in a restaurant.
As any great salad-maker will tell you, pulling off this meal is not an impossible feat in a home kitchen if you would please stop thinking of convenience. Superb salads are not convenient. They’re products of meticulous preparation, where each ingredient has a special role to play in the final assembly of flavors and textures. Once you get that right, you’ll be putting out salads that are `restaurant good’ in no time at all. Here are 9 special prep suggestions and good salad-making habits to get you started:
#1: BUY A SALAD SPINNER
• Drying out leafy vegetables, especially lettuce, is incredibly important. It helps the dressing and other ingredients to stick to the leaves better. Rinsing and then laying out the leaves to dry on paper towels does not work as efficiently as a salad spinner. Invest in one, because it will serve you for a long, long time.
#2: SALT THE GREENS
• Sounds sacrilegious, right? But a very tiny pinch of salt works magic on greens, bringing out a wealth of flavors that would otherwise go unnoticed.
#3: ADD HERBS TO THE GREENS
• At any given time, you must be having some leftover herbs like cilantro, mint, basil, parsley etc. waiting to rot in the fridge. Put them to excellent use in a salad. Finely chopped herbs bring an extra burst of flavor to the greens, layering the taste fest in each mouthful you’re hoping to achieve.
#4: CONTRAST TEXTURES
• Each fork load of a perfect salad packs in an interesting textural surprise. Contrast textures – say something soft like avocado and goat cheese with nuts, bits of bacon or croutons – and the surprise element will not end.
#5: PREPARE SOME VEGGIES LIKE A SEPARATE DISH
• All vegetables in the salad don’t have to be raw. Take potatoes or winter squash for example. Roasting them will bring a rich, charred dimension to the salad that is a welcome distraction from all that freshness.
#6: DON’T TAKE SHORTCUTS WITH THE MEAT
• It’s tempting to go with something easy and readymade like shredded rotisserie chicken. That will do the job well enough, but since we’re talking about putting a great salad together, any meat ought to be marinated with complementary spicings to add more complexity to the overall salad flavor. The same applies for beef, pork, lamb etc. Treat the meat to stand well on its own, and don’t just depend on the dressing to lend its taste to it.
#7: HOLD THE CHEESE UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE
• Shaving or shredding cheese in advance will dry it out and kill its flavor. For this reason, keep your block of cheese at the ready to shave or shred onto the salad right before serving.
#8: MAKE THE SALAD DRESSING CLINGY
• Whether you’re making your own salad dressing or using store-bought ones, you might find that the consistency is on the thin side. The thinner the dressing, the more it is going to slide right off the leaves and veggies. A neat way to thicken dressing is to add a dollop of plain yogurt into it. Now it will have so much more staying power.
#9: OVERDRESS OR UNDERDRESS?
• This is especially a problem when you’re preparing salad for other people. Some like the dressing to be light, while others prefer a generous helping. Since one quantity will not please all, serve the salad with a light dressing and keep some extra on the table, so people can add more according to their taste.