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What you need to know to make great salads

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By Jan Roberts-Dominguez
Published:
Heading towards the front door to start a hike with my husband, I stalled out at the living room mirror.
My outfit? Pedal pusher-length black yoga pants, sweatshirt, running shoes, baseball cap.
Steve: What's up?
Me: I can't decide whether I look cute or goofy.
Pause as he gave me the once over.
Steve: Well, that is the question, isn't it?
Luckily, there's far less debate in the Dominguez household regarding my approach to salad construction. I'm usually right on target. We both love 'em.
They tend to be based on crisp and juicy greens, and colorful cabbages, carrots, and complimentary veggies.
The next level of flavor and texture comes from shavings or crumblings of delicious cheeses: Huntsman when I can get it (it's a heavenly layering of two British classics, Double Gloucester and Stilton) as well as my two favorite Goudas, Old Amsterdam and extra-aged Gouda.
For another level, if we're talking main dish, there are the occasional chunks of grilled chicken -- I grill up entire family packs of boneless/skinless breasts, then stash them in the freezer -- or pieces of crisply fried smoked bacon, or even a layering of browned ground chicken or beef.
For the final level of salad construction, as a nod to my most recent cookbook project, I always reach for a handful of roasted Oregon hazelnuts. They truly do add a fresh, rich dimension to salads. But you could also opt for roasted almonds, macadamias, sunflower seeds or pecans.
As you can see, making inspirational, produce-rich salads a part of most evening meals -- either as side-kick or entree -- takes a little planning. And, in case you hadn't noticed, bottled dressings are a pretty dismal substitute for anything you can whisk together from scratch. So if you're planning on getting serious about great salads, begin with an honest evaluation of your dressings.
To help, I'm including my approach to homemade vinaigrette, which starts with one of my very own significant contributions to the salad dressing world: a vinaigrette base.
I've discussed this over the years, but it's time for a refresher. Having a batch of it in your refrigerator, along with my other contribution to the salad world -- the salad box -- makes nightly salad construction painless and delicious.
I'm also blogging this week on Vinaigrette 101, so for further tips, you can head to janrd.com.
Meanwhile, read on...
Jan's salad box
This is my most treasured kitchen tip I will share with you today. This single store-bought phenomenon has turned salad construction into a delight. Here's how it works:
The box: First, purchase a food-grade clear plastic box (with lid) that is large enough to hold the equivalent of at least 5 nights worth of salad greens. Obviously, it needs to be small enough to fit on a shelf in your refrigerator. My own purchase is a Rubbermaid model measuring 11 by 16 inches, and is 6 inches tall.
The makings: Purchase your salad greens. NOT the "Salad In A Bag" variety. We're talking genuine heads of lettuce, with all of the leaves still attached to the stem. I buy 6-pack bags of Romaine lettuce hearts from Costco.
Get ready: Prep your greens for the box by removing each and every leaf and rinsing them in cool water. Vigorously shake the leaves (but don't dry them) and arrange them in the box. I like to arrange them in two or three groupings, beginning with the darkest and least crunchy at one end and the crunchiest at the other. That way, when making my salad each night, I can easily monitor the balance of textures.
That's it. You will be shocked at how dramatically this simple box will alter your attitude about throwing together the evening salad. No wrestling with grimy Romaine leaves at the last minute. No pawing through slimy butterleaf in a clinging plastic produce bag. The box keeps the collection of greens hydrated and crisp down to the last leaf. And the prep work has already been done.
The rest: OK, so what happens to all the other salad ingredients, you ask. Won't they continue to wreak havoc on one another in the vegetable bins?
Nope. When I removed the lettuce element from that environment, all of the other vegetables suddenly behaved. Mainly because they were no longer fighting for space. But also, because it was suddenly easier to police the situation and nip any problems in the bud, so to speak.
The dressing
You know the biggest problem with homemade vinaigrettes? We store them in the refrigerator to keep all the herbs and garlic fresh, but when you go to use them -- if you haven't thought ahead and removed the vinaigrette from the fridge -- the olive oil is thick and gunky until it gets to room temperature.
So, I've developed this amazing "salad helper." It's a vinaigrette base made from red wine vinegar with gobs of minced garlic, lots of fresh-ground peppercorns, salt and a pinch of sugar.
Store THIS mixture in the refrigerator and keep the olive oil in the pantry at room temperature.
Then, when you're ready to toss the evening salad, just whisk together some of the zesty vinaigrette base with the desired amount of your room-temp olive oil and you've got a tossed-green in no time.
Jan's amazing vinaigrette base
3 cups red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons chopped fresh garlic (6 large cloves)
1 3/4 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Whisk together all the ingredients in a bowl (preferably one with a pouring spout). Select a 3- to 4-cup capacity bottle or jar with a screw-top lid (consider using empty liquor or water bottles). Pour the prepared vinegar mixture through a funnel into the bottle and store in the refrigerator.
To prepare vinaigrette as needed, whisk together desired amounts of the vinegar base with good quality olive oil. You can either do this right in the salad bowl and toss with the salad ingredients, or you can whisk a small amount in a separate cup then drizzle over your salad before tossing.
Makes 3 cups of vinaigrette base, enough to create at least 6 cups of vinaigrette. That's a ratio of 1 part vinaigrette base to 1 part olive oil; some people prefer an oilier vinaigrette, in which case, your vinaigrette base will make considerably more vinaigrette.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Ore., food writer, artist, and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit," and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.
Story tags » Cooking

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