By Rose McAvoy
Don’t let salad be the ugly stepsister of your Thanksgiving feast. Hearty salads are one of this autumn’s most underrated treasures. Simple vibrant produce and a homemade vinaigrette are all you need to make a salad so beautiful diners will ask for seconds!
Craft your salad
Kale or spinach are my favorite leafy greens, both can handle being dressed a little in advance of a meal. In fact, the acid in your homemade vinaigrette (keep reading) will tenderize their thick leaves turning them softer and easier to eat. It also allows their super food vitamins and minerals to be more easily absorbed by your digestive system, but it’s a holiday so we don’t need to talk much about that right now.
Once you have the greens as a base, accessorize them with an array of colors and textures.
Roasted squash or sweet potato elevates any salad to full on side dish status. Roasting these starches gives them a deeper flavor and a very satisfying mouth feel that pairs well with the dense greens. After cooking, allow the squash or potatoes to just above room temperature before cubing and adding to the greens.
With the hearty tummy filling components ready to go, balance your salad with the sharpness of thinly sliced raw onion. A modest sprinkling of shaved red onion, shallots, or the whites of bright green onions are all great in a festive salad.
Now add fruit. Diced lightly sweet apples are a fantastic option. Honey Crisp, Gala, Fuji are accessible varieties that spring to mind if you are looking for something that won’t go mushy. I also like the fresh flavor of pears in an autumn salad as with apples make sure to pick a firmer variety with a crisp texture. The acid in your vinaigrette will keep the fruit from browning.
Pomegranates are wonderful throughout the holiday season. The ruby arils (seeds) look like precious jewels nestled among the dark leaves. When you pick a pomegranate make sure to take a moment and pick up several fruits. Choose one heavy for its size, these fruits will be the juiciest and most flavorful.
The best way to seed a pomegranate is to open it in a bowl of water and pop the arils out while the fruit is submerged. This technique reduces the amount of staining on your fingers and protects you and your kitchen from staining juice splatter.
I was recently talking salad with a wise friend who suggested roasting red grapes for a salad. These would be a really special addition if you are a guest contributing a salad to the feast. Busy holiday chefs can simply toss in a handful of halved or quartered cold grapes.
Dress it up!
All our ingredients assembled, now it’s time to talk dressing. If you have never made salad dressing before, you may be surprised by how laughably simple it is. My basic vinaigrette formula is 1/4 cup. vinegar to 2 tablespoons of olive oil, a bit of mustard (1 tsp ground or 1TB of the condiment), salt &pepper. That’s it!
Customizing your salad dressing is as easy as 1-2-3! Grab a jar or bottle with a lid and pick an item from each section below.
1. Oil: Salad dressing oils should bring something to the party. My stand by is extra virgin olive oil. Before gluging the oil into your dressing container make sure to give it a taste test. Olive oil should taste light and fruity. There are many other great choices beyond olive. Walnut, sesame, avocado, or oils infused with roasted garlic or chilies can give fantastic character to the most basic dressing.
2. Vinegar: As the name implies, vinegar is the most widely used acid in a vinaigrette. There are endless options when it comes to vinegar. My cabinet currently houses a meager 8 varieties of vinegar including rice, traditional and white balsamic, apple cider, and red wine. There are also two aged balsamic reductions that are pure syrupy goodness as mentioned above that I reserve for these drizzling directly over salads all by themselves.
Beyond vinegar: In addition to or in place of vinegar you could use freshly squeezed citrus juices including lime, orange, or grapefruit. For a richer dressing try cranberry or apple juice or even cranberry or apple sauce! Soy or fish sauce can bring a little Asian flair to your dressing. Wine or even champagne provide a sophisticated twist. My first choice of wine would be a dry white but choose a wine that goes with the food you are serving, start with a small amount and see what you think.
3. Emulsify: Oil and vinegar go together like, well, oil and vinegar; so to play nice they need an emulsifier. A bit of mustard, garlic, tomato paste, will help the these opposites come together harmoniously — sort of the culinary version of “We are the World.”
Once you have mastered the basics go beyond and be inspired other things in your fridge – what about green curry paste, buffalo wing sauce, or bbq sauce? Give them a try and see what happens!
Add a touch of sweetness with some honey, molasses, or stevia. Then finish your dressing with some salt and pepper, close the lid, and give the jar a couple quick shakes. Lightly dress your colorful salad and gently fold it all together with some tongs.
I feel confident that a stunning salad with a simple dressing will be greedily gobbled up on Turkey Day.