Monday, January 2, 2012

Seven Top Tips for Glorious Summer Salads

Summer salads always arrive on the menu when the sun comes out, the temperatures warm-up, and the days lengthen. With all that re-newed activity taking place, it's always more encouraging to eat lighter, fresher and faster.

Maybe I'm alone here but I struggle with salads! Firstly I have a very low-boredom threshold so when I'm served up a mediocre salad which is mainly a few leaves (often straight out of the pack - mesculin salad you have a lot to answer for!!) and very little else I get frustrated. This is especially limiting as a gluten-free eater where something considerably more substantial is required to fill the spot.

So in an effort to inspire you to step outside the boundaries of what you consider 'salad' and 'salad ingredients', here are my 7 top tips for glorious summer salads.

1. Fresh is best

You can't beat fresh ingredients and the extra flavour they bring to a salad. There's nothing worse than limp lettuce or browned or limp leaves being served up. I'm still amazed how many times these turn up on my plate while eating out!

If your ingredients are fresh from the market all the better but that's not always possible. When composing your salad try to get as many fresh ingredients on there as possible as that's where the most nutrition is. At the end of the day you want your salad to be both nutritious and tasty.

Don't bother to add ingredients that might have been sitting around in your fridge for a week or two. Save them for soup! There's little goodness left after that time. You can taste old ingredients in salad or taste nothing. There's nothing worse than ruining your meal by eating your way through a load of old tasteless salad.

2. Get creative with ingredients

How many times do you trap your thinking into standard salad ingredients when you begin preparing? It's time to get creative and go wild with ingredients. I am a bit of a creative chef myself when composing any meal, but particularly when creating salads.

Go wild with veges. How about including some freshly cut green beans, grilled zucchini, avocado, grated beetroot, mushrooms, cherry tomatos, different coloured peppers, or shredded cabbage (red cabbage looks fabulous!). Or try something a little different like fennel, snow-peas, asparagus, or artichokes.

A scattering of cheese like shaved parmesan or crumbled blue cheese gives a scrummy taste boost. Torn mozzarella or crumbled feta are fab too.

How about adding some fruit? Cranberries, fresh blueberries, watermelon, sliced pear, orange or manderin segments all work well and provide a good taste balance to the savory ingredients. 
3. Think outside lettuce

The tired old iceburg lettuce turning up in salad has been a staple my whole life! I heave a silent sigh whenever I see it served up (usually with grated carrot, tomatos and cucumber). There are so many fabulous options out there.

If you're looking for greenery there are hundreds of different types to choose from. Ok maybe they're not all available at your local market, but if yours is anything like mine, there are at least six different types of lettuce off the top of my head. Some of my favs are cos, buttercrunch, and deer tongue. How about some fresh rocket (always my first choice) or baby spinach? Lettuce is super easy to grow at home, even if you only have a wee balcony.

How about leaving leaves out altogether? How about a fresh watermelon, feta, red onion, and basil salad? A salad of grated carrot, orange segments, cashews and cumin seeds? Or blanched broad beans, radish, red onion, and coriander? Puy lentils, oven-dried tomatos, red onion, parsley, chives and dill?

4. Add some protein

I'm a huge fan of adding protein to salad. Adding protein can turn your salad from a limp accompaniment to a meal in itself. This is especially important if you're feeding gluten-free or celiac diners who will, quite frankly, be starving within the hour if you're only feeding them a few leaves. It also takes quite a lot of energy to chew through lettuce and it's very disappointing if it's only going to temporarily fill the gap.

There is a wide selection of protein sources you can choose from. You can add chicken, beef, lamb, tuna (fresh or canned), salmon (ditto), shrimp, beans (chickpea, kidney, lima etc), lentils (puy are especially good), tofu, hard-boiled eggs, quinoa, rice, carrots, corn, or almonds. Just pick one or two from the list and scatter them through the salad.

If adding meat, I prefer to prepare my own then I know exactly what's in it. Cooking a whole chicken with stuffing will provide a family meal one night, and plenty more for a salad or two over the following few days.

At a stretch you could add bacon or cold cuts but by majority, these are highly processed and not recommended. As a gluten-free eater, I especially avoid cold cuts these days (although I admit to a love of salami which I can't quite kick).

5. Add seeds, nuts and fresh herbs

The secret to a tasty salad is adding little bursts of unexpected flavour. Seeds, nuts and fresh herbs are the perfect addition. Try seeds like sunflower, pumpkin, sesame or poppy seeds or a combination. Add some walnuts, almonds, cashews, macadamia, pecans or pinenuts. Toss in some pomegrante seeds which look superb.

There are no limits to the types of fresh herbs you can throw into your salad, nor the number of different types of herbs you can use in one salad. My favourite herbs are always basil and coriander. I also use fresh mint given half a chance. How about some Italian parsley, sage, thyme, dill, chives, or oregano? Or stretch out your culinary adventures and try lemon balm, dandelion, chicory, marshmellow or violets (yes, those cute little purple flowers are edible).

6. Let people dress their own salad

Individual tastes dictate a whole raft of preferences for salad dressings. I personally don't like salads swimming in oil, nor am a fan of creamy dressings or mayonnaise (mainly because they're usually not gluten-free).

This is especially important for gluten-free eaters. Numerous times I could have eaten a salad but discovered the dressing held nasty gluten. When given a choice, I simply opt for a light dressing of olive oil. If I'm making a dressing for others - I use oil, either lemon or lime juice or vinegar (usually balsamic), then add salt and peppers. Sometimes I might add fish sauce, sesame oil, grain mustard or tamari (wheat-free soya sauce).

Not dressing your salad also makes it last longer. Any uneaten salad can be popped in a container in the fridge for lunch the next day or the next night's dinner.

7. Serve it at room temperature

A chilled salad just doesn't cut it! It bites on the palate, hides the natural flavours of the ingredients, and quite frankly shows you're not thinking of the diner. Ok maybe the cleanliness brigade might disagree on this (but I'm all for letting my immune system naturally do its thing), but I think removing a pre-prepared salad from the fridge 1-2 hours before consuming is perfect. It takes that freezing chill off.

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