Every month, in Off-Script With Sohla, pro chef and flavor whisperer Sohla El-Waylly will introduce you to a must-know cooking technique — and then teach you how to detour it toward new adventures.
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I loved getting lost in a sea of choose-your-own adventure books as a kid. I reread them endlessly, discovering different routes along the way. I also cheated whenever an especially ominous choice was presented, going back and changing my answer if I didn't like where I ended up.
Being in quarantine really quells my sense of adventure, so making a big salad is my way of inserting some excitement into the day. What is a big salad, you ask? It's a bed of dressed greens topped with whatever your heart desires—roasted veggies, beans, cheese, torn bagels, fried mortadella — anything. And, thanks to this more-is-more attitude, it's a meal in itself, not a side.
These salads are so customizable, I can choose a different mix of ingredients every time, or bookmark any salad-story I want to eat on repeat. Use this handy guide to go off-script and become your own big salad storyteller, choosing a new sal-adventure every time!
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Crisp and Crunchy
I like to start with a crisp, crunchy lettuce base. You can't go wrong with tender Little Gems, but bitter chicories, like endive or radicchio, create a dynamic foundation — perfect for topping with zingy citrus or sweet dried fruit. Proper salad etiquette dictates that the greens be cold, clean, and dry. I make sure to wash my greens ahead of time and store them in the crisper drawer wrapped in a kitchen towel or tucked into a produce bag, so they are ready to salad whenever I am. I never cut or tear them until right before dressing.
There are so many flavorful components in a big salad that, when it comes to the dressing, I never use anything too creamy or rich, sticking to a simple vinaigrette instead. Keep it perky with equal parts oil and vinegar or lemon juice — or both! Combining different acidic ingredients in one dressing, like apple cider vinegar with lemon juice or red wine vinegar with sumac, makes a vibrant dressing that brightens up different parts of your palate. Mustard, honey, and maple syrup add both flavor and body, while fresh or dried herbs and ground spices bring the personality. Whisk it all together or shake it up in a lidded jar for easy emulsifying.
Now onto the fun part, the toppers.
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The fun of eating a good salad comes from digging into a wide range of textures. The opportunities are endless: You will catch me toasting seeds and nuts in ghee when I'm feeling indulgent or charring them in a cast-iron pan when I want a bitter edge. Any leftover bread can be transformed into a crouton: torn, toasted, and tossed in seasonings. Cheese can be grated and cooked in a nonstick skillet until it melts into a lacy frico (or sear up an entire slice of provolone until brown and crunchy like I do in my Italian Combo Salad). Potato chips and pork rinds from my snack cabinet can be crushed right on top. The crunch is where the party lies.
Sweetness gives little pops of "oh wow this is fun" as you eat. Chewy dried fruits, like dates, raisins, or cranberries bring textural good times as well. Fresh apples and pears lend salads a crisp sweetness, while citrus bursts with quenching acidity. Explore your pantry. And if you aren't sure if it will taste good, try some with a bite of dressed lettuce. Experimentation is key.
A big salad is an all-encompassing meal, so I like to make sure there's a complete protein. Complete proteins contain all the amino acids that our bodies need to create new protein. The source can range from cold cuts like turkey or salami, to pressed and grilled tofu, or even crispy fried eggs. Don't sleep on big hunks of your favorite cheese (or cheeses!) as a reliable source of protein. If I'm using beans, I make sure to complete them by throwing in croutons or nuts. With some thought and planning, there's no reason to not have a complete protein in your salad, even if you are out of animal protein or don't eat it.
This is another highly customizable area that changes based on my mood. For lunch, I try to keep things lighter with raw veggies like diced tomatoes, shaved celery, or sliced fennel. Raw vegetables add a crisp brightness, perfect for a filling but comfy lunch. For dinner, I tend to roast my vegetables to give them a little more heft and a deeper flavor. Play around with not just the type of vegetables, but how you prepare them, too.
Pickles give hits of joy as you navigate your salad. There's a variety of vegetables that I always pickle seasonally, depending on what I find at the farmers market. Everything from pickled ramps in the spring to pickled cherry tomatoes in the summer will find a happy home in a big salad. Don't worry if you don't have fancy homemade pickles — anything out of a jar is delicious as well. Think: cornichons, capers, olives. If you are making a salad with a lot of roasted vegetables or heavy proteins, make sure to add enough pickle-y components to keep the salad refreshing.
Now that you have a basic blueprint, go forth and construct your own big salad! Use as many or as few toppers as you like, based on how lazy or adventurous you're feeling. But never accept a medium-sized salad at your table again.