No matter how many salad epiphanies one experiences, the next rut never seems very far off. Inevitably, you find yourself shoveling in oiled-and-vinegared lettuce with the same insolence you felt as a child shoveling down steamed broccoli so you could move on to dessert.
I find that the quickest way out of the salad doldrums is to alter one element of an existing recipe — say, the dressing or a main vegetable — then see what other changes it inspires based on whatever else may be languishing in your pantry or fridge.
Here are some examples:
- Instead of mincing raw shallots into my go-to lemon vinaigrette for a leafy green salad, I'll perhaps slice and fry the shallots in neutral oil to use as a garnish. Maybe I'll add a bit of yogurt and curry powder to the dressing while I'm at it.
- What if I made a Greek village salad (cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet peppers, olives and feta), but I blistered the sweet peppers instead of serving them raw? That could tempt me to also swap out the feta for halloumi, which I may sear in a pan to add another caramelized element.
- How about I make a simple mustardy vinaigrette (Dijon, white wine vinegar, olive oil, S+P), but instead of tossing it with lettuce like usual, I'll add a mess of thinly shaved crunchy veggies like carrots, fennel, radishes and red onions? Then I'll dot the whole thing with blue cheese crumbles and quick-candied walnut pieces for salty creaminess and sugary crunch, respectively.
- Why don't I thin out my standard basil pesto recipe with extra lemon juice and olive oil in the food processor to make it more dressing-like? I'll add a handful of mint leaves and half a serrano pepper to the mix, blitz it and boom — zhoug vinaigrette! I bet that would taste heavenly tossed with cooked farro, white beans and arugula or roasted (and cooled) sweet potatoes and frisée.
- Maybe instead of slicing up crisp romaine leaves, I'll quarter and grill a head of radicchio, then toss it into my favorite caesar dressing. Would a little thinly-sliced, raw kale go nicely in there, too? No doubt.
- Israeli couscous salad with cucumbers in garlicky tahini dressing, but this time, cut the cucumber into long slabs and sear it in a pan.
. . . you get the idea.
Even within this sample size of salad-free association, you perhaps noticed a theme of mixing raw and cooked ingredients — aka my secret weapon for digging out of your next salad rut. Combining raw veggies with grilled, fried, roasted or seared ones creates wonderful variations in texture and lends depth and caramelized sweetness. Sure, the combinations sometimes don't work, but even within those occasional salad fails, I'll discover a combination I hadn't thought of or a new-to-me way to serve an ingredient.
Want more great food writing and recipes? Subscribe to Salon Food's newsletter.
Indeed, this very approach inspired the wintry panzanella I'm sharing below. Normally, a summery affair of tomatoes, cukes and fresh croutons in sherry vinaigrette, this retooled version stars celery, radicchio, parsley, boiled potatoes and — of course — fresh croutons. I tossed it in tangy caper-mustard dressing and added hard-boiled eggs to make it substantial enough for a hearty lunch or light dinner.
I created this filling salad to use up leftover celery. It's essentially a glorified potato salad, plus croutons (because who doesn't love panzanella?). I must also warn you that it's a multi-stage recipe — meaning you'll dirty a few more pots than I typically like — but, oh, will you be rewarded! You can hard-boil the eggs up to two days in advance if you'd like, and keep them unpeeled in the fridge until ready to serve.
Recipe: Wintry Panzanella
- 2 eggs
- Kosher salt, as needed
- 2 medium potatoes, 1/2-inch diced (I like red or Yukon gold potatoes here)
- Olive oil, as needed
- 1 large garlic clove, still in its jacket
- 2 slices sourdough bread
- 1 small shallot, peeled and minced
- 1 Tbsp drained capers (chopped cornichons work in a pinch)
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- 1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
- 3 large ribs celery, sliced on a bias
- 1/2 small head radicchio, thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup Italian parsley leaves
Make perfect hard-cooked eggs: I use a slight variation on chef Nancy Silverton's method. Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil over high heat. Add 1 tsp. kosher salt. (The salt is to help the whites quickly solidify if there's a crack in one of the eggs — it doesn't season the egg.) Carefully add the whole eggs, lower the heat and simmer the eggs for exactly 5 minutes.
Turn off the heat, and let the eggs sit in the hot water for 5 minutes. Remove with a spider strainer, and run them under cold water for 30 seconds. Set the eggs on the counter to finish cooling. Once cool, carefully peel them, and place the peeled eggs on the paper towels to dry while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
Boil the potatoes: Place the potatoes in a large saucepan. Add enough cold water to cover, plus a good pinch of salt. Cover and bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to medium high and cook until the potatoes are fork tender (about 8-10 minutes). Drain and let cool uncovered in the pot.
Make the croutons: Heat a medium skillet over medium heat with a few tablespoons of olive oil and the unpeeled garlic clove. Once the garlic starts sputtering, slide in the bread. Press it down for 15-20 seconds with a spatula to get as much surface area touching the pan as possible. Cook until golden on one side, then flip and repeat with side two, lowering the heat if it starts browning too fast. Add a bit more oil if the pan seems dry. Take care to also occasionally turn the garlic while you cook the bread so it browns evenly. When the bread is golden all over, remove it from the pan. Set on a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Remove the garlic clove, and place it on the same plate. Repeat with the second piece. Once the garlic is cool enough to handle, slip it out of its jacket, and rub its flesh all over both slices of bread. Stack the bread slices, and cut them into 1/2 cubes. Set aside.
Make the dressing: In the bottom of a large mixing bowl, combine the minced shallot, capers, mustard, white wine vinegar, about 1 tsp each salt and freshly ground black pepper. Slowly stream in about 1/4 cup olive oil, whisking constantly. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed with salt and pepper.
Assemble: Add the cooled potatoes, croutons, sliced celery, radicchio and parsley to the same bowl in which you made the dressing. Toss well to combine everything, drizzling in a bit more oil and/or vinegar if it seems dry. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if needed.
Quarter the eggs, and sprinkle with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of fresh pepper. Arrange the slices over the top of each salad and serve.
Chef's note: This would make an ideal side dish to a seared piece of fish finished with a spritz of lemon and a few fried capers.
More of our favorite salad recipes: