How to make the perfect salad

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A few years ago my daughter was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and was advised to eliminate common inflammatory foods like gluten, dairy and processed sugar. She was only 11 at the time and she didn't want to be the only one in the family eating a different way so I decided to join her (spoiler alert: we both ended up feeling a whole lot better).

I'm not gonna lie to you. At first it was hard! But the truth is that I don't really miss those things anymore. I've found that my body can tolerate a little sheep and goat's milk cheese and because I live in the real world I also enjoy things like dark chocolate, ice cream (have you tried Frankie & Jo's?) and the occasional gluten-free brownie. But the best part about the dietary changes was all the food I started adding in: fermented foods, nuts and seeds, and aaaallll  the veggies I could get my hands on.

As a result, I got much more creative in the kitchen and I perfected my salad game. I knew if I made a delicious and beautiful salad that there would always be something my daughter and I could eat at potlucks and lunch would be a stress-free affair. Plus salads typically are, by definition, all about vegetables and we all know that eating more vegetables is always the right choice.

Now I’m kind of  known as the salad queen (ok, maybe I gave myself that moniker, but I have been told that my salads rule) and I pride myself in making delicious, interesting and colorful salads, bursting with health and vibrancy. I've learned to look for the best seasonal ingredients and to get creative with what I have on hand (leftovers can be the best addition to salads!).

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The main thing to keep in mind when you’re making a salad is that anything goes. There really isn’t a ‘wrong’ way to do it and salads can differ according to taste. I, for one, can’t stand raw onion or garlic in my salad and raw shallots are only barely acceptable. But if you like them then by all means use them! I add crunch in the form of toasted nuts and seeds instead of croutons but if you're a crouton fiend then have at it.  I typically opt for lots of avocado instead of cheese but if you can’t imagine a salad without some feta or parmesan then don’t let me stop you.

Here are some of my favorite salad guidelines and suggestions, but the most important one is have fun and feel confident that you are doing something wonderful for yourself in the name of good health.

1. Start with fresh, seasonal ingredients.

This means things like asparagus and snap peas in the spring, tomatoes, beans and corn in the summer, root vegetables and butternut squash in the fall and citrus, sunchokes and roasted brassicas in the winter. Consult EWG’s list of the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen to know which fruits and vegetables are best eaten organic and which ones have the least amount of pesticides.

2. Play with shapes and sizes.

Thinly sliced or shaved, uniformly diced or a mix of shapes and sizes -  it’s all fine. Make sure your knives are sharp to keep things running smoothly! There are some people who say that lettuce should be torn and not cut but I’m not one of them. I do like to keep most of my vegetables bite-sized or smaller because It’s not fun to take a bite of salad only to find out that your lettuce leaf is more than a mouthful. 

3. Texture and color are key.

Crunchy vegetables like carrots, fennel or cucumber, toothy vegetables mushrooms, steamed asparagus or roasted beets, creamy additions like avocado or goat cheese and things with a pop like toasted pepitas or cherry tomatoes are some examples of things you can add to keep your salad varied and interesting. Items like grilled corn, broccoli sprouts and baked radish chips are also a nice textural touch. Purple carrots, yellow bell peppers, bright pink watermelon radishes and fermented beets are among veggies that add a beautiful and varied color palate to your salad.

4. Small amounts of flavor boosters go a long way.

Fresh herbs, pesto, nitrate-free bacon or salami, preserved lemon and thinly sliced nori add a big punch and help make your salad be extra delicious. Don’t forget the sea salt and freshly ground pepper!

5. Dressings don’t have to be complicated.

As a rule, use 2/3 oil to 1/3 acid and improvise from there. My go-to dressing is a good quality organic olive oil with either balsamic, red wine or balsamic vinegar. To that I add a dollop of my all-time favorite mustard and freshly ground salt and pepper. This combo has never, ever failed me. Other ideas include using sesame oil or tahini with fresh lemon or lime juice or rice wine vinegar. Optional add-ins include things like pomegranate molasses, miso, ginger, spices, shallots, anchovy, garlic, and honey. 

Here are some mix and match ingredient ideas for making the perfect salad.

Base: lettuce (from butterhead to mesclun there are lots of varieties), spinach, kale, chard, arugula and cabbage.

Raw veggies: carrots, cucumbers, bell peppers, fennel, sugar snap peas, red onion, jicama, radishes, red or yellow cherry tomatoes, sunchokes, mushrooms, green or purple cabbage, tiny broccoli florets, celery, watercress, micro-greens.

Something cooked or steamed: asparagus, roasted veggies (beets, parsnips, butternut squash, potatoes or sweet potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli), snap peas, shaved corn off the cob, grilled zucchini, caramelized onions, artichoke hearts.

Optional protein: pastured chicken, turkey and eggs, wild caught salmon and shrimp, beans and organic edamame, toasted nuts and seeds, pastured bacon and salami, grilled haloumi, crumbled goat cheese or sheep’s milk feta.

Delicious extras: avocado, olives, fermented or pickled veggies, fresh herbs, thinly baked root veggie chips, quinoa, olives, sprouts, sun dried tomatoes, thinly sliced nori, leftovers!

I encourage you to experiment with items you've never tried or only had in restaurants - and have fun with it. Joining a CSA is a great way to try out new veggies and so is a subscription to Imperfect Produce where you can choose what goes in your weekly box AND it's about 30-50% less that retail because it's "imperfect." Read more and sign up here with this link.

Here's to your salad days!