Have you ever had a restaurant salad that just took your breath away? One where everything is in balance, it's not gasping for life under a soggy dressing, and the lettuce is crackly-crisp and tender as angel wings? You can do that at home, too.
Here are three easy steps to rescue your salads from being sad and pathetic, including a fast and easy no-measure Classic French Vinaigrette. You'll see how fun and easy it is to take that basic ratio and create an infinite variety of vinaigrette options.
Dry Leaves for a Crisp Salad
Whether you wash your lettuce leaves or use pre-washed, thoroughly drying them will help make your salad restaurant-quality. I pile my washed greens into the center of a thin dish towel, fold the long edges over the leaves, gather the corners into my fist and walk outside.
Here's where it gets weird. I stand in the grass swinging the dishtowel of lettuce around and around in huge arm circles like we did in grade-school calisthenics. The centrifugal force is enough to make and water fly out, but not harsh enough to maul the leaves. My neighbors think I'm a total nut. This is the price I pay for perfect salad.
Dry leaves accept a light coating of vinaigrette, and the salad will go to the table with its crisp crunch that won't fade through the meal.
Dry lettuce makes an amazing difference. And, hey, you get in a little exercise.
Dress and Toss For Success
Yes, your homemade vinaigrette makes an enormous difference, but the quantity you use is just as critical to a memorable salad.
With a great big bowl of lettuce-based salad and a nice homemade Classic French Vinaigrette, you likely need only one or two Tablespoons of dressing. This is true.
You won't believe it until you start tossing. And tossing, and tossing. Using two large spoons, gently turn your leaves over and over and over. In a minute, you'll see the dressing not dripping and puddling in the bowl-- it will be evenly clinging ever-so-gently on all the surfaces of the lettuce without bogging it down.
Lightly-dressed, your salad becomes a fresh and bouncy salad that is softly flavored with the lovely vinaigrette, as perfect salad was made to be.
A little bit of great vinaigrette, a lot of tossing. Try it!
Go Easy on Add-Ins
I love a salad that's loaded with vegetables, fruits, cheeses, nuts, croutons, and the works, but that can put a lot of pressure on your tender lettuce. There are a few ways you can remedy this.
One way is to simply go lighter with your added ingredients, as in the salad below.
Secondly, if you plan to toss the salad before serving, put heavy add-ins in the bottom of your bowl, then top with the lettuces and dressing, tossing the lettuce without spooning down to the other ingredients. In the last toss or two, scoop down to bring the heavier ingredients up to the top, and serve with dispatch.
Thirdly, toss your lettuce with your fantastic homemade vinaigrette and arrange it on a platter. Now place your other vegetables and ingredients into the bowl, add a little dressing, and toss them separately before gently placing them on the lettuce. Once again, serve right away.
Lastly, my favorite way to keep heavy ingredients from collapsing the life out of the lettuce is especially nice if you need to make the salad a little ahead of serving. Toss the lettuce and dressing and place on a serving platter. Mound each separate ingredient on your cutting board and drizzle each one with a few drops of dressing and toss it with your hands before moving on the the next. Take each separate pile of goodies and make a little space between the leaves and place it there. Be an artist and arrange these colorful piles around the lettuce.
This last method is perfect for gatherings and parties. Create some gorgeous salad-as-a-meal platters that present beautifully, and either toss it together tableside, or allow your fellow diners to select and build their own plates from your creation.
One Set of Ratios, Infinite Options
This no-measure recipe offers you a few measurements as guidance to get you started, but soon you'll just grab a spoon, a jar and a knife and whip dressings and marinades out like you're the garde-manger of your favorite French restaurant.
Classic French Vinaigrette and Infinite Variations
Use no-measure easy ratios and flavorful vinegars, oils, aromatics, herbs, sweeteners, and emulsifiers to create a world of your own customized vinaigrettes and marinades. Taking your salads from boring, limp, and soggy to exciting, crisp and refreshing couldn't be easier.
For each of the three variations and all of your own creations:
In the bottom of the jar, put all of the ingredients except the vinegar and olive oil. Be generous with the salt-- it's the only salt all your salad vegetables will get!
Eyeballing it, pour vinegar into the jar until is about half full.
Eyeballing it again, pour in about the same amount of the olive oil as vinegar and other ingredients until the jar is 1/2 full. Screw the lid on tightly (very important!) and shake like heck.
Viola! You've made a fabulous vinaigrette!
A word about proportions: We're working in equal proportions of vinegar + aromatics/sweeteners to olive oil. To make less vinaigrette, fill the jar with fewer aromatic ingredients and vinegar. Then just match the height of olive oil in the jar to the height of the things in the bottom of the jar. (If your aromatics and vinegar come ¼ of the way up the jar, add about that same amount of oil to make the jar only half full. Sometimes I only want a tiny bit of vinaigrette for just one salad, and I may only put ¼" of flavorful ingredients and vinegar in the bottom of the jar, topped off with ¼" of olive oil. It's all a matter of ratios, not a matter of strict measurements!
Make it Your Own:Aromatics, singular or in combination:
any mustard, except yellow
any chopped fresh or dried herbs
smashed strawberries, blackberries, or blueberries
jam or jelly
a touch of sugar
any kind of citrus juice
almost any kind of vinegar
red wine, white wine, sherry or champagne
fruit and berry varieties
rice and rice wine
balsamic and white balsamic
high quality olive oil
neutral-flavored vegetable or canola oil
a few drops of sesame oil in addition to one of the above
Have you ever thought about making celery a central stand-alone side-dish? I'm going out on a limb here to suggest, no, maybe not. And there is a reason why celery is last to be chosen for Team Exciting Foods.
Grocery store celery is pale, stringy, flavorless, and waterlogged in comparison to locally-grown, bright green, crisp version that hasn't been trucked half-way around the world. Grocery-store celery is a good second-string addition to a soup, stew, or casserole where little is expected of it.
Farmers market or garden-grown celery, on the other hand, is heads above its grocery grocery store kin. If you want a true All-Star for the dinner plate win, growing some or buying direct from a farm is the only way to go.
Take a crack at the bat with this sautéed celery amandine. It is proof that celery is more than a minor-league bench player at your table.
Celery Amandine Throwback
Start with farm-fresh celery and a handful of other ingredients; Crushing the almonds gives them an interesting rustic texture; A quick sauté over medium-high heat; Side-dish home run!
This recipe comes from the wayback machine. My mom made it as a vegetable side dish when I was a kid and its crunchy, buttery, nutty place on my plate always made me happy. Spotting crisp bright organic celery at the farmers market recently brought it back to mind.
It takes four or five ingredients, and is table-ready in under 10 minutes.
I intentionally make extra of this, as it is a nice addition to a lunchtime rice and bean bowl, next to a scrambled egg, or sprinkled with a little vinegar or more lemon juice as a pickley nosh with a sandwich.
1small headgarden fresh celery (about 3-4 stalks per person)
¼cupraw whole almonds
4clovesgarlic, crushed and lightly chopped
1Tbsp.butter or ghee
1lemon, cut in wedges (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
Wash and dry the celery and slice it ¼- ½“ inch thick on a sharp diagonal. (The diagonals look beautiful, but also expose more surface area for flavor.) Crush the almonds with the bottom of a glass or by tapping on them with a meat mallet to get rough pieces of mixed sizes. Crush and lightly chop through the garlic cloves. (Crushing the nuts and garlic makes more textural and visual interest than chopping.) Slice the lemon into 6-8 wedges and flick away any seeds you see.
Heat a skillet to medium-high heat. (6.5 or 7 on my induction cooktop.) When the skillet is hot, add the butter and olive oil. Add the celery to the pan and give it a shake to let the slices settle in.
Toss the nuts, garlic and salt and pepper to taste on top of the celery. Stir a few times while the celery just begins to soften and turn bright green, about 4-5 minutes. Remove it from the heat before you think you should. You'll enjoy this best if the celery retains is crunchy texture.
Serve with a lemon wedge, if desired. This is good served right out of the skillet, or at room temperature.
Make It Your Own:For vegan option, replace the butter with cooking oil of your choice.Give this exact treatment to sugar peas in their pod- just a flash in the hot skillet with the other ingredients makes another vegetable winner!Omit the garlic if that's not for you.
You’re in the right place! I’m Pam Spettel, home cooking expert and guide, and I’m here to show you how to break up with cooking and hospitality anxiety, learn how to use recipes as guides rather than strict rules, and let your cooking intuition and confidence soar.
Superpower: Dreaming up recipes that work, serving them to my friends and family, and writing little stories about how cooking them well is the same as loving well.
Inspiration: Ingredients! The fresh, colorful, fragrant, local, seasonal ingredients found in the Pacific Northwest are my creative medium.
Heroes: Local food and wine producers– the people who keep me, my family, and our community nourished and happy.