Secrets to Best Salads: Freshness, Crunch, Balance and a Surprise Element

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I love salad. What makes a great salad? Fresh, crisp produce. What makes a salad extraordinary? Balance and surprise.

Take for example a stunning salad made from four citrus fruits, hearty endives and colorful chicories on the menu at one restaurant in San Francisco. There, the chef-owners shave ricotta salata in thin curls over the salad to transport it well beyond any predictable bowl of greens.

Of course, salads prove best when composed of in-season produce. The neat and tidy piles of red and green radicchios, endives and chicories we spied on a visit to the San Francisco farmer’s market in the Ferry Building help demystify the chefs’ creation; likewise, the inspiring variety of fresh, seasonal citrus at nearby stalls.

Back home, I am happy to find a wide selection of citrus in large supermarkets. That means I can add wedges of satsuma mandarins, slices of Oro Blanco grapefruit and blood orange to my salad and Meyer lemon to the dressing.

As for the greens, I turn to author Deborah Madison for help understanding endive. In her book, Madison writes of the confusing nomenclature of chicories and endive. She gives their Latin names, Chichorium intybus and Chichorium endivia. What really matters to me is that these are greens with sturdy leaves and slightly bitter flavors — delicious for pairing with citrus.

Most of us can find plump heads of Belgian endive and magenta-red Chioggia radicchio. It’s more unusual to find Treviso — those oblong heads that taste milder than Chioggia radicchio. Curly endive and escarole tend to be readily available, but require just the right dressing to counter their bitter toughness. I employ vinegars with deep flavor, strong cheeses and rich toppings such as toasted nuts or hard-cooked eggs.

Another favorite cold weather salad combines roast chicken with pickles. Yes, chicken salad can be relevant during cold weather months. The trick is to serve the combination without chilling it like we do in summer. Plus, a bit of smoky chipotle (Parve) in the dressing warms up everything.

The key to good chicken salad is using top-notch chicken, of course. In a pinch, I’ll use a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store and pull the meat away from the skin and bones. However, most rotisserie chickens tend to have a mushy texture and dry meat.

Better is homemade roasted chicken — there’s no prep time, just oven time. So, when I’m roasting one chicken for dinner, I make an extra for other weeknights. One small chicken yields about 4 cups of shredded meat.

For super-moist chicken, I poach boneless, skinless pieces in chicken broth. It takes less than 15 minutes to poach chicken this way and the texture is worth the time. A bonus: flavorful poaching liquid to use in soups or stews later, or to season with salt and a pinch of curry powder for a liquid, low-calorie snack.

Tips for Salad Greatness

Homemade dressing. The single best way to improve your salads is to blend a few ingredients in a jar for a superior-tasting, low-sugar, preservative-free topping. Dressings can range from vinegar and oil to more elaborate concoctions with cream, fresh herbs or interesting spices. Homemade vinaigrettes and salad dressings keep well in the refrigerator — a week or so for cream-based, longer for simple vinaigrettes. Use them at room temperature for maximum flavor and palatability.

Freshness. Think freshness from crisp salad greens, crunchy green onions and perfectly ripe tomatoes when in season.

Crunch. Nuts and croutons, obviously, but other options include crisp apples and raw root vegetables such as diced kohlrabi, shredded beets, carrot curls and paper-thin radish slices.

Richness. This can come from a delicious olive oil drizzle, shreds or cubes of cheese, avocado chunks or bits of cooked smoked meat. Alternatively, a tiny portion of cream, yogurt or sour cream added to a vinaigrette enriches a salad with minimal calories.

Acid. Brighten any salad, any season, with delicious vinegar. I change it up a bit by keeping a stash of cider, malt, sherry, red and white wine vinegars and balsamic vinegars (affordable bottles of red and white as well as a more expensive aged balsamic for judicious drizzling). Fresh lemon, lime and grapefruit juices can also form the base of a great vinaigrette.

Salt. Yes, salt can make or break a salad. Most vegetables benefit from a little salt to enhance their natural flavors. Salt can also come in the form of shredded or grated aged cheese.

Protein. Even a side salad offers more long-lasting satisfaction with a bit of protein added. This can be as simple as a few nuts or shreds of cheese. Wedges of hard cooked-egg and canned beans, along with their low cost, have the benefit of adding unique texture. With a bit of planning, diced or shredded fully-cooked meat and poultry make a salad a main-dish contender.

Surprise. One surprising ingredient can ward off salad boredom no matter the season. In winter months, clementine or grapefruit segments, sliced olives and diced pickled vegetables prove welcome in just about any salad. During the growing season, I add slices of ripe tomatoes and peaches, asparagus tips and sliced stalks, fresh peas in or out of the pod, ripe berries and shaved summer squash.

How to Poach Chicken

Put 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs and 2 cups chicken broth into a shallow pan. Heat over medium-low heat to a simmer. Reduce heat to low, cover loosely and let chicken cook until the meat feels almost firm when pressed, usually 10 to 14 minutes. Remove with tongs to a board to cool. Add 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts to the poaching liquid, and add water if needed so the meat is mostly immersed in liquid. Heat to a very gentle simmer; cover loosely and allow to poach until nearly firm, usually 8 to 12 minutes. Remove with tongs to the board and let cool. When cool, pull the chicken into large shreds or dice with a knife. Refrigerate covered up to several days. Strain the poaching liquid and use it in soups or stews within a few days, or freeze and use later to poach more chicken.

Prep: 5 minutes

Makes: a generous 1/2 cup

Change the types of oil, vinegar and mustard for flavor variations. Use agave syrup for a hint of sweetness.

Put oils, vinegar, mustard and salt into a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake well. Add pepper and mix again. Refrigerate covered up to 2 weeks. Use at room temperature.


1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons mild-tasting oil, such as safflower oil, or bold-flavored oil, such as walnut oil or hazelnut oil

3 tablespoons delicious vinegar, such as red wine vinegar or white wine vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon agave syrup or 1/4 teaspoon sugar, optional

1/4 teaspoon grated lemon rind, optional

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Nutrition information per tablespoon: 91 calories, 10 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 0 g protein, 161 mg sodium, 0 g fiber.

Many ingredients are prone to infestation. Please consult a local Rav for specific guidelines on how to avoid transgressions related to insects.