Saturday, September 7, 2013

Salads and Menu Planning

Salads are one of those things that people either love to make, or hate to make.
At our house, receiving an assignment for making the salad for dinner could usually elicit a groan (this was, no doubt, because salads are both tedious and completely boring).

Having said that, I don't think people are quite so strongly polarized when it comes to actually eating salad.

Most of the time I prefer to make plated composed salads to tossed salads- for several reasons.
It was always one of those frustrating things that once a salad is tossed, all of the exciting additions to the greens fall to the bottom of the bowl. If the person plating the salads wasn't paying attention or didn't care, those people at the beginning of service would end up with a plate full of leaves, while others would have some leaves along with lots of the other goodies mixed in.
Composed salads are visually appealing and even when it comes to those extra things that make salads specific.
Things are arranged more neatly and divided more evenly.

Part of the problem with those composed salads is that they take a little more last-minute time and attention. It's fine if you're organized and all prepared, but can be a tad difficult if you're in a rush.

My preference are the more "green" greens, such as a spring mix that includes a variety of lettuces and other greens such as spinach and arugula.
And please don't think that just because all those greens look like leaves they all taste the same. Nope.
While they could be subtle, the differences are there.
Some, like arugula or watercress, are peppery. Others, such as baby spinach and some of the more delicate lettuces are silky and buttery.

Another great reason for the composed salad: once very delicate greens are tossed with a vinaigrette they being to wilt. They will remain more their fresh and perky selves without being fully coated in vinaigrette. The effect isn't quite the same if someone either sits down to, or is served a flat salad.
It's not so much a problem for the more sturdy lettuces like iceberg or romaine.
But nutritionally, there's more value vitamin and mineral-wise in the deeper, darker greens. Just keep that in mind when creating a salad or making a choice at the market.

Everything in a salad has a purpose (or more likely, they have more than one).
Some things add color, others bring texture to the dish (both visual and gustatory/tactile), and others add  variety of flavor. All are important to think about when making a salad.

I'm not quite sure if I've mentioned all of this before, of if I've only thought about saying it (so bear with me here). I think it's important to think about all the elements when putting a salad together. In fact, I sort of go about putting a salad together in the same way I put a meal together. Let's say it's three courses: salad, main, and dessert. Fist thing is to choose a place to start and build the meal around that. Maybe I choose the dessert first:  crème brûlée. Then I think about things that are characteristic for that dessert- let's say cold, delicate flavor, and cream. I don't want a lot, or maybe even any, cream in the rest of the meal. Creamy dressing on the salad, heavy creamy sauce with the main, creamed spinach for the vegetable... it's too much. That, and I don't want a plate full of creamy shades of white (sorry, but it's not the most appetizing thing to see).

Another way to go is to balance things that compliment and contrast at the same time. The main could have a lot of flavor if you use ingredients like wine, lemon, garlic, and herbs. What about a roast chicken or roasted chicken breasts?
When I serve a main, it's usually with a vegetable and a starch. Because we're planning the meat with a has a lot of flavor, at least one of the sides should have a quieter tone. Let's say a rice pilaf made with chicken broth, onion, and herbs, with flavors that aren't overly bold don't fight those of the meat.
And for the vegetable? I might go with roasted garlic broccoli. It has it's own flavor, a kick with the red pepper flakes, but in my opinion it still works with the rest of the meal. Maybe sauteed asparagus (a little olive oil, salt and pepper) would be nice as another option.
I don't necessarily think you have to stick to one style, theme, or country when planning a meal, but the foods do have to work together in some sense.
They can contrast  to some extent, but they still have to be complementary. To round it all off (and to start), a very fresh-tasting salad with freshly made vinaigrette, very simple with just a variety of greens and the vinaigrette if the main is more complex, and as things turn out it's not a completely overwhelming meal to the senses (though hopefully it's appealing).

So hopefully, with that short meal analogy, there's a sense of how a salad can be put together. Think of variety, think of flavor, compliments and contrast, along with colors and textures.

I hadn't planned on writing so much as I look back at this- it's just salad.

And that salad I made...
I started this post a while back. The salad looked good, but I wasn't a huge fan of the vinaigrette... I'll have to work on it a bit. There were certain flavors I wanted to include, but it didn't quite work out. 
The addition of raspberries was an afterthought- that bit of extra fruitiness was really nice and it certainly helped.

That said, I know I said it's great to make something that's visually appealing in addition to being pleasant to taste. But I (and hopefully everyone else) would much rather eat something that tasted fantastic but didn't look exceptional than having things the other way around.  And that's why this particular salad will not be served to anyone any time soon.

Once the vinaigrette is "fixed" I think some other potential additions could be:
sliced strawberries
ripe cubed mango
grilled chicken

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