There was a time when the word "salad" referred to little more than a pile of iceberg lettuce. It was ornamentation, sometimes doused in a sickly-sweet, carrot-colored dressing described, inexplicably, as "French."
No one then may have actually wanted to eat a salad. It was punishment, a self-flagellation for all the truly delicious things we had been eating, for the jiggle we were slowly accruing. If you threw in a couple of cherry tomatoes and a few croutons so stale they resembled moon rocks, you could tote one of those travesties to a summer potluck, and people would practically thank you for bringing something healthful. Then, something happened. A trend that traces right back to the produce aisles and to the boom in farmers markets, places where vegetables such as sweet potatoes, mache, turnip greens and ramps have turned up anew.
We have more ingredients within our reach. We also have more notions about how we might prepare them: Should we grill or spiralize? Go raw or serve our vegetables slightly warm? Amid all that change, the pallid pile of lettuce and bacon bits went out. Complexity is in. And a modern salad can require as much thinking - and, occasionally, cooking - as an elaborate main course. These days, it often is the main course. If your salad making skills haven't quite kept pace, one could hardly blame you.
"When you have all these ingredients, that's the hard part," says Michael Stebner, culinary director for the salad chain Sweetgreen, which dishes up bowls with as many as eight components, some of them as labor-intensive as spicy, blackened broccoli or baked falafel. We all wonder, he says, "How am I going to compose a salad that isn't confusing?" Here's how: Follow these tips from Stebner for upping your salad game.
Pluck one or two in-season vegetables to be your salad's stars.
Homing in on a few main flavors will help keep even an elaborate salad grounded. Let the season dictate what those flavors should be.
"Don't go to the market expecting to find something, and, if you don't find it, your plans are ruined," says Stebner. Choose what's sprouting up all over the markets you frequent. At the height of summer, it might be sweet corn and tomatoes, which Stebner picked to demonstrate how to compose a summer salad. Whatever you choose, however, it will taste better when it's in season.
More about seasonality: When the market is spilling over with vegetables at the height of summer, fight the urge to turn on the oven and, say, roast sweet potatoes. "This time of year, for me, it's about not cooking," Stebner says. If you're using in-season vegetables, they will be at their ripest and sweetest, and you can absolutely eat them raw, with a hint of seasoning. "The ingredients do all the work," Stebner says. (Worthy exception: making use of the grill and your stockpile of briquettes to blacken corn, chilies or, if you're feeling really rock-and-roll, romaine lettuce.)
Once the weather turns and you're staring down piles of cauliflower, potatoes and Brussels sprouts, by all means, turn on the oven and roast them, and season heavily. "In the winter," Stebner says, "you're going for deeper, more rich flavors."
You're going to need some inspiration.
You've arrived at the most confounding moment in salad making: What do you add now? Having a game plan helps, and how you arrive at it varies. Maybe you want to tweak a Caesar salad, or channel the flavors of shawarma. Or you can let the market guide you. Stebner likes to heed the old farming proverb "what grows together, goes together"; it's why he chose to pair corn with tomatoes, because both reach their peak at roughly the same time of year. It also explains why, in the chillier months, crunchy beets pair so perfectly with winter citrus such as grapefruit and blood orange.
You can also look for cultural inspiration in the ingredients you have on hand. Stebner kicked around a faintly Italian theme that would pair his market finds with basil and a burrata or mozzarella cheese. But then he grabbed a few sweet peppers and avocados, and his concept changed. He reached for chewy, mild halloumi cheese and then could see he had in hand exactly what he needed for a meatless dish with a tinge of Latin American influence: a marinated corn salad with peppers and avocado.