Salad for Supper: First Principles to Building a Great Salad

There are literally thousands of books about salads, so I can’t pretend to be an expert. My wife and I do eat salad for dinner fairly frequently, however – once or twice a week. As the weather warms we’ll be eating salad even more (and I’ll be featuring those recipes on The Manly Housekeeper more often, too).

When we decide to have salad for dinner, the next step isn’t to look for recipes. Instead, we look in our fridge, take an inventory of what ingredients we have, and then mix something together from there. Making a good salad is all about having the right building blocks, and following a few basic rules.

Building block No. 1: Keep a variety of types of lettuce on hand. I like to keep baby spinach, arugula and romaine in my fridge. Those three lettuces give me a variety of flavors, and I can pair them or use them separately.

Building block No. 2: Know your proteins. The vast majority of salads I make use either chicken or shrimp. That’s because it’s easy to keep chicken and shrimp in the freezer, ready for a last-minute salad. Your go-to protein might be cheese, flank steak or black beans. Just always have one available.

Building block No. 3: Always have a couple favorite toppings on hand. For me, those favorite toppings are tomatoes and artichoke hearts. I know if worst comes to worst, I can make a salad for dinner out of spinach, chicken, artichoke hearts and tomatoes, topped with a little parmesan cheese. With homemade croutons so easy to make, I’ll be keeping them around, too.

Quinoa with cucumbers, tomatoes and mint.

Basic rule No. 1: Think in terms of pairings when assembling toppings. Opposites go well together in salads, like creamy and crunchy (avocado and tortilla chips) or salty and sweet (cheese and fruit). Keep a few specific pairings in your mental rolodex when you are considering salad ideas. Quinoa or couscous go well with cucumber and give off a Mediterranean vibe; oranges pair well with Asian flavors like ginger, sesame oil and scallions. Of course, there’s always the classic (some would say cliched) pairing of apples and walnuts.

Basic rule No. 2: Almost any dish can be converted into salad form. Looking for inspiration? Turn that turkey club sandwich you had for lunch last week into a salad. The same goes for that steak sandwich with roasted red peppers.

Five toppings on this salad.

Basic rule No. 3: Play the numbers game. The minimum number of toppings on a salad is three, the maximum is six or seven. (I’ve violated my own rule with the Mexican-style chicken salad, which has nine toppings.) There needs to be variety in every bite, but you don’t want any topping to go unnoticed.

Basic rule No. 4: When in doubt, add bacon. Just a slice or two of bacon, chopped, goes a long ways to enliven any dull salad. Unofficial slogan: Bacon – it can’t hurt.

  • Sam

    Do you cook extra chicken or shrimp when you are preparing a hot meal, so you intentionally have it ready to use it in a salad the next night? 

    • Mark Evitt

      I don’t … I find I can just bang out the chicken or shrimp fast enough that it’s not necessary to cook ahead of time. Plus, it is nice to have the food freshly cooked.

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