I think about salads in the same way I think about eggs: I can eat them at any time of day, cooked any which way, and with almost anything I have around. I usually eat a salad for lunch — it’s a quick and affordable way to avail myself of a bountiful meal.
My approach to making the practical, healthful, indispensable salad is to let myself be guided by impulse toward color, taste, texture and layers. Here’s how:
Let the colors of the ingredients contrast each other–allow red and orange to bounce up against green, like the colors of the leaves on display in fall. In addition to making something boldly gorgeous, there is a nutritional rationale for this: lively dark green foods yield the potent phytonutrient chlorophyll and red and orange foods provide alpha- and beta-carotene and other antioxidants.
Begin with green, leafy things as your base, like arugula or mesclun if you want something light, or spinach for something more dense, or go hearty and tangy with mustard greens!
What other vegetables have you got? Think about texture; ask yourself what will add moisture and crunch, like tomatoes (I like the grape-sized ones, sliced in halves), carrots (grated or sliced) or beets.
Layer with proteins, like hard-boiled eggs, black beans, left-over chicken, tuna from a can or bite-sized bits of sausage (chicken or turkey, sweet or andouille).
Remember grains, like quinoa, couscous and brown rice.
Garnish with anything that will add a flavor–sweet and/or savory–and more color. My favorite indulgence is nutrient-rich avocado, sliced and sprinkled with salt. Other possibilities include sliced apple or pear (squeeze lemon juice over them to add a tangy flavor and keep them from browning), peeled orange, raisins, grated cheese, salsa, seeds like hemp, sesame and sunflower, chopped nuts, seaweed flakes, and fresh-ground pepper and sea salt. For a real full flavor, add fresh garlic.
Drizzle this mosaic of colors and flavors with your favorite kind of oil–I prefer olive, flax and sesame oils. You can stir up a quick dressing by mixing your oil of choice with balsamic vinegar, lemon juice or a dash of tamari, or, take a minimalist approach and let the juices from the tomatoes mingle with the other flavors to suffice.