Let’s be honest: dinner salads do not typically excite people. I really didn’t get all that enthused about them either until I took a Dinner Salad 101 cooking class on a cruise ship a few years ago. The chef teaching the class showed us seven secrets to making incredible salads. I don’t always take the time to follow the seven tips, but if I am trying to make an extra special salad for a dinner party or holiday I always do and they never let me down. After everyone raved more about my Christmas dinner salad this past weekend than about any other part of the meal I decided I had to share 😉
7 Secrets to Making the Best Dinner Salads
Although I of course will share our Christmas Dinner Salad recipe with you (see below), the idea behind this blog post is really more about sharing the seven dinner salad secrets. Once you know the secrets you can go off and make your own delicious salad creations….without the need to follow a “recipe”. The variations are truly endless.
Ok, so here’s what you need to do to make a super special dinner salad:
- Pick the lettuce with care. Start with the absolute best and freshest lettuce you can find and stick with either soft greens or crunchy greens (or a combination of both). The idea is that you just don’t want to use two soft lettuces or two crunchy lettuces together, go with one or the other OR a combination of the two for best results. Soft greens include butterhead lettuce, oak leaf lettuce, mache (my favorite! This is a super soft and mild-tasting lettuce with a distinct ever so slightly sweet flavor) or watercress. Crunchy greens include romaine, gem lettuces, Belgian endive or radicchio. For our Christmas Dinner Salad I went with all mache greens.
- Add some roasted vegetables. Roasting brings out the natural sweetness of vegetables and does wonders for adding interest to any salad. I also of course love the fact that this step adds extra vegetables to the meal too 😉 For best results, the roasted vegetables should be at room temperature when you add them to your salad. You can really use just about any vegetable too. I have tried everything from roasted diced eggplant, butternut squash, red peppers, corn, carrots, onions, mushrooms, etc. For our Christmas Dinner Salad I used roasted fennel.
- Add fruit. Just like with the vegetables, pretty much any fruit will work. Of course you want to try and choose a fruit that pairs well with the vegetable you are using. For example, apple and butternut squash are particularly good together. Since tomatoes are technically a fruit, I like to combine them with roasted eggplant or onions (I especially love using sliced cherry tomatoes in salads.) I love roasted corn with peaches or blueberries. You can really get creative mixing and matching fruit and vegetable combos. For our Christmas Dinner Salad I went with oranges, which pair perfectly with fennel (in my opinion, anyway.)
- Go nuts. Not only do nuts contribute great texture to salads, they also make them more satisfying. Pretty much any nut will work, but you will definitely want to chop them first. Sometimes I like to sprinkle on “nut crumbs” as a substitute for Parmesan Cheese. To make nut “crumbs” you simply put whatever nut you are using in a mini food processor and process until crumb-like. If you really want to bring the flavor out, you can try toasting your nuts in a dry pan over medium heat. And if you want to go all out, you can make Candied nuts (I often use this recipe for Candied Pecans made without refined sugar.) For our Christmas Dinner Salad I just used chopped raw pecans.
- Go with homemade croutons. Homemade croutons are beyond easy to make and they really do wonders for making dinner salads feel extra special. You can pretty much use any bread you like, although my favorite is Berlin Bakery Sprouted Spelt Bread. All you have to do to make the croutons is use kitchen shears to remove the crusts and cut the bread into small bite-sized pieces. Then toss the bread pieces with extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil, spread them out on a cookie sheet, sprinkle with salt and toast in a 425 degree oven for about 12 minutes, or until just crispy.
- Use a wee bitty bit of GOOD cheese. A teensy bit of really good cheese goes a very long way. You can definitely be creative in the cheese department and use whatever cheese you like. If you are strict about eating clean or following an anti-inflammatory diet then you can try using a plant-based soft nut cheese (Dr. Cow is my absolute favorite) or substitute avocado or olives instead. For our Christmas Dinner Salad I used Manchego (this is a sheep’s milk cheese, which is easier for most people to digest than cow’s milk.)
- Make your own dressing. Of course you can always just drizzle on a really good oil and vinegar, but if you take just 5 extra minutes you can make a homemade salad dressing recipe that will take your dinner salad over the top. I have a number of different dressing recipes on the site, including my Caesar salad (made with hemp seeds!), my Turmeric Vinaigrette, Ranch Dressing, a Creamy Herb Dressing, Dijon Dressing, and several others HERE. But you can also find plenty of creative and delicious salad dressing recipes online. This Balsamic Orange Vinaigrette with Avocado Oil looks especially good. I used the Lemon Tarragon Vinaigrette for our Christmas Dinner Salad.
If you build your salad and adhere to all seven steps you may just find yourself falling in love with your creation so much that you forget about the main course 😉 #DinnerWorthy
Oh! And you definitely will want to serve your dinner salad at room temperature for best results. I know a lot of people think an ice cold salad is the way to go, but you loose a lot of flavor if you go with a super cold salad.
A dinner salad recipe so delicious you may not even want your entree!
- Divide the lettuce among 4 salad plates. Divide the fennel, oranges, pecans and cheese and arrange on top of the lettuce. Drizzle the Lemon Tarragon dressing on top. Add the croutons. Serve at room temperature.
To roast fennel: Remove the feathery fronds and chop the fennel. Spread the fennel out onto a baking sheet, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Roast at 400 degrees for about 12 minutes, or until fork tender.
To make croutons: Use kitchen shears to remove the crusts from the bread and cut the bread into small bite-sized pieces. Then toss the bread pieces with extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil, spread them out on a cookie sheet, sprinkle with salt and toast in a 425 degree oven for about 12 minutes, or until just crispy.
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