Peasant food: Big, manly salads that kick butt and take names

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Okay, let's get one thing straight: although most of the salads that you've eaten were probably somewhat miserable, you should know that salads are not, by definition, lame. They don't have to be flavorless, watery agglomerations of wilted lettuce, dry carrot slices, and slimy cucumbers floating in a pool of fatty dressing. There is no reason that they have to be basic fodder that you use to fill yourself during a hastily-grabbed lunch. In fact, there really are no rules governing the creation of salads or the flavors that they must contain.

One major misconception is that salads must be composed of at least 70% iceberg lettuce. Let's get something straight right now: iceberg lettuce is the Astroturf of greens. It has little or no nutritional value, no flavor, and is almost entirely water. I do not now, nor have I ever, advocated the use of iceberg lettuce; in fact, I consider it fit food for rabbits and Calista Flockhart, but utterly unsuitable for real, healthy humans.

The goal of a good salad should be to create an exciting collection of flavors, colors, and textures. Personally, I like to taste everything in my salad, and try to avoid having any one flavor dominate. Although there is no rule stating that one must put greens in a salad, I generally begin with a base of either field greens or mesclun mix, both of which are a combination of assorted leafy vegetables. Unlike iceberg, these two mixes are full of interesting flavors and textures, not to mention nutrients. They add bulk and flavor to a salad.

My next step is generally to throw in a lot of dense, flavorful proteins. My personal favorites are avocados and rotisserie chicken, both of which add a tons of flavor and make the salad a lot more filling. If you're using rotisserie chicken, remove the skin, pull the meat off the bone (my wife prefers breast meat, while I like a good mix of white meat and dark meat), and chop the meat into bite-size pieces. If you're using avocados, find ones that are slightly soft to the touch and have a dark, brownish-purple skin. Cut the avocado in half, peel one half, and cut it into 1/4 inch dice.

I also like to add a little cheese for flavor. If you're obsessive about fat, you can try a lowfat cheese mix or throw in some shredded mozzarella. Personally, I like to use either small (1/4-inch) cubes of feta or blue cheese crumbles, as they add flavor and a little bit of nice, creamy texture. Additionally, I also like to toss in some nuts, which contain a lot of protein, a little fat, and a lot of flavor. My preferred choices are unsalted macademias or cashews, coarsely chopped.

Finally, my finishing touch is an orange and a pomaceous fruit (either an apple or a pear). The combination of the orange's sweetness and the apple or pear's dense texture really plays well against the other ingredients in the salad.

For a dressing, I like to play off the standard oil and vinegar by mixing light olive oil with an acid of one sort or another. Balsamic vinegar offers a nice, flavorful touch, as do blood orange vinegar, lemon juice, or white wine vinegar. Another nice thing to try is pomegranate molasses; basically boiled-down pomegranate juice, it's simultaneously tart and sweet and is full of complex taste.

Below I've posted a basic salad recipe, but the key here is to find a mix of flavors and textures that you enjoy. Obviously, one reason for eating salads is the fact that they can be good for you, but another big reason is that, if you play your cards right, a salad can be a tastebud-popping, drool-inducing, bowlful of flavor.

A Basic Salad

Makes a meal-sized portion for three or four people

1 bag mesclun greens

Meat from 1/2 of a rotisserie chicken, skin and bones removed, chopped into bite-size pieces

1 avocado, peeled, seeded, and chopped into 1/4" dice

1/2 cup unsalted macadamia nuts, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup blue cheese crumbles

1 Bosc pear, peeled, cored, cut into wedges, and thinly sliced

1 seedless orange, peeled and segmented. Cut the segments into bite-sized pieces.

1/3 cup cheap balsamic vinegar (I like Colavita)

3 tablespoons light olive oil

Combine all ingredients except the olive oil and vinegar in a large salad bowl. Toss together to ensure somewhat even distribution. Pour vinegar and olive oil into a small Tupperware container. Shake until thoroughly combined. Drizzle on top of salad, then toss again to ensure that the dressing gets completely mixed through. Serve immediately.

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He doesn't eat salads in restaurants.

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