You’re beautiful,” I remember whispering to the big salad I had for dinner last Tuesday. “I don’t care what anyone says. You’re the one for me.” Half of that bowl was filled with chicory. Nestled in among those bitter leaves were pebbles of chopped nuts and a few slices of cucumber I threw in chaotically at the last second. All of it was coated in a lemony anchovy vinaigrette. It tasted great. So great, in fact, that I wondered why I didn’t have salad more often.
Despite it very much being a food that’s familiar to most people from all walks of life, salad is severely underrated when it comes to dinnertime at most households. While the sales of plant-based products were higher than ever last year, the sale of fresh fruit, salad and vegetables were all down compared to the previous year. The majority of families will have some kind of green somewhere on the table but rarely will a substantial salad – a heaping portion capable of filling your entire fibre quota for the week – be allowed to take centre stage. And I’ve got a problem with that.
One of my favourite things to order whenever I eat out is invariably some kind of bitter leaf salad. It usually arrives on the side in a small bowl and is always best when doused in a dressing that’s heavy on something punchy like mustard or fish sauce. Realising that I could simply quadruple the portion size of one of those side salads and eat it for my own dinner at home has opened up my eyes to a whole new way of eating. Or, to turn down the hyperbole a few notches, opened me up to a slightly different way of eating that involves having more big sals on a weeknight.
Sure, you might see a Caesar with crisp croutons and even crispier bacon made the star of a meal on the odd occasion but I’m talking more about the salads usually resigned to the sidelines: your puntarelle all romanas, panzanellas, kachumbers, and smashed cucumber salads. Salads that don’t rely on the crux of chopped up chicken breasts to make them interesting. All of those salads are just as worthy of being a meal in their own right, and can make for an extremely satiating (and satisfying) one at that.
The big salad is one of those realms where the Americans are lightyears ahead of the game. I’ve already mentioned the Caesar but the wedge salad, dubbed America’s “silliest salad” and a bonafide steakhouse classic, is one of my favourite examples of the genre. The wedge salad takes a simple hunk of iceberg lettuce and turns it into a full-blown meal via the addition of a fatty, tart blue cheese dressing and – because this is America we’re talking about – bits of bacon. As assembly goes, it’s genius. It looks striking, it’s filling, and it answers the question of how to turn a dish that heroes a simple vegetable into a main meal. The fact that most Americans eat it as a starter is beside the point.
The wedge salad can easily be considered dinner due to its large portion size and I don’t see anything wrong with that. It’s the same “treat it like its meat” way of thinking that goes into an Ottolenghi-ish whole roasted cauliflower, and it’s an excellent way to get people to reconsider whether they need to eat meat in every meal.
Because the truth is that a baffling number of people are still stuck in that mindset. Here’s a little social experiment for you to try at the office that’ll hopefully prove my point: the next time someone asks what you’re having for tea, tell them you’re making a salad. Their response will nine times out of ten be a mumble of “oh, nice” coupled with a look of devastating pity. It’s not a completely unwarranted response, either, considering most people probably think that you’re going to be crying into a bag salad bought from the supermarket. But the fact that that’s people’s primary salad association is something that I’m trying to remedy.
Just hearing the word “salad” should whet your appetite and inspire you to think about the litany of different salad variations from across the globe; much in the same wonderful, multi-faceted way as the word “curry” does. Instead, it usually makes people think of wellness influencers and diet culture. That needs to change.
A salad isn’t just a box-tick way to reach your five-a-day – it’s an enticingly blank slate of culinary potential that you can get extremely creative with, if you’re up for the job. Creating your own salad from scratch is an excellent means of playing around with the building blocks of flavour. Salt, fat, acid, and heat are the pillars of cooking and in no dish is it easier to manipulate those on the fly than a salad. Add some salt, give it a taste. Needs more of a rounded flavour? Add some olive oil, give it a taste again. Too flabby? Add a squeeze of lemon, give it another taste. It’s that chemistry lab process, and constant tinkering, that can not only help you create a salad that’s perfect for you but help you better understand the basics of cooking.
The next time you’re eating a salad at a restaurant that you can’t seem to get enough of, try to stop and think and figure out what’s in it. The chances are that it’s nothing complicated and that you can replicate that exact same combination in your own kitchen. Salads aren’t just something that you sit next to a sirloin steak so you feel a bit better about yourself. When it’s made right, a good salad could be – and should be – the whole damn show.