Lettuce, tomato and, if anything, onion. These three elements continue to make up the vast majority of spanish salads, which are usually served as a bland accompaniment to a main dish. But it goes without saying that the world of salads goes much further.
Delicious salads can be made with just two ingredients, but even the simplest combination requires a little love and respect for a series of basic rules.
Although you can also make exquisite pasta, rice and legume salads, in this guide we focus on those that have lettuce as the main base, and which are those that conform to the definition of this word given by the Royal Spanish Academy: “Vegetable or set of mixed vegetables, cut into pieces and seasoned with salt, oil, vinegar and other ingredients.”
These are the gold rules that is worth continuing to prepare endless salads and never get bored:
1. Mix lettuce (and other leafy greens)
The different lettuces we eat today they are all varieties of the same species, Lactuca sativa, descended from a common ancestor, Lactuca serriola, inedible due to its overly bitter taste, a characteristic that, although diminished, many of its descendants have inherited.
Technically, there are five broad groups of lettuce varieties:
- Loose leaf: the oldest variety, which tends to turn red and is more bitter (the best known is the Trocadero)
- Butter: open set of soft and tender leaves, with small nerves, little present in Spain.
- Batavia: semi-open set of lush and dense leaves. The popular lettuce from Oak Leaf it also belongs to this variety.
- Romana: loose head of large, elongated leaves, with prominent veins. Traditionally it is the one that has been consumed the most in Spain.
- Crisphead: large heads, wrapped and tight, of crisp and brittle leaves. It is the variety to which the omnipresent belongs iceberg lettuce, the best preserved, and also the most insipid.
Although all lettuces have a similar flavor, the combination between them provides different textures and shades to salads. You can also use other green leafy vegetables such as endives or escarole – both of the family Cichorium endivia, more bitter in taste–, the spinach, chicory, dandelion or canons.
Of course, salads of only one variety can be made, but it is interesting to mix up to three or four types and experiment with the different flavors.
2. Dry the lettuce well
It is one of the most common mistakes made when preparing a salad. Of course we must clean the lettuce, cutting the very hard trunks and removing the parts that are wilted, but after washing the lettuce in cold water it is very important to dry it well. There is nothing worse than a watery salad.
Lettuce can be perfectly dried with a cloth or kitchen paper, but the salad spinners they are a more useful junk than many people think. Yes, they take up a lot, but if you eat salads on a regular basis – something that for the sake of our diet should be the norm – it is an indispensable tool in the kitchen.
3. Use seasonal vegetables
The leaves are the base of a salad, but to these you can add other vegetables, such as the classic onion and, of course, the tomato. However, there are many other combinations that often go unnoticed. Y the seasonality of each element should be the main element to consider when designing these.
The tomato is next to the lettuce the ubiquitous ingredient in Spanish salads, but the truth is that their quality in winter leaves much to be desired, as well as being an unsustainable bet. The tomato raf, the only decent variety that grows on these dates, it has a yield of less than half that of summer tomatoes, hence its high price.
The variety of fruits and vegetables that can be included in a salad tends to infinity. Not all combinations work equally well, but of course it’s worth playing to find our favorite salad (or look for inspiration in the cookbook).
The only rule worth following is that of measure. If you use few ingredients your palate will get bored before you finish eating; but if you use too many, the salad will be too confusing and it will be impossible to appreciate the different flavors. Three ingredients are enough to make an excellent side salad. In a composite salad, which is served as a main dish, there can be between six and eight.
Do not fear, either, add some sweet flavor. Caramelized onion, figs, roasted sweet potato, pomegranate seeds, natural canned fruit or raisins are good alternatives to add a refreshing point to the salad.
4. Add protein
It is of little use to bet on a salad like single plate thinking that it is a healthy meal (and that it can help us lose weight) if after two hours we are starving and we catch an industrial sandwich in a machine vending. The only way for a green leafy salad to be filling is for it to include protein.
The ideal is to bet on a main protein element, at most two, that is the protagonist in the salad. Again, the possibilities tend to be infinite, and go much further than tuna or chicken. Any type of inlay can work well in salad, but also any meat or fish well cut and cooked.
Also think about cheeses –Including the blue and cured ones, and not just the typical (and tasteless) Burgos cheese–, boiled eggs or vegetable proteins, such as tofu or the seitan.
5. Prepare the ingredients (in the right size)
Salads may seem like one of the simplest dishes to make, but it is not enough to add ingredients like crazy: you have to prepare them well. Although as a general rule the ingredients of salads are served raw, this is not always the best option: there are proteins and vegetables that are better to cook. This is the basic guide to follow:
Apples, avocados, bell peppers, celery, carrots, cucumbers, fennel, mushrooms, onions, pears, radishes, peas, zucchini and tomatoes are served raw, cut into small pieces or julienne. Although it is not always necessary to remove the skin of vegetables, if its texture is too hard we should remove it.
Figs, grapes, nectarines, melons, mangoes, peaches, and small tomatoes are served raw and best served. bite-sized pieces.
Asparagus, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, corn, edamame, peas, and green beans must be cooked until tender and should also be cut into bite-size pieces. This rule is also applicable to all proteins (except cheeses and sausages).
As a general rule in cooking we should never serve any inedible item on the plate, and it is something that we sometimes overlook in salads, especially when it comes to olives: they should never be served on the bone.
6. Bet on crispy textures
Although leafy greens and raw vegetables often add a crunchiness, it’s a fantastic quality in salads that you can enhance with other elements. As Liliana Fuchs points out, nuts and the seeds, lightly toasted, but they also work bread croutons, crispy fried onion, vegetable chips, nachos, bread picks, scolds, grissinis, crackers, etc. I especially like how the well fried bacon, although if you are looking to reduce calories you can save it.
7. Prepare the dressing separately
The dressing is a key element of the salad and it also admits many variations, so it is important that we prepare it separately. Throwing oil, vinegar and salt happily on salads, without calculating quantities, is the best way to ruin what could have been a good dish.
To make a good classic vinaigrette you only need a good vinegar, an extra virgin oil and salt, but it is important to mix everything in a separate container. This allows the flavors to bind well, that the diners dress the salad to their liking and, most importantly, that if there is any salad left, it can be eaten at another time.
Of course, in addition to finding different combinations of vegetables and proteins, we can also find variety in our salads in the different dressings. There is life beyond the ubiquitous vinegar of Modena and we will find it in elements such as yogurt, lemon juice, honey, soy sauce …
Nor should we forget the spices and aromatic herbs, which can make a dressing mutate completely. Why not add paprika, curry, pepper, oregano, sesame, or chives? Again, the key is not to go overboard, and bet on just one or two of these flavors.
8. Use quality products
The quality of the raw material It is a fundamental aspect of the success of any dish, but in the case of salads, in which most of the elements are served raw, it is essential. If the budget is limited it is better to reduce the ingredientsBut a salad made with quality lettuce, vegetables and protein is light years ahead of the typical mixed salad with iceberg lettuce, skimpy tuna, canned carrot and a refined oil.
9. If it’s to go: put the lettuce last
The final preparation of the salad varies enormously if it is to be eaten immediately or we are going to put it in a tupperware to take to work. Lettuce it softens right away as soon as it is seasoned, so it must be incorporated just before serving the dish.
If we are going to eat out we can take the salad already prepared in a pan and the dressing in a pot. Also keep in mind that the rest of the ingredients can crush the lettuce and release juices to soften these, so it is better to place the vegetables and proteins in the bottom, cover them with the lettuce, and mix everything well just before eating.
Enjoy your meal.
Images | iStock / Pixabay
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