[This is the fourth post in a long series. You may wish to start at the beginning. Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week. Just that I will eventually finish it, someday. Unless I get hit by a bus.]
Obviously the first step to making a good salad is buying good ingredients. This time around I’m going to give you some tips on how to do just that.
First, let’s give ourselves some goals on what we’re looking for:
- We want veggies that taste good.
- We want veggies that provide a variety of tastes and textures.
- We want to buy organic as much as we possibly can.
- We want veggies that can stand to be in the fridge for at least a week, after they’ve been chopped up.
Hopefully it’s obvious why we want all these. #1 is because, if they don’t taste good, you’re not going to eat them. #2 is because, if your salad is boring, you’re not going to eat it. #3 is because a) organic just tastes better, and b) it’s at least probably better for you.1 And #4 is because chopping up veggies for salad is an annoying task, so you’re not going to want to do it very often. You’re going to want to shoot for once a week, maybe twice a week at the most. Any more often than that and you’re going to come to dread it, which means you won’t do it, which means you won’t have salad in your fridge when you want it, which means you’re not going to eat salad that often. Severely counter-productive.
So, first off, find yourself a grocery store that’s not too far away and has decent prices on organic food, especially veggies. For me, that’s Trader Joe’s, but you can use whatever you like. (But I have to warn you: I buy just about everything at TJ’s, so I’m going to sound like a walking billboard for them throughout this discussion.) Perhaps you find Whole Foods affordable.2 Or maybe it’s Fresh & Easy. Or maybe even a local Wal-Mart which carries organic produce—whatever. As long as it’s convenient and moderately cheap. Expect it to be a little more expensive—never fret over paying more for healthy and delicious food—but not so much that you’re tempted to stop eating salad for budgetary reasons. Again, counter-productive.
Next, you have to find the mix of veggies that you like. For me it’s this:
- bell peppers
Every single salad will use the same veggies. Why? Two reasons: First, it’s just easier to distinguish salads with their extras rather than their base. Secondly (and probably more importantly), if you have exactly one giant bowl of pre-chopped veggies in your fridge, making salads will be easier and more convenient. And that’s what we’re shooting for.
Now, you don’t have to use my mix. Maybe you like radishes.3 Maybe bell peppers give you gas. Whatever. Pick your own 5 or 6 veggies. Experiment if you need to. I strongly recommend you have some sort of lettuce, but, other than that, use what you like. Go crazy.
Now let’s talk about the individual veggies. I’m going to tell you how I choose my varieties; hopefully you can extract the general principles for yourself.
So, first let’s address the pervasive myth that “iceberg lettuce has no nutritional value whatsoever.” This is not completely without merit, but it’s also a vast oversimplification. The truth goes something like this: the greener the leaves, the more nutrition it has. The dark green leaves are the best, the light green less so, the yellow leaves are pretty pathetic, and the white bits are mostly just water in plant form. So, while it’s true that iceberg lettuce has more white than green, and what green it has is pretty light, that’s not the same as saying it has no nutritional value at all, now is it? Not to mention that all types of lettuce have some yellow and white.
Furthermore, there’s a vast gulf between “not necessarily good for you” and “bad for you.” The white bits of lettuce may not have a lot of nutrition, but you know what they do have? Crunch. Do not underestimate the value of crunch in a salad. Crunch is crucial for a good salad, so don’t turn your nose up at the white bits of the lettuce. They’re great for providing crunch, and if they don’t provide much else, who cares? You’re still eating plants, not crap.
Now, all that having been said, I don’t use iceberg myself.4 But don’t be so quick to rush off to the romaine: in my experience, romaine will turn slimy in the fridge so fast it will make your head spin (and your stomach turn). I tried romaine a few times, only to vow “never again.”
In my opinion, the best lettuce you can get is butter lettuce. It has some crunch, some darker green leaves, and it will hold up in the fridge for at least a week. This is perfect for salad purposes.
As always, buy organic if you can get it. Although I find organic lettuce a lot harder to come by. If all you can find is non-organic, that’s fine. I buy mine in bags, just because that’s the most common way I find it. Or buy heads if you can get them.
Cucumbers are absolutely my favorite salad vegetable. You can generally find 3 varieties at your store:5 American, English, and Persian. American cucumbers are the ones you’re probably most familiar with ... they’re fat, dark green, and about as long as your hand (or a bit longer). English cucumbers are longer, skinnier, and lighter green, as well as far less regular in shape, but not a whole lot different, really. Persians, on the other hand, are a whole different thing. They’re small, thin, and vaguely cute—they fit easily in your hand, and they’ll keep well in the fridge. Keep them in the fruit drawer—with the humidity cranked up—rather than the meat/veggie drawer; I’ve found this makes a huge difference in how long they’ll keep prior to cutting.
The best thing about Persians is that they’re firmer, crisper, and less mushy than the American or English varieties. That means less water content, and that means they’ll last longer after they’re cut. I buy organic only; they come in a little plastic container with about six in each.
I also sometimes throw an Americn or English cucumber into my mix.6 I used to do this very regularly, but it does limit how long your base salad mix will last, so I’m starting to discontinue this practice. If you can eat all your salad in well under a week, that’s fine. Otherwise, you may want to stick with just the Persians.
Not much to say here. Celery provides a great crunch that even the whiter parts of the lettuce can’t achieve, and it tastes great too. I buy organic celery when I can get it, which is most of the time. You can buy precut stalks, but I usually just get the whole “heart” (comes two to a bag at my local TJ’s). There aren’t different varities of these to choose from, at least not in my store.
Some people don’t care for peppers. They are nightshades, and some people have a problem with the nightshades.7 However, in my opinion peppers provide even more of that great crunch you need, plus they have a great flavor: it’s not really spicy, like their cousins, but it certainly ain’t bland. Plus they come in red, yellow, and orange, so they provide some color for your salad.8
Again, buy organic if at all possible. My local store sells a bag with three organic bell peppers: one red, one yellow, and one orange. So that’s what I get. I personally can’t really taste much difference among the various colors, but perhaps you can.
Also known as green onions, a scallion is not just an immature onion (and, if that’s what you’re getting at your grocery store, you’re being sold a bill of goods). A scallion is a whole different species which doesn’t form bulbs. They’re milder than regular onions, making them perfect for salads. At my store, they come anywhere from 6 to 12 in a bag, and I’ve never seen any organic ones. I would certainly buy them if I could though.
I go to my store once a week and raid the produce department pretty heavily. I generally plan to make one or two large batches of salad base, plus cut a few extra veggies along the way. So my shopping list looks like this:
- 2 or 3 bags of butter lettuce
- 1 or 2 packages of Persian cucumbers (about 12 cucumbers)
- 1 bag of celery (two celery hearts)
- 1 bag of bell peppers (3 large-ish peppers)
- 1 bag of scallions/green onions (6 to 12 stalks, depending on size)
Of course, this is just the base veggies I’ll need for my salad mix. We’ll need more stuff from the produce department to make our various dressings. But that’s a topic for next time.
1 Yes, that opinion is contested here and there, and people will also claim that not everything labeled “organic” is necessarily any healthier. But I think it’s a generally accepted principle. Besides, if it tastes better—and it really really does—who cares whether it’s any better for you or not?
2 Perhaps you’re in a very tiny minority.
3 Whereas I think they taste like dirt. But, hey: to each his own.
4 Although I would in a pinch. It’s still better than many of the alternatives.
5 At least that’s what I commonly encounter at my Trader Joe’s.
6 Yes, in addition to the Persians. I really like cucumbers.
7 Or at least are convinced they do. Or believe that there are health concerns. Personally I don’t subscribe to this point of view.
8 As I’ll talk about later, I’m not a big “we eat with our eyes” sort of guy, but that doesn’t mean I think your salad should be monochromatically boring either.