How to build the perfect meal salad

I'm a salad connoisseur. 

There was a salad on the table with every meal when I was growing up, and I developed a strong appreciation for salad bars very early in my life.  I loved to pile up a plate with a little of this and a little of that until you could hardly see the lettuce for all the "goodies." 

As I got older, I began ordering prepared salads at restaurants instead of perusing the salad bar, and I started to develop a sense of what really worked and what didn't.  When did the salads leave me feeling unsatisfied?  When were they boring?  And when did I stop mid-chew and say, "This salad is perfect"?  

And then finally, I decided that I didn't always want to have to go out for the salad.  Sometimes I wanted to stay in or whip something together for lunch.  A delicious restaurant salad can cost ten bucks (or more), but I can make an awesome meal salad at home that will last four meals with that amount.

So I've created a system of sorts for determining what elements a salad needs in order to be "perfect" and worthy of being the entree.

1.  Your salad base.  This doesn't always have to be lettuce, and certainly not iceberg (though sometimes you might want iceberg - for instance, in a cobb or steak salad).  Try mixing things up with mesclun, arugula, spinach, kale, or cabbage.  If you're afraid of the toughness of raw kale, you can let it marinate a bit in the dressing for an hour or so (or overnight).  Kale and cabbage are both particularly nice as a salad base if you know you're not going to eat it all in one sitting since they don't get soggy from dressing.

2.  Something crunchy.  That can be nuts or seeds, like walnuts, almonds, pecans, cashews, sunflower seeds - really anything.  But it could also be tortilla chips or crackers broken into pieces, water chestnuts, chinese noodles, or whatever you enjoy crunching on.  The crunchy factor is, to me, one of the most important - I like the texture variety.

3.  Something sweet.  I'm a big fan of fruit in my salad, though I know some folks who aren't.  And sweet doesn't necessarily mean fruit - for instance, roasted or boiled beets are an excellent sweet addition to a salad, as is a good sweet corn.  But if you're going the simpler sweet route, you can hang out in the realm of apples and pears, mandarin oranges, grapefruit, mango, and dried fruits like raisins or craisins.  There's really no limit.

4.  Something soft.  You might immediately think of cheese, which is certainly a good one here.  But it's not your only option.  These are the things that make your salad a bit creamier and more substantial - good options are cheese, avocado, artichoke hearts, and hearts of palm.  Peas or edamame (soy beans) could be a good option here as well.  You might not generally think of them as creamy, but their soft texture works well.
5.  Some protein.  If you're just having a side salad, then protein doesn't matter all that much, but if your salad is your entree, you want it to have some staying power.  Of course, meat is one of the first things we think of when we think of protein, and that's definitely an option - cut up chicken, turkey, or steak on salads are ubiquitous in restaurant salads for a reason.  But if you're looking for other protein options, you could try beans - like black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans.  Lentils are also delicious, as is quinoa, which I tend to turn to when I want a lighter salad.  It's both a grain and a protein and never feels heavy to me.

6.  Something with bite.  If I don't have this in a salad, I feel jipped.  Onions, garlic scapes, olives - anything that gives a little kick to your flavor profile.  You could also use peppery greens for this, like arugula.

7.  Some veggies.  Last, but not least, the element that we usually think of first thing - veggies.  My salads are not veggie heavy - not because I don't like veggies but because I like to have such a mix of things in there.  Anything you want goes - cucumbers, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, squash, whatever.

For last night's salad, I wanted something pretty light so I chose these:

A base of kale and mesclun, a cucumber for the veggie, an apple and raisins for the sweet (sometimes I like both a fresh fruit and a dried one), quinoa for the protein, a red onion for bite, walnuts for crunch, and hearts of palm for my soft texture.

Of course, the final step is topping it off with a delicious dressing.  I usually whip up a quick vinaigrette, like this one, with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, mustard and some sweetener - maple syrup, honey, or agave nectar.  Add a dash of salt and pepper, and you have a delicious dressing in about three minutes. 

But you could also go with the always fabulous creamy dill tahini dressing that I love.  Or whatever your favorite dressing is in your cabinet.

My salad was delicious, but there are so many options:

Mexican salad
Base: romaine and iceberg
Crunch: broken up tortilla chips
Sweet: corn
Soft: pepper jack cheese
Protein: black beans
Bite: olives and red onion
Veggie: tomatoes

Powerhouse salad
Base: spinach and kale
Crunch: walnuts
Sweet: apples
Soft: goat cheese
Protein: chickpeas
Bite: red onion
Veggie: carrots and cucumbers

Cobb salad
Base: romaine and iceberg
Crunch: pecans
Sweet: pear
Soft: cheddar cheese
Protein: chicken and bacon crumbles

Bite: onion
Veggie: cucumbers

Summer salad
Base: mesclun and arugula
Crunch: sunflower seeds
Sweet: strawberries
Soft: avocado
Protein: white beans
Bite: red onion
Veggie: cucumbers

Really, the combinations are endless.  So go make a salad!

And tell me how it is.