Nutritionists love people who eat a lot of salad but most salads we eat are pretty uninteresting. A salad can be a pile of wilting lettuce with one tomato and two slices of cucumber adorned by half a dozen rock-hard croutons or it can be an experience in itself. Whether you're just making a dinner salad or a salad to serve as an entree, it's easy to put together a plate that looks as if you had help from the professionals if follow a few simple tips.
Start with fresh ingredients. Use more than one kind of greens. Those tempting bags of lettuce have suffered a bout of bacteria recently but if you select only those that you can see look fresh and perky, you shouldn't be afraid to try them. If you're doing salad for a crowd, go ahead and buy fresh bunches of red leaf and baby Boston bib lettuce. Whatever greens you choose, wash them well and wrap them in damp dish towels in the fridge to re-hydrate them before putting your salad together. Try to buy fresh rather than packaged whenever possible and patronize local farms. Locally grown spinach may not be as trendy as Arugula but it tastes fresher and has a smaller carbon footprint--unless you live in California's Imperial Valley.
Plan how your salad will look. Balance colors and sizes of vegetables. There's no one way to make a salad unless you want a specific type, like Caesar, Nicoise, Cob or Julienne. These salads are made the same way with specific ingredients every time and your best bet is to get a good reference cookbook and look them up. If you're not planning on one of these classics, free yourself to think about what you and your guests like. You can go from the uniquely American "garbage salad" with all sorts of things on it to a simple wedge of iceberg lettuce with an elegant dressing and a sprinkling of chives and fresh parsley, depending on the occasion.
Assemble and prepare your ingredients. Tear, don't cut greens. Cut veggies into bite-size pieces or finger-food size for dipping. Toss bad or bitter parts. Always serve dressing on the side (except for a Caesar salad whose only variable is additional anchovies). Try to balance your plate but don't line up the mushrooms like little soldiers. Provide a variety of colors and shadings of green on the plate.
Always finish with an accent. Whether you sprinkle fresh parsley, bacon bits, croutons or sunflower seeds, it should provide contrast that unifies the tomatoes and onions, the mushrooms and artichoke hearts, into one complete salad. If you are simply rounding out a plate of tuna fish or chicken salad, consider doing a companion seafood or egg salad and make a triad plate with a few slices of apple or orange and sprinkle the salads with some fresh ground pepper or parsley. Sprinkle a little paprika on potato or egg salad.
The place where most salads cross the line is with dressing. There are lots of delicious, low-fat, low-calorie (remember, you're only eating a few tbsp. of the stuff) on the market. But why not try making your own? Use absolutely fresh oil and any number of interesting vinegars on the market for your own private blend. Add zest with minced garlic or other spices. Your objective, though, should be to concoct a salad that looks--and tastes--too great to be drowned in dressing. Try adding artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes and hearts of palm that come in their own oil to lubricate your palate and do without that foamy green cucumber stuff.
Use leaf or Romaine lettuce as a base for a fruit salad of fresh cantelope slices and Kiwi fruit, dressed with vanilla yogurt. Make your own croutons by cutting bread into cubes (buy day-old fancy loaves). Toss the cubes in olive oil and garlic, basil and oregano--or try powdered ranch dressing or taco mix. Bake in a warm oven for an hour or so, cool and keep in an airtight bag. Julienne salads consist of meats, chicken (or turkey) and cheeses cut into long strips and heaped on a bed of lettuce with some hard boiled egg. They are beautiful salads and a meal in themselves. Unfortunately, they don't save calories and may contain as much fat as other choices.