Once upon a time, you could just break up iceberg lettuce in a large wooden bowl and toss it with tomatoes, a sliced cucumber and bottled dressing. After you shook a box of croutons on top, you were finished and called it a presentation. Even restaurant chefs, scornful of salads, relegated the lowly task of salad prep to the cleanup staff. Today, a wonderful world has opened -- with unlimited creative options for visual and edible masterpieces. You may find your guests just as likely to want to fish out a smartphone for a digital memory as to compliment you when they dive in with their forks.
Beautiful Bowls and Ravishing Ramekins
Plating options can be the foundation of your presentation. You don’t even have to have a large, communal bowl, let alone the tired large wooden kind -- which poses a risk of attaining a rank flavor -- for presentation. Serve artfully composed individual salads in hexagonal black bowls if they have Asian ingredients such as snow peas and Thai basil and bright colors to set against the black. Or start with medium-sized, white Italian pasta bowls with red and green rims if you are adding a good base of arugula, romaine or loose leaf lettuce, or heavier pasta, rice or duck and chicken salads. Ramekins work well for salads topped with fruits, such as mandarin orange slices, or berries, or small salads that provide an appetizer to a heavier meal. Bound salads, those held together with mayonnaise, yogurt or sour cream, also find their best presentation in ramekins.
The Go-Anywhere Little White Plate
The little white plate is the restaurant world’s equivalent of fashion’s little black dress, able to handle any salad eye candy, from the simplest green salad to pasta, rice, duck, chicken and fish. Similarly, white bowls or platters work well to show off large communal salads as well. Clear bowls similarly allow light to reveal your fresh and well-arranged ingredients. You can still add a bright plate or tray as an underliner, advises Judy Doherty in “Salad Secrets.” Avoid busy patterns in the main salad bowl that may work against salad presentation.
Go Big, Go Bright
Large display salads, designed for main courses, as Julia Child reminds readers in “The Way to Cook,” aren’t limited to greenery. This can be freely constructed of “any edible object, hot, warm or cold,” she writes. You have broad categories here of salads constructed around rice, pasta, vegetables, poultry, meat and fish. You can compose these salads in any number of artful ways, designed to create an appealing presentation in terms of the platter, the salad ingredients and toppings.
Family Style and Uber Creative
You can tailor your salad presentation to whatever works best for your entertaining style. If your family has folks who hate anchovies and those who live for them, set out a salad bar and let them fix their own salads. If your family or guests want something different, make them a salad in the shape of a palm tree or a lobster, or assemble it 3D in the shape of a cube. You can also ditch plates entirely to provide salads in individual mason jars or pressboard harvest containers. A light salad can sit in a cupped single leaf, and a robust salad in a hollowed-out fruit or vegetable.
Drizzle dressings in patterns across your platter or plate for a final dollop of painterly perfection, or group garnishes such as your anchovies or antipasti to add charm. And even the simplest salad can be composed carefully. If you are shaking out a bag of mesclun, take the time to turn the leaves with the pretty-side-up and place the very nicest ones on the top.