Angela asked me last week to share salad topping ideas. Well that made me think of all the wonderful things you can do with a bowl of lettuce. I mean it's basically a blank canvas!
First let's look at the types of lettuce. I personally like a hearty leaf lettuce. Romaine is one such, leaf lettuces both red and green, Boston (or Bibb), frisee...I suggest you try any leafy type lettuce at least once. Romaine is the least expensive and the most easily found. Often you can find a pack of three 'hearts of Romaine, which is the inner parts of Romaine for about $3. A proper loose purchased head of Romaine has a lot of coarse dark green outer leaves. When I mention they are coarse, I do not mean they are tough but they have a sturdiness that is not at all like iceberg lettuce, which is pretty flavorless compared to the leaf lettuces. Then there are the bitter lettuces, like arugula and endive. They can be a bit pricey but to add to a bowl of green leafy lettuces the price is somewhat absorbed. Personally, I'm not terribly fond of bitter lettuces.
So experiment and try different lettuces. If you end up going back to Iceberg because you like it best, then you've at least tried something new. Iceberg does have it's merits. Usually it's quite inexpensive and it's almost always a nice crisp lettuce. It has less chlorophyll and more water content and essentially is flavorless. It does well as a finely shredded lettuce (cut very thin with a sharp knife) or torn by hand.
It is loveliest for wedge salads which are rather popular right now in restaurants. I do laugh over these salads as lovely as they are because honestly $4 or so for a wedge of iceberg lettuce? You can buy a head of iceberg, all the toppings you care to have and salad dressing for about $4 and you'll get about six wedge salads for your money.
Wedge salads are simply iceberg lettuce that is well washed, allowed to drain and then cut into wedges. Once chilled these wedges become remarkably crisp and nice. You can top with any sort of topping you'd like but remember you want ingredients that will sort of 'stick' in the dressing. Drizzle over a nice thick dressing such as Ranch, Blue Cheese or Thousand Island. Then add finely chopped bacon bits, fine diced tomato or cucumber or any color of bell pepper. A tablespoon of some compatible cheese scattered over the top sets this off.
How and why I combine things is easy enough. I might be trying a take off of a main dish that I've enjoyed but want a lighter version for a summer day. Steak is a great meal entrée but a steak salad lightens up the meal considerably and you can certainly get away with serving smaller portions if you're doing a big salad. I really enjoy using leftover steak in what one restaurant dubbed The Black and Blue: Grilled steak tossed over lettuce with blue cheese crumbles and diced tomatoes.
For a bowl of salad, you can mix lettuces or use just one type. Toppings can vary as widely as you'd choose. I'll share a listing of some of our favorite fruit and lettuce combinations below:
Strawberry and almonds
apples, walnuts and craisins
blueberries and toasted pecans
Pears and blue cheese (with walnuts and rotisserie chicken this makes a lovely supper salad)
Peaches, basil and goat cheese
Oranges, black olives, and red onion
It's not a fruit but try cantaloupe or watermelon in a salad. Watermelon with pistachios and feta cheese is unexpected but very tasty!
You can use any combination of vegetables you choose, too. I do have certain ones that are favorites. In Spring I'm fond of a mix of carrots, thawed frozen garden peas, green onions and radishes (very few, I'm not fond of radish overall) tossed with lettuce. With a steak or burger, I especially like diced tomato, finely diced sharp cheddar cheese and thinly sliced red onions.
Don't forget beans can go in a salad as well. John is expecially fond of garbanzo beans (also known as chick peas) in a salad. I like kidney beans especially the dark red ones which are sturdier in texture than the white cannellini bean. One of the best salads I've tried from an older cookbook had apples, kidney beans and cheddar cheese! Not at all a typical combination of flavors but it works really well together. Nicoise salad is nothing more than nicoise olives, steamed whole green beans, tuna (fresh nowadays but I still prefer chunk whole canned tuna), cold sliced red potatoes and a sliced hard boil egg with a proper French dressing. A 'proper' French dressing is generally a mustard vinaigrette not the orange bottled stuff we've grown up eating and calling "French". Another popular combination on many restaurant menus at present is corn and black beans with red bell pepper over lettuce. Avocado and tomato go nicely with this one.
Canned beets thinly sliced, grated hard boiled eggs, sweet onion slices.
A variety of bell peppers sliced into strips or rings either one can be very tasty over a bed of lettuce and looks very pretty.
A lovely Greek salad is a big pile of torn lettuce with diced cucumber, tomato and fresh oregano with feta cheese.
Salads are truly like soups in that just about anything you want to toss over onto the lettuce will make a salad.
Olives, both green and black
bell peppers of all colors
tomatoes: any color at all
onions: red, white, green
canned beans: black, kidney, garbanzo
corn, drained canned or cut fresh from the cob
cheese: mozzarella, blue, goat, cheddar, parmesan or any you choose
fruits and berries
nuts and sunflower seeds
cabbage: red, green , Savoy
cold sliced potatoes
fresh sliced squash
roasted winter squashes
sun dried tomatoes
marinated artichoke hearts
Snow pea pods
Gracious! I could list every vegetable known to us and yes, it can usually go into a salad!
Cheeses can complement a salad. I like to make fine small cubes more than I like shredded cheese, because the shredded cheese tends to sort of melt away. Feta and blue cheeses hold up nicely. Fresh mozzarella or smoked Gouda are unexpected and wonderful. A spicy pepper jack can be nice in a salad, too. Tangy goat cheese with or without herbs is nice. Experiment with cheeses.
And don't forget herbs. Fresh herbs tossed in with the salad can make it that much more flavorful. Don't overdo, though!
As you can see, you can use absolutely anything at all in a salad. And I haven't even mentioned the meats you might toss in if you are making it a main dish meal.
For toppers, you can use croutons, crackers that are crushed, oyster crackers, cubes of fresh crusty bread (think of a good French bread). One restaurant Mama and I visited had fried cubes of grits as the crouton which was both surprising and tastier than you might think. I've seen a few recipes that called for a cornbread crouton made from toasted cubes of corned bread. I love to make my own croutons from saved pieces of bread that we were slow in eating. Corn chips are nice in salad as well. The fried Chinese noodles go well.
Try any combination you choose or whatever you've got on hand. Make note of what you enjoy and what you don't . I'm not so keen on fresh mushrooms myself nor a huge fan of radishes. I love cucumber but it doesn't even like me a little bit, so I avoid those but if you love cucumber by all means pile it on!