The old stereotype about vegans only eating lettuce and tofu is far from accurate, but hey, most of us do love a good salad. The satisfying crunch of lettuce and veggies is refreshing and wholesome, but to bring your salad from drab to fab (yes, this expression may have been lifted from reality television makeover shows) it will need an extra punch of flavor, texture, and overall oomph. Here are the top 11 tips for turning a sad side salad into a power-packed, plant-based meal.
1. Love your lettuce. Instead of yawning over iceberg, mix it up with mache, watercress, frisée, spinach, mixed greens, cabbage, butter lettuce, or romaine hearts for a slightly different spin. Mix and match varieties until you achieve the perfect base for a satisfying salad.
2. Add a grain. Quinoa is an excellent choice because of its small size (allowing it to cling to the other components in your salad and not just pool sadly at the bottom of your bowl like a whole-grain Chuck E. Cheese ball pit) and high nutritional value, but feel free to experiment with wheat berries, brown rice, millet, bulgur, or couscous. Name a grain—it can go in your salad.
3. Don’t skimp on veggies. Rather than settling for a few forlorn slices of carrot or celery, think grilled fennel, steamed asparagus, marinated mushrooms, or pickled daikon. Add a heaping dollop of mashed potatoes for a taste of comfort, or braised eggplant, beets, or zucchini to add both bulk and beauty.
4. Fill up on fruit. Packed with nutrients and low on calories, fruit is a major mainstay of any plant-based diet. While dried cranberries are a staple of mundane packaged salads everywhere, fresh fruit can add sweet pizzazz to an otherwise savory array. Sliced pears, diced apples, ripe berries, and citrus wedges all happily take to a dash of vinaigrette.
5. Go nuts. As you probably know, nuts are a great source of protein and healthy fats, making them a thoughtful addition to any vegan diet. Slivered almonds, crushed cashews, candied pecans, and whole hazelnuts can all add healthful crunch to your creation.
6. Pick a protein. Tofu and tempeh tend to be go-tos, but wheat-based strips, meatless turkey slices, and breaded “chicken” fingers also make excellent stand-ins. Many VegNews staffers love local eatery Herbivore’s raw kale salad with soy chicken chunks added—it’s the perfect balance of raw leafy-green power and salty, chewy satisfaction! And if you were a bacon lover in a former (read: pre-veg) life, don’t forget that many brands of bacon bits are actually vegan. Just check the label to make sure that they’re cruelty-free, and shake it up.
7. Choose a cheese. Think that being vegan means forgetting about a sprinkle of cheese on top of your salad? Think again! Fake Feta can be tossed with basically anything, or use store-bought shreds (such as Daiya) to add a creamy, crave-worthy flavor. We also love Parmesan cheese substitutes Parma and Parmela, which add the perfect level of tang without being overpowering.
8. Avocado. Do it. This step is simple. Acquire an avocado. Slice it in half. Remove the pit. Slice the green part into medium-size pieces. Put the pieces in your salad. Your salad is now 1,000 times better.
9. Bean yourself. Don’t forget about our ol’ pals kidney, edamame, black-eyed, and garbanzo. Whether you have the time to cook ‘em yourself or you opt to go canned, beans are our sometimes forgotten friends! They’re here to give us fiber and make stuff taste extra good, and they’re fun to stab with your fork. Lentils are another wholesome member of the legume family, and are one of the most protein-packed plants out there. Pile them on top of your greens and veggies for an ideal power meal.
10. Spice it up. Don’t forget that just like any other dish, your salad can be seasoned with fresh or dried herbs and spices. Chop up some basil, cilantro, dill, or tarragon, or add generous dashes of smoked pepper, cayenne, puréed jalapeño, roastic garlic, or caramelized onions.
11. Dress to impress. Store-bought dressings are fine and all, but there’s nothing like homemade salad dressing to top off your now jam-packed bowl of show-stopping wonderment. Start with your oil of choice—olive is always a classic, but grapeseed, linseed, or sesame oil can also work—and stir in balsamic or apple-cider vinegar, Dijon mustard, fresh herbs (see step 10), lemon juice, or whatever else your heart desires. To achieve an extra-smooth texture, use a blender, and feel free to add shallots, peppers, capers, or even nut butters depending on what essence you’re looking for.
Ta-da! Hopefully by now, you’re looking at a beautiful bowl overflowing with fresh greens, crisp veggies, bright fruit, wholesome grains, and an array of healthy fats, proteins, and herbs. And most of all, it should be delicious. Experiment to find the combinations you like best, and share your signature salad to show off its impressive entrée status. Then chow down!
Photo: Allyson Kramer