When you discover a way to make vegetables truly palatable, people line up—especially in January.
And if you’ve joined an epic lunch-hour line at one of the popular salad joints in town, watched an empty bowl fill up with nothing more than vegetables, toppings, dressing, carted your purchase back to your desk, and taken a bite, you know the secret at the heart of that discovery.
“The best thing about chopping a salad is you get all the flavors in one bite,” says Nick Kenner, founder and managing partner of Just Salad, which has more than 20 locations.
“It’s not like, ‘Oh, now I’m going to have a piece of tomato, now cucumber, now lettuce,’” he says. “You can have it all together in one bite, and you can also mix in the dressing more evenly.”
The perfect bite is even more perfect when you’ve begun with a splendid mix of ingredients in your salad bowl. The salad joints have an advantage on us home cooks here—their volume means they can keep a vast selection of fresh, prepped elements on hand—but you don’t actually need that next-level mise en place for your individual salad. “About five ingredients is kind of a sweet spot,” says Kenner.
Here’s how to get your vegetables this January in the efficient, delicious form of chopped salad.
All of the go-to greens—arugula, spinach, kale, romaine, iceberg, red leaf, and mesclun—contribute something to the salad bowl, whether it’s earthiness, nutrients, or crunch. “I like mixing and matching,” says Kenner. If you love crunch, start with iceberg, but then throw in ribbons of lacinato kale for good measure. If you crave the delicate zing of arugula, up the crunch with a handful of Romaine.
Don’t be afraid to let green veer around the color wheel over to reddish-purple. “We like to throw in red cabbage for great color and good crunch,” says Kenner. Sliver a handful of cabbage before adding to your mix.
Choosing and prepping great greens is the first step in salad excellence. At the store, don’t buy iceberg or romaine that’s browning or has bruises. Notice if the edges of spinach or mesclun have yellowed, and skip those. Check for condensation in the bagged or boxed leaf lettuces, because moisture in the package means the greens inside will wilt soon, if they haven’t already.
To avoid grit in your lunch, wash most—but not all—greens well. If a box of loose-leaf lettuce is stamped “triple-washed,” believe the message: Don’t bother to re-wash at home. “They’re thin leaves,” says Kenner, so if you wash them yet again, “they’ll absorb water and wilt.”
But for lettuces still bunched as a head, don’t skip the bath. Fill a huge bowl or your (very clean) sink with cold water. Tear apart the leaves and swish them around in the water, then let them rest for a few minutes so any released dirt can settle at the bottom. Lift the greens out of the bath and into a salad spinner. If the water is really dirty, do this a second time.
Dry washed lettuce well in that spinner. Throwing a paper towel in with the leaves helps absorb water. Take this seriously—for chopping, lettuce has to be totally dry or your salad will be more like a greens soup.
At Just Salad, the salad makers weigh both greens and other ingredients for portion, but we’re going to eyeball it by heaping a salad-eating bowl over the top with greens, which will allow for shrinkage when they get dressed and chopped. Transfer those greens to a big mixing bowl, which is where you’ll build your meal.
2. Fruits and veggies
Your bowlful of greens already clocks in at several vegetable servings, but don’t stop the count yet. Adding vegetables and fruits, raw and cooked, makes salad more nutritious—and tastier. Though you can’t go wrong with the salad basics—grated carrots, sweet cherry tomatoes, and creamy avocado—there’s room for plenty of creativity, especially when you add cooked vegetables (roasted broccoli, steamed winter squash, and roasted tomatoes are winners) into the mix. In your at-home assembly line, you can use leftover scraps of veggies, so long as they fit a theme.
To keep salad unity, you should “theme out every salad,” advises Kenner. That might be as pared-down as a steakhouse salad (arugula, cherry tomatoes, parmesan, steak), or as vegetable-rich as a harvest bowl of spinach, squash, broccoli, apples, and beets. Fresh fruit adds welcome sweetness, while dried fruit can contribute chewiness and tang. Cucumbers and radishes bring jaw-pleasing crunch.
I themed out my salad with Mexican inspiration: After the green leaf-kale-red cabbage mix, in went chopped yellow peppers, minced jalapeños, and cubes of cooked red kuri squash.
Kenner says to think about the water content of your veggie add-ins. Roasted red peppers, green peppers, fresh oranges, and roasted tomatoes can all become soupy when chopped, so opt for just one or two such ingredients. For amounts, use 2 tablespoons to ¾ cup of a topping, depending on how much you like it and how strong the flavor—the more flavorful, the less you need. In other words, opt for pinches of jalapeños and handfuls of cucumbers.
3. Grains and nuts
Drop cooked grains into the bowl to bulk up and ward off post-salad hunger without decreasing the healthy factor. Cooked, cooled wheat berries are a Just Salad favorite for their nutrient richness and the bubble-like burst you get when you bite into them. “Quinoa is really popular right now,” Kenner says. So I added a ¼ cup of cooked quinoa to my bowl. Whatever grain you choose, make a batch in advance, store in the fridge, and then dole portions out cold.
Nuts are crucial protein in vegan and vegetarian chops, and they taste great and add texture, especially when toasted. Remember to keep them on theme—I went for pepitas on my Mexican salad.
Cheese can play a few roles in your salad. For vegetarians, cubed cheddar or Swiss lends protein and fat. In an antipasti-themed salad, bocconcini rounds out the flavors. A wedge salad isn’t a wedge salad blue cheese.
Aged or brined cheeses like Parmesan, pecorino, and feta will morph into your dressing in the most extraordinary way, adding saltiness and heft to the entire salad. You don’t need a lot. As with other ingredients, the stronger the flavor, the less you’ll want to use.
For this salad, grated aged Manchego held true to the Mexican vibe, while enhancing the umami factor in my salad. Cojita, aged or fresh, would work too.
At Just Salad, simple and good quality meats anchor many of the most popular salads. Don’t overthink the preparation. Ahead of time, roast chicken breasts, sear then bake steaks, or bake some seasoned shrimp. If you have a particular salad designed, you can season your protein for its theme, but the less distinctively you flavor your meat, the more varied your future salads can be. Store meats whole, then cut into bite-sized pieces when you make your salad, says Kenner.
At home, leftovers from roasting chicken, making soup, or going out for steak are invaluable additions. That’s just how this ½ cup of white meat chicken made its way into my salad.
You’ll see hard-boiled eggs at every salad bar in existence, and both the white and the whole egg make good, vegetarian additions to your bowl—though keep in mind that the yolk will break apart and get distributed around your salad.
Oh, and there’s one more meat to consider: Crispy, crumbled bacon!
In a chopped salad, you’re building up texture from the moment you first add those slices of red cabbage—it’s nearly as big a consideration as taste and healthfulness. After the vegetables are added and the cheese is crumbled, there’s one final opportunity to make a crunchy impact. This comes in the form of croutons, tortilla chips, Stacy’s naked pita chips, or crispy wonton noodles. “We add crunch to a lot of the salads,” says Kenner.
The Mexican salad obviously got crunchy tortillas: I fried strips of corn tortillas in a little oil, salted them, and flung them into the mix. Corn chips, if you have them, work just as well.
So now that all the ingredients are in the bowl, you’ll want to dump them all out again, this time onto a cutting board—the bigger, the better. At Just Salad, a triple-blade mezzaluna (curved knife) makes quick work of greens, vegetables, cheese, meat, and crunchy bits. If you have one, glide it gently from side to side over your ingredients, keeping the blade on the board at all times (“If you’re making noise, you’re not doing it right,” says Kenner).
But you don’t have to purchase a mezzaluna for the home kitchen if you don’t want to. A chef’s knife is effective, even if messier. Arrange your greens in a rough rectangle, then use your largest, sharpest knife to cut all the way down to the board. Lift the knife, and cut again in a parallel line about an inch from the first. Repeat until you reach the end of the rectangle. Rotate the board 90 degrees, then do again. That might be enough chopping, but if you want a finer mince, toss the ingredients to redistribute, then chop in a grid once more. Return to your big mixing bowl.
In general, the degree of decimation depends on your tastes. Some prefer a salad lightly chopped; others want greens totally minced. Experiment with what you like best.
“The dressing really sets the tone of the salad,” says Kenner, who bases most of Just Salad’s dressings on either oil or cream. An oil-based vinaigrette keeps the salad light, while a cream-based dressing adds heartiness for those unconcerned with calories and fat.
I stayed right on theme with my dressing, whisking together a creamy chipotle number using ¼ cup whole milk yogurt, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, a bit of chipotle pepper and adobo sauce from a can of chipotles in adobo, half a clove of grated garlic, plenty of salt, and 2 tablespoons of grapeseed oil. (Taste this for seasoning, adding more chipotle, salt, or lemon as you like).
The chipotle was killer, but you don’t really need a complicated dressing unless your salad is plain. That’s when you should opt for the kale pesto vinaigrette or buffalo dressing.
But much of the time, says Kenner, “my favorite is really good olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon with some salt and ground pepper.” Easy.
With your chopped salad back in the big mixing bowl, spoon or drizzle a little dressing into the mix; start with just a tablespoon or two. Then, toss with two big spoons or dough scrapers, or—since you’re at home—your very clean hands. You want the dressing to coat the ingredients without bogging them down. More than 2 ounces of dressing, says Kenner, will turn a salad soggy. Taste a bite as you go, adding a little more dressing, or maybe some salt and pepper to finish.
Serve salads right after tossing, preferably in a small but deep bowl—a shape that optimizes the process of retrieving perfect bites with every fork plunge.
If somehow you’ve made it this far but truthfully don’t love salads, convert the chopped concoction into a giant wrap: Start with a large, whole-wheat wrap, warm it in the microwave until it’s pliant, then wrap up your salad like a burrito.