Indulge me while I put on my #foodhat* for this blog post. Mmmm. Food.
Part of my work life (and probably yours too) is lunch time. I was that die-hard bring-your-lunch-from-home kid at school. I used to take salad sometimes and always despised having two containers to carry, and by the end of lunch I would have two oily containers that would be a pain to clean after the fact. Dressing the salad beforehand was literally a recipe for salad disaster. Through much trial and error, I finally gave up. It was just too hard to do salad right for lunch. If I can’t do justice to it, then it’s best to not do it at all.
Now, despite all my trials and tribulations with bringing salad for lunch, I must share that salad is my family’s crowning joy, the first vegetables that hit our palettes during dinner and has been a standing centerpiece of our family meal since before I was born. My parents were convinced that if my brother and I could make it through our salads, then we could make it through anything. Salad making was how my brother and I cut our teeth in the kitchen. Salad. It’s what makes my family tick. My love for it runs deep and true, a river of balsamic vinagrette runs in my veins instead of blood.
There is little exception to this rule now, as a grown up who sets and defines her own daily meals, though I go through phases. Summer is filled with so many wonderful vegetables that green salads are an afterthought. In the winter, when vegetables tend to err on the side of soft and hearty, I crave the crunchy greens that can only come from a crispy fresh salad.
Enter: my newest favorite lunchtime item… The jar salad! Let me tell you, my salads have got nothing on Pinterest (and, to be fair, I didn’t discover them on Pinterest either; I ran across the idea in a vegan food blog from ‘10 or sometime back then). First off, I’m using a pickle jar. (Don’t laugh, though my boss does every day. It’s a perfect size for my stomach.) I also find that while making several salads ahead of time is probably a good thing for people who wish to save time (the jars apparently keep the greens super fresh!), I truly adore food preparation and it gives me a sense of calm and order to start my day with creating my lunch. Also: who knows what mood I’ll be in and what kind of salad that dictates? I’d rather make my salad fresh and fabulous every morning.
My strategy for my salads is a more fine-tuned take on conventional jar-salad wisdom, so have a peek into my salad psyche to see how I theorize my lunch each day (interspersed with a few recent recipes):
- Dressing. Secret: I make my own. I’m a more sour (lemon, vinegar, etc) dressing person than commercial bottled dressings, so I can better control the flavorings when I make my own. I have three or so dressings made and in the fridge at any given time: something creamy (OMG homemade buttermilk ranch), something classic (usually vinaigrette), and something versatile but with body (usually involving tahini or miso — I’m working on perfecting a homemade version of Annie’s Goddess dressing, my only prepared salad dressing vice to date). I’ve also recently done hummus and pesto as dressings, but they’re quite thick and need a bit more shaking to get the whole salad dressed.
Miso-lime dressing, carrots, peppers, cucumber, green onions, avocado, roasted squash, baked tofu, romaine, furikake. (1) (2)
- Something crunchy. Raw veggies! Omnomnom. My favorites include carrots, cucumber, broccoli, cauliflower, and peppers. Blanched and steamed veggies, as long as they retain their tender crunch, would also fit into this category. Nuts (almonds, pecans, walnuts) and pumpkin seeds also fall into the crunchy camp. Also: sprouts. Homegrown. Yes.
Tahini goddess, broccoli, cucumbers, carrots, bell pepper, cilantro, baked tofu, feta, romaine, dried cranberries. (3)
- Something hearty. This is lunchtime! Middle of the day fuel! Think protein but not just. Personal favorites include baked tofu or some kind of cooked legume (chickpeas, black beans, pinto beans, marinated lentils), made in a large batch once then tiding me over for the rest of the week. Cold pasta/grain salads have also won me over as a hearty ingredients, and eggs might start factoring in again as soon as I start getting the amazing local eggs at the farmers market again this summer.
Miso dressing, green beans, carrot, cucumber, avocado, bean sprouts, baked tofu, roasted eggplant/sweet potatoes, romaine, furikake. (4)
- Something cooked. Roasted veggies leftover from dinner = best salad ingredient ever. Recently, I also included massaged kale or sautéed chard, but usually it’s something on the order of roasted cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus, sweet potatoes, bok choi, eggplant, or squash. Cooked foods have a different texture and flavor than their raw counterparts and it really kicks salads up to another level to incorporate cooked ingredients.
Homemade buttermilk ranch, carrots, broc, green peppers, roasted chickpeas & asparagus, alfalfa sprouts, sultanas, romaine. (5)
- Something unexpected. For me, this usually falls in the camp of sweet (dried fruit or roasted veggies that are naturally sweet like sweet potatoes or squash) or something rich (cheese or avocado). I haven’t gone down the road of hard boiled eggs yet (or in honor of my dad’s craziness in trying to convince my brother and me to eat salad: chocolate chips).
Dijon caper vinaigrette, peppers, carrots, cucumbers, roasted broccoli and chickpeas, avocado, bean sprouts, dried cranberries, romaine. (6)
- Something mysterious. Usually a chopped herb that’s too small to see but flavors the salad throughout, like chopped green onions, chives, cilantro, parsley, or basil. Personal favorites include herb/spice blends like furikake (seaweed blends with sesame seeds) and za’atar (an Israeli spice blend with sesame seeds). I would also group strongly flavored finely-chopped ingredients like olives, pickles, capers, onions, etc. in this category: a little goes a long way, but it makes your salad exciting.
And of course…
- Something leafy and green. I’ve been sticking with romaine, because the whole head stays fresh for longer than loose greens and the way I’ve been making these salads, I usually only use two or three leaves. Wash and dry them thoroughly and slice them thinly with a sharp knife.
Now, order is very important (nay, absolutely vital) for jar salads. No one likes soggy salad. No one. That’s not salad; that’s a waste of space and mouth time. The dressing must always go at the bottom. I’ll repeat that, because it is the most important part about the order of ingredients: the dressing must always go at the bottom. Nothing gets wet and soggy until you make it so when the dressing is at the bottom, and I should know: I bike to work every day with a jar salad upright in my basket, no problem.
All the ingredients that go in from this point on should be in small fork-stabbable pieces. The layers then proceed as such: hard ingredients (raw veggies) that will settle in the dressing and make for a solid base for the rest of the ingredients, then cooked veggies, creamy/rich things, legumes/tofu, chopped lettuce, and any dried fruits or nuts, then screw on the top. I haven’t figured out how to successfully incorporate croutons into jar salads because I refrigerate them between preparing and eating and I fear the cold might be too much for them. Ah well. One way that plate salads are superior to jar salads!
When you’re ready to eat, invert the jar and shake to dress. At this point. I usually eat right out of the jar (it’s super fun!) but by all mean, dump it out onto a plate for an easier/prettier dining experience. Word to the now wiser version of myself: I’ve taken to overstuffing the jar with lettuce, so my first few bites are just lettuce, but then I recap the jar and shake more to toss it more effectively.
Trust me: with this technique, there will be no more soggy salads, terribly oily containers, and no more boring lunches.
Have you created a winning jar salad combo? Tell me! I’m always looking for inspiration.
* #foodhat is a hashtag created in late 2012 by a small group of higher ed foodies (Ron Bronson and Joel Goodman, to be precise) to share food related conversations and photos. It’s now been adopted more grandly in the Twitter/Instagram sphere by this point, and no, it’s not usually people putting food on their heads… though those photos appear sometimes, too.