Picnics in the park. BBQs on balmy evenings stretching to twilight. Tables bursting with appetising colour at garden parties and outdoor celebrations. Who doesn’t love a summer feast?
Who would argue that salad isn’t the food of high summer? The fresh, zingy flavours and crisp, crunchy textures of raw fruit and vegetables are the perfect way to satisfy the appetite. Even on the warmest days they are light, cool, easy on the stomach.
In addition, salads are also perfect for sharing. For a buffet or any kind of catering, especially for an event outside. Big bowls of salad look delicious, they provide ample variety to suit all tastes and dietary requirements and they are ideal for self-service.
To top it all off, salads are a fabulous healthy eating option, too. In fact, with a simple grasp of dietary nutrition, it’s easy to make any salad virtually nutritionally complete. All you have to do is provide all the important food groups in a single dish. Therefore, build your salad dish around four basic building blocks.
What fruit and vegetables should I add to my summer feast?
Let’s start with what most people think of when you talk about salads. Fresh fruit and veg, often served uncooked, is the beating heart of any great salad. It’s also what gives a salad its nutritional kick and makes it a staple addition in a summer feast.
There is no secret that plants are a fantastic source of dozens of vitamins and minerals that are essential for our well-being. It is the reason why we’re all encouraged to eat our ‘five a day’. But it’s also true that fruit and vegetables are at their most nutritious when eaten raw. Furthermore, cooking either destroys or removes some of the goodness they contain.
The best way to maximise the vitamins and minerals contained in a single salad serving is to go for a ‘rainbow’ effect of multicoloured leaves, roots and fruits. Green leaves such as lettuce, rocket, shredded cabbage or baby spinach often form the base of a salad dish. They are rich in minerals such as iron, potassium, calcium and magnesium, as well as vitamins B, C, E and K.
On top of that, shredded young roots such as carrot, beetroot, radish, and celeriac add earthy, sometimes strident flavours. For example, think of the peppery heat of horseradish. They also add distinctive, rich colours. Roots are equally packed full of nutrients like potassium, folate, fibre and vitamins A, B and C.
Finally, fruits complete your salad dishes by adding a riot of colour and flavour. Remember, fruits are not just sweet. ‘Savoury’ fruits like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers are staples of salads, while grilled aubergine or courgette make for wonderful additions to ‘hot’ salads. But at the same time, don’t discount what sweet fruits like pineapple, melon, mango and grapes can add to a salad.
As one of the basic building blocks of every cell in your body, protein is an essential in your diet. Protein is itself made from amino acids. Your body can make most of the amino acids it needs for itself. But a few, known as ‘essential’ amino acids, you need to get from the food you eat. Which is why protein is so heavily emphasised when looking at nutritionally balanced diets.
Unlike fruit and vegetables, many protein sources are added to a salad cooked. So think grilled chicken in a classic Caesar salad, or smoked salmon and eggs tossed with fresh crunchy greens.
And no, meat and fish are not the only ways to add a rich source of protein to a salad. For vegetarians, cheese and eggs are the go-to solution. But for vegan salad options, beans and pulses are protein rich, as are dark leafy vegetables like kale, cabbage and spinach. Fresh beans can be blanched or steamed and tossed straight into a salad. Or, cooked beans can be turned into protein-rich accompaniments, such as chickpea-based Mediterranean staples falafel and hummus.
Despite the bad press they get, carbohydrates are essential for a balanced, healthy diet. Carbs are the fuel your body converts into energy, after all. The problem with a diet that is too rich in carbs (and especially sugars) is that there is too much for your body to use it all, so it gets turned into fat for storage.
In the form of starch, the most common sources of dietary carbohydrates are cereal grains, potatoes and rice. But that belies the huge range of options there are to build salads with distinctive regional identities just from the choice of carb alone. Wheat alone, for example, is used to make noodles (think vibrant, spicy Asian salads), pasta (toss in olive oil, passata, garlic and herbs for a classic Italian dish) and couscous (a versatile base for countless east Mediterranean and North African dishes).
Finally, what often distinguishes a good salad from great is the dressing. A chance to lift the combined flavours of the other ingredients with a final intense kick, the classic ingredients of a salad dressing are an oil and an acid, plus whatever herbs and spices you care to throw in over the top.
Oily dressings also add one final food group into the mix – fats. Again, despite their bad reputation, we do need fats in our diet, especially the monounsaturated fats found in the likes of olive, sesame and canola oils. The key is moderation, and a dressing drizzled over a salad certainly isn’t going to overdo things.
The acid in a classic dressing is also another opportunity to add an extra nutritional punch along with the flavour. Apple cider vinegar, for example, is associated with reducing body fat and cholesterol and lowering blood sugar levels. The juice of citrus fruits like lemon and lime, meanwhile, are excellent sources of Vitamin C, A and B6, plus a range of other minerals.