Outside of work and travel emergencies where there are no other options, David and I rarely order salads in non-vegan restaurants. It’s not because we don’t like fresh, delicious greens. At home, we have salads multiple times a week. However, the thing that’s missing with most restaurant salads is a “main event.”
I think the reason for this is that most non-vegan restaurants think of the animal products as the main event. Restaurant salads are often covered in fried meats, shreds of dairy-based cheese, and smothered in ranch dressing. If you’re vegan and you’ve ever been served an iceberg lettuce salad with a few shreds of carrot as your entire meal, you may have wanted to ask the chef, “Would you be full on this?” Because while a lettuce salad with balsamic vinaigrette can do in a pinch, there are much more interesting, satisfying, and filling ways to get your greens in.
Here is my method for creating the perfect crave-worthy salad at home:
Each bite should include something different. When I start on a salad, I look through the produce bins first to take stock of what I have. I usually start with a base of massaged kale, green leaf lettuce, romaine, or spinach. (If you’ve never massaged kale, it’s pretty self-explanatory. You chop kale, throw it in a bowl, and knead it with your hands until it softens. You’ll be amazed at how much it shrinks. For even softer kale, massage salad dressing or avocado into the leaves.)
Then I always include red bell peppers, cucumbers, celery, and tomatoes. I go for cherry tomatoes during winter months since they retain their sweetness and aren’t mealy. Depending on the season, other possibilities include broccoli, radishes, cabbage, watercress, cauliflower, sugar snap peas, and even berries like strawberries or blueberries on occasion.
I’ve heard that what makes an addictive restaurant appetizer is having a balance of sweet, salty, and fatty. When those things come together, it ticks all of the pleasure sensors in the brain. When I’m making a salad, I like to do the same. Having elements with bold flavors keeps me digging in for more.
The best salads have a mixture of soft, crunchy, and creamy.
While vegetables themselves have some crunch, for even more I like nuts or seeds like peanuts, pistachios, cashews, almonds, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, or homemade croutons. (The crouton recipe from Salad Samurai is fabulous. In addition to oil, garlic & spices, the bread is tossed with lemon juice before baking, which adds a wonderful tang.)
When a salad is going to be a meal, I like to add at least one protein-heavy component that is hearty. I often include baked tofu, roasted chickpeas, black beans, or French lentils du Puy. When one of these components is involved, the salad really feels substantive, like a full dinner.
Salads are typically thought of as a low calorie meal, which is fine, I guess, if someone is counting calories. But I’m not. So I want to make sure that there are enough calories for it to be satiating and filling. I don’t want an hour to pass and then be hungry again. Plus, some fat in a salad helps with absorption of certain nutrients. For extra calories and deliciousness, fat is where it’s at.
Obviously, avocado makes anything better. That dreamy fruit was meant for salads (and tacos, and burritos, and tofu scrambles, and nachos, and straight out of the peel with a spoon…) The nuts, seeds, coconut bacon, olives, and tofu mentioned above also have some good fat in them. And a rich dressing adds fat, making every leaf more inviting.
My favorite go-to salad dressing is Creamy Cashew Dressing.
I have been making it for years now. The first time I posted the recipe was way back in 2011. Since then, the recipe has evolved a bit, and I’m sharing it below.
Nowadays when I’m making creamy cashew dressing, I don’t even bother measuring. It’s one of those things I just know by heart. I pour all of the following into a blender: A couple big handfuls of raw cashews, enough water to cover them, a squeeze of lemon juice, a splash of low-sodium tamari, a clove of garlic, and a small handful of cilantro. Since I have a high-speed blender, I don’t have to soak the cashews first, like I did when I originally posted the recipe. Then I adjust to taste. If it needs more sour, add lemon. More salt or richness, add tamari. More creaminess, add cashews. More liquid, add water. I’ve made it without garlic for people averse to it and without cilantro for people who think cilantro tastes soapy. Even without those two ingredients, it’s still delicious.
(If you don’t have a high-speed blender, you have three options. 1. Soak the cashews in water overnight and drain before following the recipe. 2. Grind the raw cashews first in a coffee grinder until they become a flour, and then put them in the blender. 3. Cover the cashews in boiling water and let them soak 10-20 minutes before draining and using.)
The creamy cashew dressing has a wonderful mix of umami from the tamari, tanginess from the lemon, and hit of garlic. I especially like it on kale salads, because it’s a full-bodied dressing that can stand up to the boldness of kale. The velvety texture of the dressing is yet another reason why cashews are the magicians of nuts. Who would have guessed that cashews could make a dressing so creamy without any dairy at all?
While I have made a ton of different dressings over the years, this is the one I keep coming back to. It’s my all-time favorite.
See how to make the creamy cashew dressing in this video: