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When you consider the dictionary definitions of salad – “a usually incongruous mixture” or a “hodgepodge” – the potential for creative licence is thrilling. A salad is not just a tossed bowl of leafy greens, not merely a side, a bagged filler you think you should have on the table to balance things out, but a construction of so many things you love to eat, made better by their close association with each other, with virtually no rules to adhere to.

A salad is an opportunity to combine more flavours and textures than perhaps any other dish: It can (and should) be fresh and crisp, soft and caramelized, juicy, crunchy, briny, earthy, cheesy and jammy, tossed, composed or layered and pulled together with something saucy. Though we think of salads as mostly vegetables, they can have fruit, meat, pasta or pulses, which makes them not only interesting, but particularly useful during a pandemic – the perfect vehicle for all manner of fridge remnants, raw and cooked, in any quantity, because measurements don’t really matter. Inspired by the seasons but motivated by mood and appetite, a salad is a good excuse to eat garlicky croutons and soft-boiled eggs, to shake over the remnants of a bag of Doritos or use the avocado that’s on the verge of composting itself in the fruit bowl.

If you’re into big salads (which, as Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes noted, are like small salads only bigger, with lots of stuff in them), here is some inspiration, without a tub of spring mix in sight. (Some assembly required.)

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Roasted Cabbage and Root Veg on Whipped Cheese with Lentils

Julie Van Rosendaal/The Globe and Mail

Serves 4

Virtually all veggies are delicious roasted, and can be served warm, cold or in-between in salad form. Nestling them onto a plate of creamy whipped feta, ricotta or goat cheese dresses them in reverse, and once roasted, cabbage wedges will separate into soft ribbons so you won’t even need a knife.

  • 2-4 cabbage wedges or 8-10 Brussels sprouts, halved lengthwise
  • 8 small whole carrots (or 2-3 larger carrots and/or parsnips)
  • 2-4 small beets, roasted, peeled and cut into wedges
  • Olive or other vegetable oil, as needed
  • Salt, to taste
  • 4 ounces (approximately) feta, ricotta or goat cheese
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • Cream, as needed (optional)
  • ½ cup walnut halves or pieces
  • 1-2 slices bread, torn, chopped or whizzed into crumbs
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • A few sprigs of parsley or carrot tops, chopped
  • ⅓ cup cooked lentils and/or grains (such as barley, farro or quinoa – optional)

Preheat your oven to 425 F while you prep the veg: Cut cabbage into wedges, leave small carrots whole, or cut larger ones into one-inch pieces. Spread out in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with oil and toss or rub over the surface with your fingers to coat. Sprinkle with salt and roast for 20 to 30 minutes, or until tender and caramelized on the edges.

Meanwhile, whiz your feta, ricotta or goat cheese in a food processor with the juice of half a lemon and a splash of cream or water, if needed, to loosen it to the consistency of soft whipped cream cheese. Add a pinch of salt, if it needs it. (Feta likely won’t.)

Toast the walnuts and bread cubes or crumbs in a skillet with a drizzle of oil until golden and fragrant. Add the garlic and parsley or carrot tops and a pinch of salt and cook for another minute. Set aside.

Spread the whipped cheese onto a serving plate (or divide between individual plates) and top with the roasted vegetables, lentils and walnut-breadcrumb mixture. Drizzle with a little olive oil (the good stuff, if you have some) or even a bit of your favourite vinaigrette, and serve immediately.

Coconut Rice Noodle Salad

Julie Van Rosendaal/The Globe and Mail

Serves 4

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Bun tam bi, a Vietnamese dish of rice noodles in coconut cream, is delicious with handfuls of fresh herbs, such as cilantro, Thai basil or Vietnamese coriander, and crunchy veggies such as cucumber, carrots, shredded lettuce or cabbage, snap peas or daikon. It’s often served with strips of roast pork, and is a great way to utilize leftovers – or try cold poached salmon or cooked shrimp. To turn this into a peanut sauced salad, whisk a big spoonful of peanut butter into the coconut milk mixture as it warms.

  • 250 grams rice noodles
  • ¾-1 cup coconut milk (about half a 14 ounce/398 ml can)
  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • Zest and juice of 1 lime
  • Pinch chili flakes
  • 2-3 mini cucumbers, sliced into ribbons with a vegetable peeler
  • ½ bunch fresh cilantro, Thai basil and/or Vietnamese coriander, torn or chopped
  • Flaked cold poached salmon or shrimp (optional)
  • Chopped peanuts
  • Chili oil, for serving (optional)

Soak or boil the noodles according to the package directions. Run under cold water in a colander to stop them from cooking, drain well and set aside.

While the noodles are cooking, bring the coconut milk, fish sauce, brown sugar, lime zest and juice and a pinch of chili flakes to a simmer in a small saucepan. Remove from the heat, let cool slightly and toss with the cold noodles. (Taste and add more lime juice, coconut milk or fish sauce, if it needs it.)

Add the cucumber ribbons or any other veggies you like, a handful or two of fresh cilantro and/or basil, and some flaked salmon or cooked shrimp, if you’re using it. Divide onto plates and top with more herbs, chopped peanuts and a drizzle of chili oil, if you like.

Niçoise with Bagna Càuda

Julie Van Rosendaal/The Globe and Mail

Serves as many as you like

Along with the Cobb, a niçoise is perhaps the best-known of the composed salads – an artfully arranged (or haphazard) assortment of raw or blanched veggies, tuna, hard or soft boiled eggs, and something briny, such as olives or capers (or both). Bagna càuda is a warm Piedmontese garlic-anchovy-butter sauce typically used as a dip for crudités and that makes a fantastic vinaigrette, particularly while it’s still warm. Let your appetite – and the number of people you’re feeding – dictate the quantities of each ingredient, and dress to your taste.

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  • Eggs
  • Little gem, butter or leaf lettuce (optional)
  • Boiled or roasted new potatoes
  • Canned tuna (preferably in oil)
  • Steamed or boiled green beans and/or zucchini, sliced or julienned
  • Tomatoes (small, or wedges)
  • Radishes, trimmed and sliced
  • Niçoise olives
  • Capers

Bagna Càuda Vinaigrette

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup butter
  • 3 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 5-10 anchovy filets
  • 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar

Cook as many eggs as you like by lowering them into a saucepan of boiling water: Leave them in for 10 to 12 minutes for hard-boiled, seven minutes for jammy, five minutes for soft. Remove them with a slotted spoon and run under cold water to stop them from cooking.

To make the bagna càuda vinaigrette, warm the olive oil, butter, garlic and anchovies in a small saucepan for about 10 minutes until the garlic is soft and the anchovies have dissolved. Remove from the heat and whisk in the vinegar.

If you like, arrange a few lettuce leaves on your serving platter or each plate. Arrange piles of potatoes, tuna, beans and/or zucchini, tomatoes, radishes and olives. Peel and halve or quarter the eggs and nestle them on top; scatter with capers. (For crispy capers, cook a drained spoonful in a pour of oil in a small skillet until they open slightly and turn crisp.) If you like, the briny oil can be drizzled over the salad along with the bagna càuda vinaigrette (or used in it). Drizzle the vinaigrette over while it’s still warm.

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