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Easy Salad Upgrades for Your Best Bowl Ever

Healthy eaters consume a lot of salads. There are the “greens plus dressing” salads that come with our burgers, and there are the “iceberg, tomato, cucumber” salads that get topped with store-bought dressing. We regularly eat salad for lunch and have even been known to eat salad for breakfast. Which is why, sometimes, it’s worth taking a little extra effort to make a good salad out-of-this-world great, where every bite is crisp but also rich, refreshing yet deeply flavorful, light and healthy but also filling and satisfying.

It’s that mix of savory, sweet, salty, and spicy, plus some good crunch and an element of creaminess, that turns a nice healthy salad into a dish you dream about. We asked star chefs across the country for their top tips and tricks for making fresh, creative combos you can’t stop eating. And since they’re veggie-packed, you won’t have to.

Balance Your Flavors
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At Ngam in New York City, chef Hong Thaimee serves up a classic Thai papaya salad. “Each bite delivers freshness from the tomatoes, acid from the tamarind and lime, and sweetness from the palm sugar,” she says. To recreate that synergy, remember her advice: “Every salad should have something acidic, something sweet, and something salty.”

Go For Variety in Texture
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“I really love a puree in a salad,” says chef Zach Pollack of Alimento in Los Angeles. In the restaurant’s chopped salad, he takes chickpeas and gives them two new textures: crunchy (by frying them) and creamy (by pureeing them). “The puree gives it body, and acts as a second dressing. The technique works best with starchy ingredients, like carrots or sweet potatoes.”

Think Beyond Greens
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At Departure Restaurant + Lounge in Portland, Oregon, salads go further than greens plus dressing. Any vegetable can find its place in a salad, says chef Gregory Gourdet. Use them raw, or marinate, blanch, pickle, sauté, or roast vegetables first, depending on the texture and flavor profile you need to balance your dish. (Try these 10 Colorful Salad Recipes for Spring.)

Go Huge
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To make them feel hearty enough for a meal, don’t be afraid of really big salads, says Cortney Burns, of San Francisco spot Bar Tartine. Add rice, protein, seeds, nuts, chicken, or cooked and sprouted lentils to a big bowl of vegetables for a meal that will keep you full.

Pair Ingredients Perfectly
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At D.C. restaurant Zaytinya, chef Michael Costa’s rule of thumb is “if it grows together, it goes together.” This guideline, based in seasonality, leads to pairings like sugar snap peas, artichokes, and radishes in spring, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers in summer, and apples and squash in fall. (Here, 10 Powerful Healthy Food Pairings to get you started.)

Use the Whole Vegetable
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“I love broccoli stalks, maybe more than the crowns,” says Jeanne Cheng, the owner of Kye’s in Santa Monica. “They’re just as nutritious and have great texture and flavor, but they often get wasted.” That’s why she uses them in a slaw in her restaurant, adding bacon for extra flavor and goji berries to boost nutrition. Follow her lead and include parts vegetables you might otherwise toss in your salad, like beet greens, celery leaves, and carrot tops.

Give Your Greens Some Space
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“Never over-handle your lettuce,” says Pollack. He advises seasoning lettuces first, tossing with your hands and, most importantly, using a really big bowl. “There’s nothing worse than having too many greens in a small bowl,” he says. “It just makes a mess.”

Get Experimental with Dressings
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Olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper will give you a great dressing every time. But don’t be afraid to get a little more creative. Gourdet’s favorite coconut dressing, inspired by peanut sauce, is a combo of rice vinegar, coconut milk, toasted peanuts and cashews, ginger, and lime, which he tosses with shaved collard greens. Yum!

Use Up Your Leftovers
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Cold cooked vegetables make a great salad ingredient, says Costa. “Have fun with your leftovers—whether that’s roasted Brussels sprouts or caramelized onions—and don’t be afraid to use them in a new way.” (Get inspired with 10 Tasty Ways to Use Food Scraps.)

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