December salads don't have to suck

Danielle Dreilinger
Southern Kitchen
Lettuce not punish ourselves by how we eat.

Alas for the salad, caught up in diet culture. You know the drill. No added calories, and especially added fat, ever! Use that no-cal bottled dressing, no matter how gloppy. Desperate for creaminess? Add plain, fat-free Greek yogurt, the flavor of self-denial. Tortilla strips?! That salad’s done for — you might as well eat a taco.

Friends, we have forgotten what salads are for. Salads are not made to punish yourself for eating. Salads should be delicious. Several tablespoonfuls of olive oil most definitely help the vegetables go down.

Yes, salads are light, in that you can eat them for lunch and — crucial for those of us who work from home — not want a nap afterwards. During the holiday season, they provide a welcome break from rich dinners (and rich leftovers). I love a latke as much as anyone, but I need variation from brown food, and something that won’t make my digestive system grind to a halt.

Making a satisfying salad means rejecting the rules we learned from teen magazines, daytime cooking shows or diet influencers. Vinaigrettes should be at least half oil. An entrée salad should include protein, fat and grain — lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber will not fill you up. Use a variety of flavors and vegetables that look interesting. Be nice to yourself.

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In my experience, a good salad requires the following components:

  • Greens
  • Grain: homemade croutons, cut-up pita, leftover grain, cold pasta  
  • Protein: beans, hard-boiled eggs, edamame, canned tuna, leftover chicken, chunks of feta
  • Allium: scallions, chives, browned garlic, fried shallots from Asian markets
  • Vegetables: anything, raw or cooked
  • Fruit
  • Richness: nuts and/or avocado
  • Optional extra flavor or frills: olives, capers, citrus zest, pickles — ransack that condiments shelf
  • Dressing: Please, just don’t make it fat-free

If you’re taking a salad somewhere, you can dress hearty greens like the ever-loved/hated kale ahead of time; for lettuce, bring the dressing separately in a jar, or keep it in the office fridge. I have a collection of lidded bowls that family friends gave me 23 years ago, but the most space-effective way to carry a salad is in a Ziploc with the air pressed out.  

Danielle's festive winter salad, a few days after making

Danielle’s Everyday Lunch Salad

This has been my go-to this fall. I make a really unreasonably large lunch salad, filling a 2-1/2 quart Pyrex bowl. Your mileage may vary.

Quantities to taste:

  • Greens: arugula
  • Grain: croutons — cube the bread and sauté on the stove while cutting everything else up
  • Protein: half a can of chickpeas, roasted on the bottom rack of the oven at 500 degrees for 12 minutes (of course, make the whole can at once; the second day, toss them into the pan with the croutons)
  • Allium: scallions
  • Vegetables: varies
  • Fruit: pomegranate arils (that's the name for the seeds!)
  • Richness: pumpkin seeds, avocado
  • Dressing: olive oil, salt, pepper, lemon. Drizzle on the oil and s&p first, stir to coat leaves; then squeeze lemon wedge and stir again.

Salad for a party

Crunch, freshness, bitterness, tang — these are the flavors and textures too often missing from the December table. For sit-down holiday potlucks, consider bringing a festive winter salad. Ideally, you want a nice bowl — I inherited an enormous wood one from my grandmother. This salad does not require a protein or grain component, because it’s meant to be part of a larger meal. Here’s the combination I made for Thanksgiving.

A Festive Winter Salad

Quantities to taste:

  • A hearty salad green: kale, radicchio, endive, escarole, shredded Brussels sprouts or a combination; spinach as a last resort
  • Allium: dependable scallions, chives or sautéed/browned sliced shallots
  • Pecans, toasted
  • Colorful, crunchy vegetables that are fancier than what you usually use: watermelon radish, fennel, golden beet (raw or cooked), roasted winter squash chunks
  • Fruit: pomegranate arils, citrus, bright berries
  • Vinaigrette: olive oil, salt, black pepper, optional French mustard, citrus juice or a mild wine vinegar

Cut the vegetables thinly and small enough so they won’t exercise the jaws — say, in matchsticks. A mandoline is nice, if you have one. I do not.

If you’re using citrus, cut it in a fancy way: suprêmed, or peeled and cut crosswise. If you go suprême, which means cutting the sections from their membranes, first zest the fruit into the salad, then cut the fruit over a bowl and add the juice to your vinaigrette.

If you’re using kale, massage the oil and salt into the leaves ahead of time, then add the rest of the dressing ingredients. Otherwise dress when serving. Extra benefit of kale: It doesn’t turn into green mush, so you can eat any leftovers for lunch the next day. And you'll be happy to have them.

Danielle Dreilinger is an American South storytelling reporter and the author of the book "The Secret History of Home Economics." You can reach her at or 919-236-3141.