How to Make the Ultimate Vegan Salad

A vegan salad can be a nutritional cornucopia, a buffet highlight, a hastily prepared snack, a meal on its own, or all of the above!

When I was growing up, salad was an object of scorn. Invariably consisting of tomato, cucumber and wilted lettuce. To make it fancy for company, you might use cherry tomatoes and a bottled dressing. The role of these salads was largely ornamental.

My eyes were opened when I first visited South-East Asia where the term salad is used in a much broader sense, and implies flavor, versatility and creativity.

I have experimented with many ingredients and techniques – this is my guide to building the ultimate vegan salad.

What is the Purpose of Your Salad?

Before you start, think about what you want to achieve with your culinary work of art. For me, it usually makes a big difference whether I am making the salad for myself or for a group of people.

The Personal SaladThe Catering Masterpiece
Clean out the fridge and make best use of excess harvest from our home garden.I can plan and buy special ingredients
Efficient use of timeI will apply some love and attention
I can experimentIt must work
I mainly care about my nutritional needsI want to give the gift of great taste (and convert salad skeptics)

The Salad Flavor Profile

At a minimum, you want to balance salty, sweet, and sour elements of the salad. Beyond that, specific flavors from herbs, spices, and umami will drive the wow factor of the salad.

The Salad Base

In designing a salad, we start by considering how to make up the bulk of the salad’s overall volume. If you just start chopping herbs and dicing bits and pieces you can end up with a very small salad.

  • Diced Cucumber. This is my go-to base ingredient. Cucumber is neutral tasting, moist, and you can dice a mountain of cucumber without hurting your budget.
  • Diced Tomato. Harder to cut than cucumber, but still relatively easy to work with. Tomato and Cucumber work well together.
  • Diced Apple. I often add a bit of apple to add both sweet and sour to a salad
  • Pasta. I like to use rotini (spiral) pasta, but anything symmetrical and that fits on a spoon is fine. You don’t want to overcook it (it will soften further once in the salad), so this adds some risk). I tend to use this for a ‘personal’ salad when I have nothing else, want a change, or am carb-loading in recovery from weight training.
  • Navy Beans. Soak overnight and steam or boil.
  • Barley. Cook it in a vegetable stock or stronger flavors (e.g. Chinese 5-Spice).
  • Grated Carrot. I tend not to use this much as carrots are imported where I live, but this adds a light sweetness to the salad.
  • Ginger / Pomelo / Green Papaya / Green Mango. Discussed below, but also worth mentioning here as salad bases. If you go with a large quantity of these, you need to take more care with building the flavor profile around these ingredients.

Hot Salad Components

The hot component is optional, and you definitely save some time and mess by avoiding it. On the other hand, this is a really useful way of incorporating different flavors and creating a truly unique salad. This is also a good way to get saltiness into the flavor profile

  • Mushroom. I consider mushrooms first because you can also use them to bulk up the volume of the salad.
  • Frozen Garden Peas and/or Corn Kernels. Another way to
  • Caramelized Onions (diced or sliced). Adds a subtle sweetness
  • Fermented Bean Paste. Very much a go-to ingredient for adding both salt and umami, but a dash is enough.
  • Siracha (fermented chili). As above, but has a more distinct flavor, so I would be more likely to use this a
  • Light Soya Sauce. As above.
  • Miscellaneous Vegetables. This is you chance to use up odds and ends from the fridge and the garden. Don’t overdo it, but adding some okra or

Salad Dressing

At a minimum, you will typically want to add something acidic:

  • Limes are my default (plentiful in my region
  • Lemon
  • White Vinegar
  • Balsamic Vinegar

If you want a light, fresh salad you can leave it at the acid. Otherwise, you can consider:

  • Hummus. Instant level-up of your salad!
  • Tahini. Just toast and blend the sesame, you can apply it dry to the salad and there should be enough moisture from the other ingredients to make a paste when you toss the salad.
  • Cooked and blended Garden Peas. This is great if you wanted hummus and forgot to soak chickpeas! The flavor is not as good, but can be improved with spices, caramelized onion, etc. This can make the salad an interesting shade of green
  • Steamed Pumpkin. Remove the skin and mash with a fork.
  • Roasted Nuts such as – blend or grind into a paste
  • Roasted Cumin – blend or grind into a powder

Other Texture & Flavor Elements of the Salad

You can mix and match these as you see fit. I almost always add at least some fruit for sweetness (assuming the salad base is not already sweet – e.g. grated carrot). Adding some crunchy roasted seeds or nuts is also a personal favorite.

Subtle Fruit Flavors

  • Diced Apple – a highly versatile mix of moderate sweetness and acidity.
  • Passion Fruit is also quite versatile, but slightly more intense
  • Unripe Mango or Papaya.
  • Santol for something exotic!
  • You can also use an intensely sweet fruit like Ripe Mango or Jackfruit, but just use a little bit.

Intense Flavors

  • Diced Raw Shallots for crunch
  • Finely chopped Peppers (not too spicy) for more crunch
  • Finely chopped fresh Ginger. (goes well with apple)

Roasted Seeds & Nuts

You probably need to choose 1 of these, not a lot of point adding mixed nuts to a salad that already has umpteen ingredients!

  • Sesame – don’t overheat. The seeds should sweat some oil and barely change color. If they turn brown they taste bitter. Cook on lowish heat and have a ceramic bowl ready so you can quickly dump the sesame from the hot pan at exactly the right time.
  • Roasted Almond Flakes
  • Roasted and chopped Macadamia
  • Roasted and Ground Peanuts (don’t overdo this or you will have a peanut-butter dressing)

Oven-Roasted Tofu.

If you score a tofu block and dust with salt, you can bake it in an oven and make it puff up like a loaf of bread. The trick is to get it crispy on the outside without burning and leave it a bit soft/moist on the inside. You then let it cool on a wire rack, then chop it up and toss in the salad. Wow!

Putting the Salad Together

This is the order I would recommend:

  1. Roast seeds, spices and nuts are put in a ceramic bowl to cool. If you are going to grind sesame (for tahini) or spices like cumin, keep that separate from nuts etc. that will go straight into the salad.
  2. Your pan from step 1 is clean, so you can cook you hot components. and set aside to cool. If some will be blended for your dressing, keep those separate.
  3. Slice and Dice you base components, and ‘other’ ingredients such as fruit, ginger, etc. into a large mixing bowl. Add some acid (e.g. lime to keep it fresh. Also add table salt if your dressing is not salty
  4. Cover the mixing bowl and put it in the fridge to chill.
  5. Make your dressing (and allow to cool if it is hot)
  6. Add the dressing to the salad within 1 hour of serving, add crunchy components just before serving and toss thoroughly.
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