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Summer’s here and the readers have been bugging, err, asking, me to write a piece on salads. As usual, I’m not happy giving you just a couple of recipes like a food magazine, so get ready to learn about how to say goodbye to limp, watery salads with dressing that pools at the bottom. I’ll give you some themes that you can mix and match to create your own fun variations.

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Ever wondered how salads in upmarket restaurants look so good, while your home salads don’t? There isn’t any magic there; it’s all about picking the right ingredients at their freshest and keeping them that way. When shopping for salad greens, pick the firmest, most vibrant leaves you can find. Ignore the ones that look limp or frayed at the edges. Avoid leaves that have been already separated.

How about some salad recipes, eh? Instead of recipes, let me give you some salad composition tips instead. This way, you can mix and match a variety of ingredients to create interesting new mixes instead of being stuck on one or two salads.

A good salad should have a contrast in terms of both flavours and textures. Combine crisp with soft, spicy with mild, crunchy with leafy, sweet with tart, and so on. Don’t have too many assertive flavours that fight each other. For instance, don’t have two different kinds of strong cheese in the same salad.

Also avoid the ‘‘kitchen sink" approach of throwing everything from your vegetable drawer into your salads.

Too many ingredients create chaos on the tongue (this is frequently a problem with restaurant salads, sadly).

I like to keep the number of ingredients restricted to five-six.

And now here’s a list of ingredients to help you make some salads of your own:

Base greens: Lettuce (iceberg, romaine, chicory, radicchio), spinach, fenugreek, cabbage, pak choy, arugula

Fruits (soft): Orange, grape, melon, grapefruit, fig, mango, papaya, guava, berries

Fruits (crisp): Pear, apple, pineapple, coconut, pomegranate

Vegetables (raw): Broccoli, carrot, sprouts, cucumber, tomato, onion, radish, celery, fennel, zucchini.

Vegetables (cooked): Cauliflower, eggplant, beans,potato, beetroot, peas, mushrooms, asparagus, corn

Meats: Grilled chicken, bacon, ham, shrimp, pan-fried fish, squid, roasted beef, roasted duck, numerous cold cuts

Dried, cured, and pickled foods: Olives, capers, sun-dried tomatoes, jalapeños, gherkins

Cheeses: Goat cheese, mozzarella, cheddar, scamorza,brie, feta, bocconcini, parmesan, gouda, haloumi, gorgonzola, and loads more

This list is by no means exhaustive, but by mixing ingredients from each column, you can create several interesting salads that go beyond just throwing some cucumbers and tomatoes together. Just be careful when you combine two strongly flavoured ingredients, or two salty ingredients, or two acidic ingredients.

For instance, you don’t want to have feta cheese along with bacon in a salad. Both of them are very salty and will ruin the flavour balance. Balance is everything in food and cooking.

But hey, you want a bang for your buck from this column. Of course you also want to learn to make your own salad dressing. So I shall teach you a basic concept for a vinaigrette dressing and then show you how to vary them to create regional flavour profiles from other countries.

Vinaigrette is formed by mixing two ingredients— oil and vinegar—that don’t normally mix together.So we force them together by extreme agitation (in plain English, strong whisking or shaking). This brings them together as an ‘‘emulsion" even though it doesn’t last forever (the two will eventually separate). Just remember the 3:1 ratio for oil to vinegar. Right, so take a big steel bowl; add 150ml peanut/groundnut oil, 50ml plain vinegar, salt to taste, 1 tsp black pepper, and 1 tsp Dijon mustard. Tilt the bowl slightly, and with a wire whisk or fork, beat them vigorously for two minutes. It will change character and become a thick salad dressing. Ta da! Your basic vinaigrette is ready. No, seriously, that’s all. And if you don’t want to whisk it, you can also shake this in a glass bottle or in a cocktail shaker.

Now, that’s pretty plain and there are numerous variations on the theme. People add flavourings such

as minced onions, garlic, and herbs, or switch out the oil and the vinegar for different flavoured oils and vinegars. So here are some ideas for different flavor profiles to create interesting salad dressings:

Italian: Use extra virgin olive oil and/or balsamic vinegar. Add seasonings such as oregano, minced basil and garlic.

Indian: Use mustard oil or coconut oil. Add seasonings such as coriander seeds, chilli powder and lime juice with herbs such as coriander or mint.

Thai: Whisk some warmed peanut butter into the dressing along with some chilli garlic paste and 1tsp sugar.

American honey vinaigrette: Add 1tbsp of honey into the mixture and whisk. Honey vinaigrette actually stays together longer because honey is a great emulsifying agent.

French: Use extra virgin olive oil and red/white wine vinegar. Also add some garlic with herbs such as chervil, rosemary or tarragon.

Chinese: Replace one-quarter of the oil with sesame oil. Add some garlic and chilli flakes. Replace vinegar with rice wine vinegar.

Of course, these are not in any way the sole representatives of their respective countries, but just some starting points for you to adapt the same 3:1 formula to other flavours. With these ideas for the dressing, and the list of ingredients from the earlier list, there’s a lot you can do.

Before we leave, here are some final tips.

Always tear salad greens either gently with your fingers or cut them with a sharp knife to avoid ‘‘bruising" at the edges.

Never mix salad until just before serving. Salt in salad dressing will draw out moisture from the vegetables and you’ll have a pool of water in your salad bowl along with limp, soggy vegetables.

Hands are actually the best way to combine salad ingredients with dressing. Do it gently with love. But make sure hands are clean first.

Salad dressing will run off wet ingredients. Make sure everything in the salad is as dry as possible.

Have fun coming up with your own variations. There are very few rules for salads.

I’m pretty sure I’ve given you enough ideas to last a few months, so go on and get experimenting with some sexy salads. I am very happy to receive pictures of your creations, so do email them in.

Madhu Menon is a chef, restaurant consultant and food writer.

Respond to this column at indulge@livemint.com

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