Salads to delight your picnic guests

A variety of salads is the easiest way to cook for a crowd, especially for a picnic.

potato salad with vinaigrette

Not only salads make great side dishes, they can become a main course. Try some these tips for the next picnics, buffet, cookout or potluck dinners.

Create fanciful salads to delight your picnic guests

If your salads are becoming boring, you need to re-think the basics and spruce up those greens. Check out these fanciful salads that boost your enthusiasm for eating these healthy sides and enjoy the crunch of some good greens for the picnic months ahead.

Robust salads are built on protein

Most salads have the right basic ingredients, they just need a little kick now and then to make them truly scrumptious. One way to add a powerful punch to your salad is to include some protein, namely in the form of seafood, meats, beans, cheese, or other protein sources that make a meal out of your salad plate.

Try fresh cooked shrimp, canned salmon or white albacore tuna on top of your bed of greens. Perhaps your salad would benefit from black or re-fried beans for a Mexican twist. Juicy grilled chicken, thinly sliced into strips, could add a smoky barbecue flavor to a simple salad. If you choose different marinades, you'll get different flavor influences. Think of marinading beef in Teriyaki before grilling. Then those delicate, thin strips will blend well with ingredients borrowed from Asian cuisine.

Cheese is another good protein source for salads, and there's no need to settle for standard shredded varieties, either. Toss in some pan-fried goat cheese with pine nuts for a double dose of protein power. Explore a wide range of cheeses, including both the hard cheeses like Asiago, Parmesan, and Gruyere and the soft cheeses like Feta, Bleu, and Ricotta. Use fresh cheese and shave or crumble on top of your salad to add interesting textures, flavors, and protein, as well.

Sweet salads are meant to surprise

A classic salad that always surprises is the Waldorf salad, made with a variety of fruits, including apples, cherries, dates, grapes, or even fresh pineapple. Ambrosia salad is an explosion of fanciful delights, including bright colors and the sweet flavors of mandarin oranges, blackberries, strawberries, grapes, coconut, and even maraschino cherries, but the name says it all, so don't limit your choices.

Then there are big fruit salad bowls filled with everything from watermelon to berries, bananas, and grapes, apples, kiwi, mango, pineapple, cantaloupe and a host of other fruits in between. Add crunch with nuts like walnuts, pecans, pistachios, or almonds.

Using a light vinaigrette dressing may sound odd with all that fruit, but the touch of savory brings out the sweet juices and makes the salad taste all the better. You can also toss the fruit salad with a mixture of cream cheese and whipped topping, or vanilla yogurt. The options are as varied as your taste buds.

Gourmet salads call for clever ingredients

For a truly unique salad creation, you have to go deeper into the range of greens you use in your salads. Look at food in a whole new way and choose combinations of flavors and textures that will light up the eyes of guests as they taste your best efforts.

Try mixing eclectic greens like endive, arugula, and watercress with avocado, crab meat, Greek olives, and grapefruit, along with hard-boiled eggs for a fresh take on a classic salad. Sprinkle a touch of nutmeg and cinnamon with golden raisins and chopped tart apples, and toss with shredded cooked chicken or turkey, and a touch of balsamic vinaigrette for a delightful new salad. Go tropical with mango, papaya, figs, or summer melons, adding the right compliment of spice like ginger, curry, or fresh mint. Top with toasted coconut for a truly fanciful salad.

Seeds and sprouts add the finishing touch

No matter what you put in your salads, you'll always want to have an eye-catching topping that completes a gourmet creation you can be proud of. The best choices are often seeds and sprouts, since they add texture and depth to all types of salads for all types of meals. Seeds add color and dimension, almost a solid, formidable look, while sprouts are often heaped on in a big fluffy pile, providing a playful and unruly look to the salad.

For seeds, you could choose sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, milk thistle, or alfalfa seeds, just to name a few. With sprouts, you have mung bean sprouts, broccoli sprouts, and alfalfa sprouts. Then there are the lesser known choices like radish sprouts and clover sprouts. These types of ingredients go very well with most salads but especially with dishes that are made with quinoa, tofu, tempeh, and jicama.

Fanciful salads are perfect for picnics and cookouts. There should be nothing plain or boring when it comes to feasting in the great outdoors. With a little imagination, and time to seek out unique ingredients, we can walk away from conventional thinking and create wonderful, fanciful salads to enjoy.

Tips for serving salads at a picnic

A picture perfect picnic typically includes a spread of beautiful, and tasty, salads. The classics include potato salad, bean salad, lettuce salad, and gelatin salads. But, how do our favorite salads go from the kitchen to the picnic table with the least amount of trouble, or worry? Let's take a look at a few tips for safety and serving:

Potato salad

Most everyone who makes potato salad has a favorite recipe, something their mother or grandmother made, so you don't need a new recipe here. What you need are safety and serving tips. The debate about food safety has pushed the humble potato salad into the limelight in the last few years. Normally, the worry is over the mayonnaise, or more specifically, the raw egg used to make mayonnaise. However, this reputation for 'mayonnaise spoilage' is undeserved. Store bought mayonnaise is made with pasteurized eggs to kill harmful bacteria. Also, mayonnaise that is commercially produced has high acid and preservative levels that actually kill bacteria.

Even so, you want your mayonnaise, and your potato salad, to stay cold. There are several tricks to ensure your potato salad stays cold and safe to eat. Start with cold potatoes. Dice your potatoes before boiling them, then spread the drained potatoes out on a large rack over a baking sheet and put them in the refrigerator to cool completely. Now when you mix in your mayonnaise dressing, it stays cold. If you choose to cook your potatoes whole before dicing them, use the same cooling method.

Use a dressing that doesn't contain raw egg if you're still concerned. You can make a simple dressing out of a mixture of flour, water, dry mustard, vinegar, eggs, salt and pepper, and cook it over very low heat until thickened. Or, you could opt to toss the potatoes with a dressing made by whisking together a tasty vinaigrette and mashed cooked egg yolks. You can forget the eggs entirely and toss your potato salad with just an oil and vinaigrette style dressing, adding yellow mustard and paprika for color and flavor.

To ensure your salad stays cold at the picnic, serve in two or three smaller bowls rather than one large one. Set each bowl, covered, in a larger bowl or cooler of ice, and keep the bowls shaded the best you can, even by draping a towel over if needed to keep out the sun and keep in the cold.

Bean salad

This salad, especially the three-bean variety, is a potluck favorite. For some people, worry over mayonnaise plus the time it takes to make a potato salad are reasons to go with the whole bean salad idea. For others, bean salads are just tasty, colorful, and refreshing.

Start with a variety of canned or cooked beans. You want to choose solid, sturdy beans that hold up well to tossing and turning. The quintessential Three Bean Salad contains kidney beans, green beans, and yellow or wax beans, but you can add any of your favorites. I would, however, discourage adding black beans to a mixed bean salad unless you don't mind everything turning black. Save the black beans for a black bean salad.

Once you've chosen the beans, choose the flavorings. A simple Italian salad dressing is a quick mix, but you can use any vinaigrette style dressing you like. You want a nice balance of vinegar and oil, not too much of either. Add chopped celery and sweet onions for crunch and your salad is ready. And don't forget additional herbs like chopped parsley if you like.

This type of salad is especially good nice and cold, but can reach room temperature without worrying about it. Try to keep it on ice during your picnic to ensure it stays refreshing.

Green salad

This category includes everything in the vegetables or greens department. A simple mixed salad with lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers is classic, but these salads can, and should, be a lot more inventive.

The concern about lettuce or vegetable salads is to keep them crisp and fresh. The only way to do that is to keep some of the ingredients separate. This causes a bit of trouble at the picnic because you have to put the salad together, but if you plan ahead it won't get out of hand.

All the greens and vegetables should be washed and thoroughly dried, then many of them can be packaged together. Anything with a lot of moisture by nature, like tomatoes and cucumbers, should be packaged separately, but lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, and other greens are alright in the same container. And, by all means, remember to keep the salad dressings separate.

Keep your ingredients in coolers until you are ready to assemble. Serve the salad by tossing everything together at the last minute, then setting the dressings out on the table in a bucket with ice. If you have shredded cheese as a topping, be sure that is on ice, as well. Any 'dry' toppings like nuts, sunflower seeds, or croutons can be left out on the table, not on ice. As long as you keep everything that you would normally refrigerate over ice, you shouldn't have any worries and your salad will stay fresh and tasty.

One reminder; green salads have a tendency to get watery and limp after sitting out for a time. For that reason, only toss together as much salad as you think you'll serve in a short time. You can always toss another salad together when that one is gone.

Gelatin salad

These salads are a whole topic to themselves. There are so many varieties that I couldn't begin to cover them all. I do, however, have one suggestion to make about serving a gelatin salad at a picnic. Don't bother with a molded salad. They tend to lose shape quickly. Even when kept on ice, the top, the part out of the ice, will start to drizzle down the sides.

One thing we have done to keep Jello a little longer is to make the Jigglers instead. You can actually turn a lot of Jello recipes into Jiggler recipes. Go ahead and experiment using less water in the recipe and mix in the fruit or whatever you wish. You will end up with thicker Jello, basically, which will not melt quite as fast.

When it comes to picnics and salads, you just need to know a few tricks to serving them safely and keeping them fresh, crisp, and tasty. Planning and preparation are the key ingredients to any picnic salad. Once you have done that work, you are ready to share your favorite salad recipe with your picnic guests with confidence.