How to Make a Salad When You Think There's Nothing in the Refrigerator

Our salad guru (and author of the new cookbook Salad Freak!) explains how to put the ingredients you have on hand to good use.

healthy salad with grapes, walnuts, and apples
Photo: Courtesy of Jess Damuck / Linda Pugliese

We've all been there: Lunch or dinner rolls around, and you're hungry. You open the fridge to see what you have on hand. There in the back—or buried in the crisper drawer—are a few limp stalks of celery or a half-eaten cucumber. Take a closer look before ordering out or running to the store; you can make so many different salads with just a couple of ingredients. I really love a kitchen sink salad, and find it can inspire some salads that end up on regular rotation, including some in my first cookbook, Salad Freak ($27.59, Here's what you need to do to use what you have on hand for salad making.

First stop? The fridge. Most produce that is slightly past its prime can be brought back to life by soaking in an ice bath for about 10 minutes. That limp celery, wilted parsley, half a head of fennel, or radishes that have gone a bit soft can add flavor and crunch to a salad. If there are harder fruits, such as apples, in the fridge, go ahead and slice those up, too. Root vegetables stay good for a really long time and even floppy carrots will roast up nicely with a bit of olive oil and salt. Keeping citrus in the fridge expands its shelf life, and a squeeze of lemon juice or a bit of zest can really brighten up any dish. So, even when you think you don't have anything for a salad, you probably do!

Salads are also an amazing way to reinvent leftovers. Cooked fish or shrimp, grilled or roasted chicken—sometimes that little hunk of leftover protein is exactly what you need to make a salad into a meal. Whether you prefer it thinly-sliced or cut into chunks, throw it on top of your vegetable mix!

jess damuck SaladFreak book cover
Courtesy of Jess Damuck / Linda Pugliese

A little bit of cheese can also go a long way in a salad, whether it's grated parmesan or some crumbled feta. Cheese adds a little savory note, or a bright tangy salty one. You should also keep nuts stored in the freezer so they stay really fresh, which means you can add them to a salad at any time—and I always make sure I'm fully stocked because nuts and seeds are a fantastic way to add texture, flavor, and a bit of substance and protein to any salad.

Last but not least, check your pantry. Canned beans, quick cooking grains such as quinoa and farro, and tinned fish are all pantry items that can make a meal come together in minutes. I love crisping chickpeas in the oven to use in place of a crouton for additional texture in a salad. Canned lentils, white beans, or black beans also pair well with fresh vegetables. Grains can bulk up a salad into more of a grain bowl situation which is great when you're a little bit hungrier or are going the roasted vegetable route. Tinned fish makes an instant meal. A little bit of greens, a simple dressing, and flavorful tinned fish is a fantastic little dinner.

Dried fruit isn't for everyone in salads, but I sneak raisins into quite a few of mine. Sometimes it's nice to have just a little bit of sweetness. Dates also! Also in the pantry, make sure to keep your vinegar selection well stocked. I like a variety—champagne, balsamic, red wine, apple cider, rice vinegar—this way my salads never feel boring. Sometimes I add a bit of a luxurious spice like saffron to elevate my "pantry" salad. One of my favorite combinations is apple and fennel with tuna and a lemony saffron vinaigrette; another is roasted cauliflower with almonds, anchovies, dates, red wine vinegar, and parsley. Both are dishes I came up with when I thought I had nothing left to eat. Another favorite is a simple combination of shaved cabbage and whatever nuts, seeds, and carrots I have on hand with a little lemon juice and olive oil. It's so simple but such a fantastic meal!

So, keep your pantry packed with vinegars, canned beans, and tinned fish, your freezer stocked with nuts and seeds, and make the most of what you find in the crisper drawer to create your best salad yet.

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