Fresh produce year round is not a bounty I take for granted. Maybe it’s showing my age but, growing up, a “salad” in the winter meant a few chunks of iceberg lettuce with, maybe, slices of cucumber and halved cherry tomatoes. Today’s global food distribution system brings the complete rainbow of fruit and vegetables, along with a broad selection of nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes, all of which can be enjoyed even during the darkest days of winter. Think of all the tasty morsels and healthful phytonutrients we can now enjoy! An awesome way to honor these colorful gems is to create satisfying vegan salads.
In this post, I will show you how to choose the right ingredients to make your salad into a complete, satiating main dish. As for any improvised meal, the key to a satisfying vegan salads is to combine your favorite vegetables with protein-in rich foods and (whole) grains, then add flavorful touches and nutrition boosters. Keep the proportions from the science-based Canadian food guide in mind:
- half of your salad should be vegetables,
- a quarter grains,
- and a quarter protein-dense foods.
A selection of bonus ingredients such as nuts, seeds, fruit, and spices will give your satisfying vegan salads their own unique personality and keep you coming back for delicious, nutritious seconds.
Hearty, satisfying vegan salads are also perfect for vegans to bring as a contribution to potlucks. Make your dish festive and tasty: not only it will open the minds of other guests to the beauty of vegan cooking, but it will provide you with a safe go-to you can pile high onto your plate.
Components of a satisfying vegan salad
- Dark leafy greens: It wouldn’t be a salad without the greens, would it? Romaine lettuce, watercress, kale, bok choy, spinach, they’re all good! (Well, except perhaps iceberg lettuce which is really just water in the shape of leaves.) Make sure your greens are clean and chop them in bite-size pieces. Other leafy veggies to consider (albeit perhaps not in the lead role) include radicchio and endives, in small amounts (until you get used to the bitterness).
- Whole grain: My favorites for salads are quinoa, farro, and pearl barley, but brown rice (cooked like pasta), millet, and amaranth make great bases, too. Short pasta like orzo is an option as well. Couscous, also mechanically processed, is a time-saving favorite because it takes only 5 minutes to prepare (see recipe below) – even in its whole wheat version.
- Legume/protein-dense food: Chickpeas and black beans are my family’s legumes of choice, but sky is the limit when it comes to beanstalks, right? I tend to choose a salad bean based on how it color-coordinates with the salad’s other components. Edamame, which you can buy frozen without the shell, is another protein-rich choice. Personally, I am not a fan of lentils in salad, except French “de Puy” green lentils and black beluga lentils, which are firmer and more defined. However, I often do cook a small amount of red lentils straight into the salad grains, which boosts nutrition without anyone noticing a change in taste, texture, or appearance. Regardless of your chosen bean, it’ll have to be cooked – unless you are lucky enough to have access to fresh summer peas. Canned is perfectly fine to use, but make sure to drain and rinse well. Tofu cubes can also stand in for legumes. I love dicing and sautéing firm tofu for just 5 minutes, until golden on all sides. And if I’m lucky enough to find smoked tofu, it’s going in as-is, without cooking. So delicious!
- Other vegetables: Think crunchy, colorful, and seasonal. On the raw side, I recommend diced red, orange, or yellow bell peppers, grated carrots, beets, or orange sweet potato, diced zucchini or cucumber (yes!), cherry tomatoes, small cauliflower or broccoli florets, green beans (cut into short pieces), and corn. All of those (except perhaps the cucumber) are also delicious and still very nutritious if roasted, and can be joined on the baking sheet by mushrooms, eggplant, winter squash, and other root vegetables.
- Nuts and seeds: Just a small amount of those makes a big difference in your salad experience by adding a pleasant texture diversion: crunch! Sprinkled on top or tossed in, almonds, hemp seeds, pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, cashews, sesame seeds, and walnuts bring a small amount of health-promoting plant-based fats, including in some cases precious omega-3s, as well as a variety of amino acids (protein) and nutrients, notably calcium and iron. Just a tablespoon per serving will elevate your dish to become a truly satisfying vegan salad.
- Fruit: Many salad dressings include a sweetener… but why settle for a refined sugar when you can get that sweet hit straight from the fruit? Adding pieces of fruit to your satisfying vegan salad will create bursts of juicy sweetness and make your dish memorable. Fresh fruit like berries, halved grapes, pieces of mandarin orange, diced stone fruit (apricot, nectarines, peaches…), figs, or mango when they are in season, and even a simple diced apple work wonders. No fresh fruit? No problem! Always keep dried fruit in the pantry for just this kind of situation. My favorites are currants and raisins. Cranberries can be nice, but are often sweetened. Dried figs and apricots, if they aren’t too hard, are also great.
- Fresh herbs: Just like fruit, fresh herbs aren’t absolutely required, but they’ll up the nutritional profile and flavor of your vegan salad. Chopped cilantro and parsley are fabulous. Basil has a lovely flavor, too – just slice into ribbons but don’t overhandle, as the delicate leaves bruise easily.
- Dressing: You need a liquid to tie it all together! The next section tells you all about it.
A satisfying vegan salad can easily tick 5+ boxes from Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen.
Struggling with picky eaters at your table?
If your children are selective eaters, you can still serve them a salad. Make little piles of each of the salad’s components on a plate or cutting board, with the dressing on the side for dipping if they want to try. If some foods are completely new, or on your kids’ “no” list, still include them on the plate, but in a ridiculously small quantity. Think: 3 grains of couscous, one square-inch sized piece of kale, or a minuscule cauliflower floret. You can encourage them to smell, lick, or taste the new foods, but no need to make a big deal of it… unless they ask for more, in which case it’s recommended that you celebrate their adventurousness!
Dressing up your satisfying vegan salads
The secret is in the sauce when it comes to satisfying vegan salads. The dressing brings all of the components together, unifying them under a common flavor umbrella while complementing their taste. It also prevents your salad from feeling dry in mouth.
It’s helpful to use common flavor combinations as a base. Get inspired by the spice and flavorings of other favorite dishes, and start improvising from there.
Most good dressings include most of the following ingredient categories:
- Something fatty: Traditionally, oil is used in salad sauces and dressings. The fat molecules transport flavors and enhance the eating experience, but unfortunately oils are really high in calorie and low in vitamins. Don’t let that stop you from including a little fat in your dressing! Nut and seed butters, including tahini and hemp butters, add nutrition and amplify flavors all at once. If you have a high-power blender, you can put whole nuts and seeds in the jar and blend until perfectly smooth. Avocado also has some plant-based fat that improves dressings – just make sure it’s for immediate consumption as the green flesh may partially oxidize and go brown after a day or two depending on your salad’s chemistry.
- Something acidic: Acids such as vinegars and citrus juices (lemon, lime, orange) brighten your salad and tone down competing bitterness, which is often present in salads using a base of dark leafy green vegetables. Although some recipes use a small quantity of plain white vinegar, more flavorful options like apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and plum vinegar will likely add more to your tasting pleasure. Citrus juice helps boost iron absorption, so whenever possible it’s a great idea to add some instead of using only vinegar.
- Something salty: Salt increases the flavor of everything… along with our blood pressure. It’s an acquired taste that we can wean ourselves off over time by progressively decreasing the amount of salt we add when cooking and at the table. But there is also an interesting substitute: miso. Miso paste is actually very salty but, according to research discussed by Dr. Greger, the fermentation process involved counteracts the unhealthful effects of the sodium within. Don’t go all out on the miso paste, but a teaspoon will go a long way in deepening the flavor of your dressing.
- The first few ingredients are the base of the dressing. These will create a unique flavor profile to complement the main components of your satisfying vegan salad:
- Garlic (or garlic powder)
- Ginger (or garlic powder)
- A little onion (or onion powder) or shallot
- Mustard (Dijon, or mustard powder)
- Spices (cumin, chili, turmeric, coriander, paprika, and even a little bit of cinnamon!)
- Herbs (basil, oregano, parsley, thyme, rosemary, cilantro… fresh or dried)
- Nutritional yeast
- If there isn’t fruit in your salad, you may want to add a little sweetness to your dressing. You can blend in a whole date (see below) or use a liquid sweetener like molasses or maple syrup. Just a little goes a long way!
Power blender for the win
If you have a power blender, you can really go wild and create a uniquely tasty and nutritious dressing with very little effort.
Not only you can put in the garlic and ginger in big chunks (no need to mince!), or use a whole dried date as a sweetener, but you can also add whole ingredients like fresh herbs, carrot, or mango, and create a luscious, smooth, and colorful sauce that’s bursting with both flavor and nutrients. Dreena Burton is a master of this art, as you’ll see if you try her 24 Carrot Gold dressing.
Pro-tip: If you don’t have a small blender jar, double up the recipe so the blades can really get things spinning.
Time-saving tips when making satisfying vegan salads
The downside of making meal salads is that they have many different components, and can take a while to prepare if you’re working from scratch. Here are a few time-saving tactics:
- Big batches of whole grains: Whole grains can take a while to cook, so include a big batch of your favorite in your weekend minimum viable meal prep session. Or just make extra when you cook on a weeknight. Doubling or tripling the amount of grain cooked doesn’t take much more time, and it will save you dishwashing time. Just refrigerate in an airtight container. Grains also freeze very well – don’t forget to label your containers!
- Roasting vegetables is better done on the weekend, because it takes at least 30 minutes. You can roast two, three, or four baking sheets’ worth of veggies to contribute to a few of your weeknights’ meals, making the most of your oven’s space and energy. If you have an air fryer, you can roast small batches of veggies right before dinner in a reasonable time.
- Canned beans are perfectly well suited to using in salads. If you want to go extra fancy for a special occasion, it’s nice to roast or air-fry the chickpeas, or pan-fry them with a smidge of oil for extra crispiness.
- Buying pre-washed greens will save you lots of time. I prefer the “power greens” mix that includes baby kale, swiss chard, and spinach, or just kale for a more robust nutrition profile. Arugula is also great – and a cruciferous veggie (like kale). The “baby” leaves are more tender and don’t require massaging.
- Double the dressing or sauce recipe and freeze the extra (with a label!). It will be perfectly fine to use after a good re-shake later.
My curried couscous recipe: a subscriber favorite!
This simple, all-substitutions-allowed salad is part of my Planned & Plant-based challenge. Start from that example and, from there, see how many ingredients you can change to accommodate what’s in your pantry and your family’s favorite vegetables, and toss it all together! Notice the results, and practice again next week.
Warming curried couscous salad
- 3 carrots 1/4-inch thick halfmoons
- 1 small cauliflower small florets
- 1 tsp turmeric
- fresh ground pepper to taste
- 1/2 cup lemon juice from 1 lemon
- 2 tablespoons olive oil (optional)
- 2 tablespoons water
- 3 cloves garlic minced, or use 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 1-inch piece ginger minced, or use 2 teaspoons ginger powder
- 1 tablespoon cumin ground
- 1 teaspoon coriander ground
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper or to taste
- 1 cup couscous (whole wheat preferred)
- 1 can chickpeas drained and patted dry
- 1/2 cup almonds sliced or chopped
- 2 green onions sliced thinly
- 3/4 cup dried currants raisins or cranberries also work
- 2 cups baby kale baby spinach or Swiss chard work too, or any greens
- 1/2 cup cilantro chopped
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Toss carrots and cauliflower with turmeric, salt, and pepper. You can use a teaspoon of oil if desired, or spritz with aquafaba or vegetable broth.
- Spread the vegetables on lined baking sheet. Roast for 40 min, flipping once partway.
- If you have a small container for your blender or food processor, place all ingredients in it and process until smooth. You can omit the olive oil if desired (add a little more water).
- Otherwise, make sure to mince the garlic and ginger finely, then mix together.
Couscous and assembly
- In a medium pot with lid, bring 1 cup water to a boil. Stir in 1 cup whole wheat couscous, cover, turn off heat.
- After 5 min, fluff with a fork.
- In a large salad bowl, mix half of the roasted veggies with the chickpeas, almonds, green onions, currants, leafy greens, and cilantro. Add the couscous.
- Mix in 1/2 cup of the dressing. Toss and serve.
Take the Planned & Plant-based Challenge to enjoy my Warming curried couscous recipe and four more delicious dinners.