Whether it's a full main course or side dish, served family style or in individual portions, a green salad calls for a large volume of leaves relative to its accent ingredients. These proportions pose something of a challenge when it comes to presentation, but with a handful of carefully curated toppings and artful arrangement, even the simplest green salad can be a thing of beauty. Creating a visual treat, as well as a gastronomic one, is well worth doing -- studies show that pretty presentation influences our perception of taste for the better.
Virtually limitless in their options, accent ingredients for a green salad present the most obvious opportunity for attractive presentation. Consider a bed of crisp greens as your canvas to be adorned with a palette of additional vegetables, legumes, meats, nuts or cheeses. Creating a delicious flavor combination is likely your main consideration, but also think about colors and cuts. Aim for contrasting colors but uniform cuts; any toppings that don't fit this rule, such as sunflower seeds and grated cheese, can be sprinkled evenly all over the salad.
Many ingredients that work well in a green salad are round -- tomatoes, beets, red onions, hard boiled eggs, cucumbers, mozzarella balls, olives and bell peppers are just a few. Keep the circular shape when cutting slices and alternate ingredients in a spiral formation, or arrange them in concentric circles in a descending size order. For example, arrange larger tomato slices around the outer edge of a salad bowl filled with leaves; circle golden beet slices as the next inner row, followed by a ring of cucumber rounds. Cluster wafer-thin radish slices in the center.
Stripes and Wedges
Uniformly dice salad toppings, but keep the different ingredients separate. On a square or rectangular plate of greens, arrange the diced ingredients in stripes, aiming for a striking color contrast between adjacent ingredients. With a round plate or bowl, cluster the toppings in wedge or pie-slice shapes. Try a southwestern-accented green salad with black beans, corn, tomato and avocado, slicing the latter two ingredients to match the sizes of the first.
Crunchy raw vegetables, such as cucumbers, carrots and jicama, can be very attractive on top of a green salad when you prepare them with a vegetable peeler. Cut long, thin slivers of each and briefly plunge them into ice water, which will cause them to curl up and become extra crisp. Toss the toppings together and pile them on top of a plate of greens. Give the ice bath treatment to lengthwise slices of green onion for a similar effect. Shredded chicken and thin half-moons of bell pepper and red onion also complement slivered salad toppings.
Creative plating can elevate the most humble salad ingredients into something decidedly gourmet. Pick one or two ingredients to do double duty and be visual stand-outs as well as edible elements of the salad.
Keep some larger lettuce leaves whole and use them to line a salad bowl with the tips of the leaves pointing upward. One or two leaves will work well in individual serving bowls. This technique works best with crunchier, larger lettuces such as romaine, red leaf and endive. Fill the centers of the bowls with the rest of the salad. If you're serving salad on a plate, use larger leaves as individual serving cups, placing them rounded side down in a neat row and filling them with chopped salad.
A chopped salad tossed with a creamy dressing can be presented as an elegant tower in the center of a plate. Use special ring molds, round cookie cutters or washed-out tuna cans with the tops and bottoms removed. Set the mold on the plate, pack the salad firmly inside the mold and optionally refrigerate it before sliding the mold upward. You can further decorate this presentation by encircling more ingredients around the perimeter of the salad tower.
For a similar and even prettier presentation using ring molds, stack different ingredients into a layered tower. Start with greens tossed with dressing for a firm base, then layer chopped or sliced ingredients on top. Add a garnish, such as watercress sprigs or sprouts, as the uppermost layer.