Southwest Salad with Chipotle-Ranch Dressing

One phenomenal bowl of flavor and color! And the balance of taste and texture is beyond: crunchy Romaine and pumpkin seeds partner with soft red lettuce and spinach, sweet Mexican-style corn revs up with tart pomegranate, mild chicken gets a boost with spicy chipotle and seasoned black beans, and it's all gently tossed in a creamy smooth, herby/zippy ranch dressing. Ready in just minutes, with leftover dressing for future adventures. You want this.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but everyone loves salad, right? Colorful, crunchy greens, topped with copious amounts of whatever-you-want and your dressing-of-choice? That said, raise your hand if you prefer restaurant salads to homemade. And raise both hands if you find store-bought salad “kits” consistently lackluster.
If you raised your hands and acknowledged that restaurant salads reign supreme and convenient-but-bland salad kits are disappointing, I’m here to reinvigorate your salad game.
Let’s start with 10 essential tips for crafting salads that are crunchier, zippier, and livelier in every way.

1. Think beyond iceberg: Crisp and affordable, iceberg lettuce is the most traditional salad lettuce. But if you want a show-stopping, uber flavorful bowl of goodness, try a variety of greens. Even better: couple-up varieties that balance flavor and texture. For example, pair crunchy Romaine with soft baby spinach; partner sweet butter lettuce (also called Bibb) with pungent kale; marry mild red lettuce with peppery arugula or watercress.

2. Season the greens: What sets restaurant salads apart is the deliberate use of seasoning every step of the way. Chefs season their greens and vegetables with salt and pepper before dressing, a subtle move that changes the game entirely.

3. Make dressings from scratch: Homemade dressings can be prepared in a flash, and the payoff is huge. Using fresh ingredients simply gives dressings that extra flavor punch you can’t find in a bottle.

4. Add fresh herbs: Aromatics like parsley, basil, oregano, thyme, cilantro, mint, and chervil catapult flavor when you add them to the greens, the dressing, or both.

5. Consider a theme: Use global inspiration to build mind-blowing salads. For example, create an “Italian” version by incorporating basil, tomato, mozzarella, and an olive oil/vinegar-based dressing. For a Southwest or Mexican spin, add beans, corn, cilantro, lime, and tortilla chips. Go Greek and add oregano, mint, feta, and olives. Think globally and let creativity soar.

6. Don’t fear “fat”: Fat equals flavor, AND it keeps the essence of each ingredient lingering on your palate for a wonderfully long time. Use full-fat sour cream, milk, and mayo in creamy dressings; and don’t be shy with the oil in vinaigrettes. Fat turns a simple bowl of vegetables into a wholly satiating dish.

7. Balance, balance, balance: Round out crunchy with soft, salty with sweet, spicy with mild, and so on. Use this motto for vegetables, herbs, seasonings, and condiments as you construct your masterpiece.

8. Toss gently: Dodge the tongs, your hands are the greatest gift to salads. Assemble ingredients in a bowl that’s MUCH larger than you need, then reach in with clean hands and toss from the bottom up. Do this with the ingredients first, then do it again after you add dressing. Yes, your hands will get covered in dressing; a true sign that you lovingly tossed the salad.

9. Dress before serving: Resist pouring dressings over salads and calling it a day. Folding dressing into the salad (as described above) ensures that every square inch is coated; guaranteeing an even distribution of flavor. One caveat: reserve crunchy toppings (nuts, seeds, croutons) and sprinkle them over salads just before serving.

10. Serve salads immediately after dressing: Greens begin to wilt as soon as they’re dressed so bring that winning ensemble to the table right away.

Southwest Salad with Chipotle-Ranch Dressing

For the salad: 
2 cups chopped romaine or crisp lettuce of choice
2 cups chopped red lettuce
1 cup baby spinach leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups cubed cooked chicken
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 cup chopped cucumber
1/2 cup canned seasoned black beans
1/2 cup canned Mexicorn (Mexican-style corn with red and green bell peppers)
1/4 cup roasted pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup fresh pomegranate seeds
1/4 cup chopped green onions
For the Chipotle-Ranch Dressing:
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves
1/2 cup loosely packed parsley leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
2 teaspoons minced chipotle chilies in adobo
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a large bowl, combine the romaine lettuce, red lettuce and spinach. Season with salt and pepper and toss gently. Add the chicken, bell pepper, cucumber, black beans, and corn and toss gently.
To make the dressing, combine all the ingredients in a blender or food processor and process until blended. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Spoon 1/2 cup of the dressing over the salad and toss gently to coat everything evenly.
Transfer the salad to individual plates and top with the pumpkin seeds, pomegranate seeds, and green onions.
Serve immediately. Refrigerate extra dressing for up to 5 days (it also makes a great dip).
Serves 4