There so many Thanksgiving dishes that inspire dogmatic preferences. You just can't imagine the holiday without exact replicas of the dishes that your mom made you and your grandmother made her and your toxic-masculinity-victimized uncle ate in front of the football screen every year. Sweet potatoes should absolutely have marshmallows on top. Marshmallows are disgusting and belong nowhere near sweet potatoes. Cranberry sauce isn't cranberry sauce if it isn't unmolded onto a platter in the exact shape of its can. Only freshly pureed cranberries straight from the bog laced with status citrus and the finest brandy will do. Turkey is good. Turkey is bad.
You know what no one ever argues about? What no one even remembers, actually? The Thanksgiving salad.
Thanksgiving salad might as well be you in middle school with acne and a strange predilection for wearing skirts over your jeans. But you know what that means? Thanksgiving salad, like you in middle school, has potential. It could grow up to be something truly great. In fact, this is its year.
Since the salad at Thanksgiving is overlooked, no one is going to cross you when you make one that's, I don't know, actually good? One that's kind of strange but in a good way.
I can speak from experience. Last year, I cooked my first Thanksgiving meal ever. While my brother complained about the cranberry agrodolce I made in lieu of our family recipe and insisted that my mom was the only one that could properly prepare the mashed potatoes, he was totally fine with the weird-as-hell salad I put on the table. And oh, was it weird. It was from Cal Peternell's cookbook Almonds, Anchovies, and Pancetta and it contained a combination of sweet, crisp apples and salty anchovies. That's right, apples and anchovies living together in one dish, in harmony. It also contained the polarizing vegetable known as celery. People devoured it.
Even though everyone forgets about salad and no one holds it particularly dear, it's an essential part of this heavy feast. It can cleanse the palate between bites of butter-soaked carbohydrate and gravy-loaded protein. It's the one real opportunity to bring freshness to the table. When done well, salad can be perfectly bright and salty in a way that actually brings out the flavor of the other dishes. Above all, it shouldn't be an afterthought of sad boxed mesclun with some oil drizzled over just for the sake of having something green on the table.
So, what I'm proposing is that you volunteer yourself for salad duty. No one will have a problem relinquishing control of the task and you can make something that will turn out to be a sleeper hit on the table—at least for anyone who's worth impressing. The others will just ignore it and eat a second helping of marshmallow potatoes and that's totally fine!
Here are a few suggestions for how to construct your weird-but-secretly-beautiful-once-it takes-off-its-glasses salad:
Go heavy on the acid:
Again, one major thing your salad is doing for you on the Thanksgiving plate is adding brightness. Opt for salads that have citrus in them, and/or salads that have a generous amount of lemon in the dressing. This Crunchy Salty Lemony Salad uses both the zest and juice of a whole lemon, which when paired with the crunch of the mandoline-shaved vegetables, brings a pickly element that's perfect to balance against the heavy stuff on the table. This Endive, Romaine, and Orange salad contains sliced oranges, but also uses orange juice and sherry vinegar for a sweet-and-light bite that offsets the bitterness of the endive. Sharp, crunchy fruits like apple can bring acidity and sweetness as well.
Bitter isn't bad:
Which brings me to my next point. Ingredients like radicchio, endive, celery, and radishes give you something crunchy and light in flavor, while also bringing depth in the form of savoriness and bitterness—and these vegetables have the added benefit of being in season in the winter months. This cabbage salad throws grapefruit into the mix, which hits the acid and the bitter mark in one toss.Molly Baz
Add lots of herbs:
Something I've learned from my favorite restaurant salads is that you should be mixing in copious amounts of herbs. Think of them like another (extra flavorful) green. Tons of parsley, mint, or basil—or a combo of tender herbs—will lend both complexity and a pop of freshness to your salad, setting up a nice contrast with the many cooked, woody herbs that will go in the stuffing and other sides.Molly Baz
Go for sharpness and umami:
You don't necessarily need to throw cheese into the mix, but it's another flavor powerhouse worth considering. Opt for something sharp and umami-laden, like a Parm, Pecorino, or Manchego. These sorts of nutty, salty cheeses are especially great paired with sweetness and acidity from oranges or apples.Mindy Fox
Don't be afraid of briny bits:
Personally, I like to take an opportunity for an anchovy moment here. It's unexpected, and that's what this Thanksgiving salad should be all about. Pair the little fish with fruit like apple or orange (trust me, it somehow works) and radish and other similarly under-appreciated ingredients. Preserved lemon will add salt and brine in addition to acid. If that's simply not your speed or will send your 90-year old grandma to the hospital, sub in something like an olive or a pickled onion. You'll bring home the acidic element and also add some funk.Molly Baz
Combine the elements:
The real magic happens when you combine all of these factors: mix acid with bitter greens and salty anchovies. Combine sweet apples with briny olives. Above all, don't hesitate to throw together ingredients that don't at first seem like they belong, or that might startle your relatives. When it comes to Thanksgiving salad, the stakes are low but the reward is high. It's time to be wacky.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious