Weeknight Cooking

The Taco-Inspired Salad That Makes Eating Salad Exciting

September  6, 2017

I have a bit of a salad problem. While other people plan their salads thoughtfully—choosing one vegetable as the pièce de résistance, or winnowing a list of ingredients down to a reasonable four or five—I overpack. I see a salad like my refrigerator's dumping ground: Cooked lentils? Throw them in! Wilting herbs? Why not? Hard-boiled eggs? Sure, fine. Fish sauce? Parmesan cheese? Chopped almonds? Okay.

So when I want my salad to be a little more purposeful—when I don't want to rifle through a leafy grab bag—I look to experts in the field of refined salads for inspiration. The jumping-off point for this recipe, as for many others, comes from blogger and cookbook author Heidi Swanson. With every new recipe she features, I convince myself that I would be satisfied eating that and only that for the remainder of my life. This one—with burst cherry tomatoes, avocado cubes, tortilla crumbles, beans two ways (crunchy chickpeas, soft black beans), all on a bed of romaine—is no different.

(Why is it called a taco salad? "It's all the things you love about a taco, in salad form," writes Heidi. And I'm on board.)

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I zigzagged away from the original recipe, switching from sautéed tempeh to roasted chickpeas, replacing the ketchup-based dressing with a cilantro-lime vinaigrette, and making a simple DIY "taco seasoning" instead of buying a jar from the store.

Here's how it goes:

  • First, prep the chickpeas. I use Melissa Clark's technique for crispy roasted chickpeas. By patting down the chickpeas and letting them air-dry for an hour, you'll wick the moisture away, which means the beans will crisp, rather than steam, in the oven.
Ready for your incessant snacking! I mean for your salad. Definitely for your salad. Photo by James Ransom
  • As you wait for the chickpeas to dry, you'll have time to prep all the rest of your salad components: Halve the cherry tomatoes (it goes much faster if you use this trick), slice the scallions, chop the romaine, drain the black beans, and whiz together the vinaigrette, a blend of cilantro, lime juice, olive oil, jalapeño, and a touch of honey (or agave) to balance the sharpness. If you don't care for cilantro, you could use basil in its place, or even thin out a green sauce you already have with some additional oil.
  • While the chickpeas bake, roast cherry tomatoes with garlic cloves on a separate sheet pan. Both trays will be ready at the same time—how's that for efficiency?
  • Once the chickpeas are out of the oven, toss them with a spice mixture of chili, cumin, paprika, cayenne, and then pile your ingredients into bowls, finishing with cubed avocado and crumbled tortilla chips, which will inevitably absorb the flavorful dressing as you eat.
Maybe you'll need a beer or a margarita, too. Maybe. Photo by Julia Gartland

A few recipe notes:

  • If you want to cut back on your prep time, spread the chickpeas on a paper towel-lined baking sheet in the morning, then stick them the fridge until you're ready to bake.
  • All of the cooked components—the chickpeas, the tomatoes, and the vinaigrette—can be made in advance.
  • I like to make extra chickpeas, tomatoes, and vinaigrette. The chickpeas make a crouton alternative for all ranges of soups and cooked vegetables, and with the dressing and the roasted tomatoes, you're all set up to riff on this Half-Roasted Tomato Salad with Salsa Verde—or a really good piece of ricotta-topped toast.

Since you'll likely refuse to give up this salad once tomatoes are harder to come by, swap in another roasted vegetable, like carrots, squash, or mushrooms.

And while it'd be hypocritical of me to encourage you to use this salad as a catch-all for your refrigerator's bits and pieces, it would gladly accommodate pickled red onions, crumbles of queso fresco, and toasted pumpkin seeds. (But don't say I told you so!)

More Salads, More Heidi, More Chickpeas

How do you turn a salad into a complete meal? Tell us in the comments below.

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  • Carla Fisher
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  • FrugalCat
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Carla F. September 6, 2017
I did not realize that loving fridge-emptying salads was a problem. I actually find it sad that the traditional garden salad of my childhood (lettuce, tomato, onion, celery, cucumber, carrot) has gotten harder to find in restaurants. At home? I start with the afore-mentioned base, and add beans, peas, pickled or fermented whatever, and any other thing my wife doesn't care for. The result is a teetering bowl of veggies, beans, and grains, sort of like a green Mt. Everest. Nothing makes me happier! (Should we start a 12-step group? A 12-ingredient group?)
FrugalCat September 6, 2017
I know, right? About the traditional garden salad going away in restaurants. Sorry to veer off topic- I mean, I love 12 ingredient "big salad" for dinner, especially on a hot night. But I was THRILLED to be out at a nice restaurant and saw a salad on the menu that was described as Romaine with Old School Thousand Island Dressing. It was truly both hipster and retro. I think the dressing was mayo, ketchup and relish. Of course, I pine for the days when something like that would come with every entree; now it must be ordered as an appetizer at a cost of $8.