Main Dish Summer Salads to the Rescue!
Be the boss of the long, warm days with our top 51 main dish salad recipes. From grilled chicken salad to Asian chopped salad with tofu, we’ve got what you’re craving.
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Maybe it’s too hot to fire up the kitchen. Or maybe it’s time to make inroads into all that produce from the farmers’ market. Or just maybe the evening sky appears so vast and beautiful you want to toss together a cold meal and sit staring up at the stars. Whatever the reason, there comes a time when a summer main dish salad answers the “what’s for dinner” dilemma. Maybe even the “what-should-we-serve-for-a-special-occasion” dilemma.
What is a summer salad? These are crisp and refreshing yet hearty salad recipes you can make a meal out of (and even tote to a potluck), and there are a lot to choose from. We're talking quick and easy to more elaborate summer salad recipes; classics, like Cobb or taco; and more surprising ones such as Vietnamese tofu and noodle salad.
Since your hardest task may be deciding what to make, start with the protein. Chicken, seafood, grains and beans, steak, or bacon: What are you in the mood for? From there you can peruse the creative styles and flavors. With so many summer salads for dinner at your fingertips, salad may become the answer multiple nights a week.
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Summer salads with chicken
When mild, versatile chicken is your main ingredient, you can be off to the Mediterranean, China and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and back to North America. Be prepared for some culinary mash-ups along the way, though, with this first group of main-dish summer salad ideas.
So many favorite summer flavors and textures turn up in this first Mediterranean salad, including salty feta and kalamata olives, smoky bbq chicken, creamy avocado and hummus, juicy tomatoes and cucumber, and a lemony dressing.
The much-loved Caesar salad may have been invented in Tijuana, Mexico — by Italian immigrant Caesar Cardini, which explains the Parmesan and anchovies — but these days we play it loose by adding grilled chicken and even pasta. If you’re wanting an American-fusion classic that borrows Mexican flavors, consider a Chicken Taco Salad; this one includes ranch dressing along with salsa. California gave birth to the mayo and herb-dressed Green Goddess salad, but for a lighter approach, try the following one with part Greek yogurt. For a culinary leap, consider the watermelon salad — a great choice if you’re thinking about fruit salad for dinner. While it includes feta cheese and pine nuts, it’s unlikely you’d find the combination in Greece.
Chinese Chicken Salad first appeared in America, and there was little about it that was authentically Chinese; same today, with crunchy and delicious add-ins like ramen noodles or fried wonton wrappers. You can vary the concept by using a different salad dressing such as ginger and sesame. Or try peanut butter in the Thai Crunch Salad with Thai Peanut Dressing. In the last summer salad with chicken, a cumin and lemon marinade evokes Middle Eastern shawarma flavors, but the sweet potato fries are 100 percent American.
Shrimp salads, salmon salads, and tuna salads
Some much-loved classics land in the seafood salad category, making choosing only one a tough decision! Perhaps the contents of your freezer (a package of shrimp or some salmon fillets?) or pantry (got canned tuna?) will help you decide.
Historians disagree exactly who created the first Louie (or Louis) salad, but it’s been popular on West Coast restaurant menus since the early 20th century, with crab as often as with shrimp. Crisp lettuce, chilled shrimp, and a creamy dressing with chili sauce and mayo take this version back to its roots, though the cucumber and cherry tomatoes are outliers.
We’ve got seafood versions of many popular salads, too, like taco, Caesar, and chopped salads, where you saute or grill your protein and serve it over greens. Another summer classic: a beautifully composed French-style Niçoise with grilled or canned tuna, green beans, potatoes, tomatoes, and a tangy dressing. (In fact, Niçoise is a fine way to go if you’re craving potato salad and want to make a meal out of it.) A good extra-virgin olive oil, fresh lemon juice or lime juice, and some crunchy red onion will go a long way to giving even a simple salad a lot of flavor.
Vegetarian summer salad recipes
The “salads as main dish” concept can work beautifully with vegetarian summer salads when you include filling whole grains like quinoa and farro, chickpeas or white beans, and cheese.
Chickpeas, white beans, and green beans, along with protein-rich quinoa, and multiple crunchy veggies make this a substantial salad that’s perfect for big appetites.
These next recipes nearly all feature beans and cheese. Flavors run the gamut from Greek salad (with tangy feta cheese and kalamata olives) or Mediterranean basil and tomato salad, to Southwest cumin and cilantro. Think of the Summer Panzanella as a tossed version of a Caprese salad, with little balls of mozzarella. There are plenty of good choices if you’re wanting a regular or heirloom tomato salad, cucumber salad, or avocado salad. Looking for an easy summer salad? The Chickpea Salad takes only 10 minutes, and the spinach salad, Mediterranean Bean Salad, and Summer Panzanella clock in at under 30 minutes total time.
Vegan main-dish summer salads
In the mood for a vegan main-dish salad? With tofu, hearty grains and beans, and tasty dressings made with tahini, spices, or chili, these salads have so much going on you won’t even miss the cheese.
Let's start with a refreshing salad that's Asian-inspired and loaded up with summery fresh vegetables; fresh herbs including fresh basil, mint, and cilantro; crispy tofu; and lively flavors of soy sauce, rice vinegar, peanuts, and lime. Though it looks fancy enough to serve to guests, this easy summer salad takes only 30 minutes.
In addition to tofu, summer salads with quinoa, farro, and beans work beautifully for vegan diets. How about a summer salad with corn and black beans? This 15-minute recipe features a slightly sweet balsamic dressing. For the cold Chinese pasta salad, you can sub in another kind of pasta for the egg noodles to keep the combo vegan.
Steak salads and ground beef salads
Some main-dish salads are both warm and cool, and steak and ground beef salads are among the most popular. The key to success is to keep the meat nice and juicy to contrast with the crunchy greens. Steak salads pop at a cookout, and are easy to pull off — all you do is grill the meat and then toss it with the rest of the ingredients.
When you’re choosing steak for a salad, thinner cuts like flank and skirt cook so quickly they stay moist. In the fajita salad, a fresh lime and cumin dressing, and cumin-paprika rub on the pan-seared flank steak, deliver loads of flavor.
New York and ribeye steaks, being a bit thicker, take a few minutes longer, but the marbling in the meat ensures they’re juicy, as you’ll find in the Thai, Vietnamese, and Grecian-style salads. You've got options for grilling and pan-searing.
As for ground beef, if you could reimagine a burger as a healthy salad, you'd have...a Big Mac Salad, right? Kristine’s Kitchen takes an unconventional approach to cook the ground beef in her healthy taco salad; she goes for medium to low heat, adds water (but no oil), and cooks the meat until it’s browned. Greens are interchangeable in this group of recipes. Feel free to swap in a favorite like butter lettuce, romaine, or arugula, say, for mâche (in the Grecian salad) if that’s what you have available.
Bacon, sausage, and ham salads
If you’re among the people who think the mere mention of bacon, sausage, or ham in an ingredient list is a great reason to try a recipe, this category’s for you. Sure, you’ll also find chicken, shrimp, and cheese in the mix, but salty pork is key to the flavors here.
Back in 1937, Bob Cobb, owner of the Brown Derby in Los Angeles, wandered into the kitchen hungry late one night and put together a substantial green salad topped with diced chicken, blue cheese, hard-boiled eggs, and bacon, among other things. Or so the story goes. Today we riff on the original in any number of delicious ways, including with Southwestern seasonings.
Once you’re onto bacon and the Cobb, keep on experimenting with corn, feta, shrimp...the world is your oyster, so to speak. But then again, you might make a big and filling chopped salad, a broccoli salad, a summer pasta salad recipe with sausage (good hot or cold), or a classic make-ahead layered spinach salad with a Dijon vinaigrette. Looking for a summer salad for a crowd? The Kitchen Sink Pasta Salad and layered spinach salad each serve 12.
Hungry for more summer recipes?
You just might need the perfect grilled chicken for that main dish chicken salad, a side dish vegetable salad, a creative sandwich, or a sweet treat to serve after the meal. And what are you going to make with all those zucchini? We've got options!