Ever since I was a child, I’ve always loved a good salad. It was often my favourite course, and now that I have a child of my own, I’m gratified to see him love it as much as I do. Even on nights when we order pizza, we usually make a salad to accompany it. And when I say salad, it’s usually as simple as rocket dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper.
But not all salads are created equal.
To me, what separates a good salad from a great one is when every bite offers a little bit of everything. Something fresh, something juicy, something bright and acidic, something creamy and something crunchy. When every forkful makes you want to have another one. And often, it’s the crunch that makes a salad irresistible.
So, what combination of ingredients would create the salad crunch of my dreams?
I set out with a vague idea of where I wanted to end up – crunchy, of course, but also savoury and rich with umami. I tested a few recipes found in cookbooks and online, and didn’t love any of them.
My first instinct was to make a savoury granola, which was… nice, but I realised that I was looking for a nuttier, seedier – dare I say it – crunchier result.
Casting oats aside, I turned my attention to various seeds, nuts and grains, playing around with proportions and required preparation. While I liked walnuts and pecans, I didn’t love their stronger, earthier notes. And hazelnuts worked fine, but I wanted to avoid excessive chopping. In the end, sliced or slivered almonds or pistachios had just the right size, flavour and texture I was after.
For that umami, I initially leaned in the direction of soy sauce. I desired a savouriness that was deep but not overpowering. I envisioned that it should be at home in a salad or grain bowl, but also as a quick snack.
In short, I wanted it to be all things to all people – easier said than done.
While I love the umami notes of soy sauce, the flavour was dominating, distracting from the salad itself, like that annoying kid in school who always had their hand up with an answer. The same thing happened using fish sauce.
Flummoxed, I was staring at my kitchen cupboards lined with sauces and vinegars when I spotted a bottle of coconut aminos. That did the trick. I ended up using a trinity of flavour powerhouses that, when combined, gave me exactly what I was looking for: coconut aminos, nutritional yeast and maple syrup (you could instead use honey, but then the crunch won’t be vegan).
A couple more tests got all of the elements to the right proportions – for something so seemingly elementary, it was surprisingly tricky to nail down, and I was enormously proud of the result.
While testing, I accidentally stumbled upon something exhilarating – well, for a food writer anyway. I discovered that by skipping oil, the resulting crunch, once cooled from the oven, solidified to a solid block of nuts and seeds. I’m sure that the chia seeds in the mixture, when slightly moistened by the aminos and maple syrup, helped with “glueing” the clusters together. This allows you to either crumble it into tiny bits or break it in big or small clusters.
I tried these clusters with various salads. I showered it on bowls of soup. I topped my scrambled eggs with it. I sprinkled it over grain bowls. And, as if that weren’t enough, I also couldn’t stop snacking on it.
Which is what you want, right? An irresistible, easy-to-make component that can play many parts.
Not only is your salad more exciting, textured and delicious with these crunchy clusters, but also these “crunchies” as we started calling them at my house, transforms the salad into something you should be eating into something you actually crave.
Crunchy nut and seed clusters
Active time: 5 minutes | Total time: 25 minutes
Serves: 7 to 14
Sprinkle these flavourful and irresistible seed-and-nut clusters on your salad – or over soups, grain bowls, avocado toast or eat as a snack – for added crunch and flavour. A slurry of coconut aminos, nutritional yeast and maple syrup give the mix an umami tilt, but it remains neutral enough to enhance rather than overwhelm. As the crunchy mixture cools, it will clump together. You can break it up into large clusters or into smaller bits, depending on your preference.
Note: You can find coconut aminos online or in most well-stocked whole food shops.
70g raw unsalted sliced or slivered almonds (may substitute with a nut of your choice)
70g raw unsalted pepitas
30g raw unsalted sunflower seeds
40g raw sesame seeds (may substitute with flax seeds)
1 tbsp chia seeds (may substitute with hemp seeds)
2 tbsp nutritional yeast
2½ tbsp coconut aminos (see note)
2 tsp maple syrup or honey
⅛ tsp fine salt
⅛ tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 180C. Line a small, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, toss together the almonds, pepitas, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, chia seeds and nutritional yeast until combined. Add the coconut aminos, maple syrup or honey, salt and cayenne, if using, and thoroughly mix to combine.
Spread the mixture evenly on the baking sheet and toast in the oven for about 20 minutes, or until the nuts smell toasty, the mixture is crunchy and the liquid has mostly evaporated.
Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let sit at room temperature for at least 3 hours and up to 1 day – the longer the better. As the mixture cools, it will develop flavour and crunch. Transfer to a lidded container.
How to store: In an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.
Nutrition information per serving, based on 14 and using maple syrup | calories: 103; total fat: 8g; saturated fat: 1g; cholesterol: 0mg; sodium: 92mg; carbohydrates: 5g; dietary fibre: 2g; sugar: 2g; protein: 4g.
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
© The Washington Post