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Topping it off: Add texture to enliven salads

Spicy-Sweet Pecans add crunch to a basic lettuce salad.

In previous installments of this Salad Days of Summer series, we’ve tackled the basics — greens and dressings.

But for this final exploration, it’s time to consider the additions that can turn a salad from ho-hum to spectacular. For lack of a better word, let’s call them toppings.

In our household, salads are pretty much a staple of the evening meal during the summer months. But both Hubby Bryan and I get easily bored with a repetitive side dish, so we try to mix it up with an array of available add-ins.

So what constitutes a topping? Anything that can be sprinkled over top or mixed into a salad to enhance its appeal — and maybe even its nutritional value (although that’s not always the case!). The idea is to add texture as well as flavor.

Standards include diced tomato, grated carrot, thinly sliced red onion, croutons, luncheon meats, sunflower seeds, grated cheese — basically everything on a restaurant salad bar.

But further inspiration can be found in the pantry or refrigerator. We also like to add broccoli or cauliflower, broken down into the smallest possible florets; slices of avocado; a sprinkling of blue cheese crumbles; chow mein noodles; broken pretzels or tortilla chips; toasted nuts; or crushed ramen noodles.

Yes, those ramen noodles — the cup of soup ones that are a dietary staple for college students. Break up the noodles by pounding on the package with the heel of your hand before opening it. Then toast the noodles in a saucepan with bit of butter or olive oil, watching carefully so the smaller bits don’t burn.

But my favorite make-at-home salad topper was inspired by a meal in a restaurant. During a weekend getaway, I ordered a strawberry chicken salad that came sprinkled with an abundance of candied pecans. It was quite a delightful concoction.

So, I decided to replicate the effect in my own kitchen. After some experimentation, I came up with a candied nut method that was a bit sweet, a bit savory, a bit spicy.  It’s basically a nut brittle. You can vary the heat level by adding more or less hot sauce or cayenne to suit your own tastes. This method also works with other nuts, such as slivered almonds or walnuts.

Spicy-Sweet Pecans

1 cup chopped pecans

½ cup firmly packed brown sugar

1 tablespoon lime juice

1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

Dash cinnamon

Dash cayenne

Dash salt

In a small saucepan, combine the brown sugar, lime juice, hot pepper sauce and spices. Cook over medium heat until mixture is bubbly and sugar is dissolved.

Remove from heat and add in pecans, stirring to thoroughly coat.

Pour pecans onto a buttered cookie sheet or pan lined with greased foil. Use a silicone spatula to spread the mixture out as much as possible.

Bake at 325 degrees for about 10 minutes, watching carefully to make sure the nuts don’t burn. (In the summer, I do this in the toaster oven, as is pictured here,) They should gradually turn a darker brown color.

Remove from oven and let cool and crisp up. Once completely cooled, break the nuts apart into small pieces.

Store in an airtight container. Sprinkle a small handful over the top of salad just before serving.

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers

can be reached at 376-7327.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

(507) 376-7327