How to Navigate the Salad Bar

Mastering Your Salad Bar Options via Chrystina Noel

Last week I had the worst salad earlier this week for lunch. It had arugula, roasted Brussel sprouts, roasted mushrooms, red peppers, goat cheese, sunflower seeds, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Yes, all of these things sound great (that’s how they all ended up in a salad together), but there was no common theme to tie all of these ingredients together. (The too much olive oil part also didn’t help, it would have been better with a more cohesive dressing.)

The worst part of this is that four years ago I devoted a few months of my life to attempting to master the New York City salad bar. I did weeks of research, conducted interviews, and created sample salads in order to feel like I was able to navigate salad bars. I created a whole week’s worth of content to get all of my thoughts in one place back in 2013. However, I’m apparently still very far away from gaining my 10,000 hours to become a credentialed salad bar expert, because I still haven’t learned anything years later.

Just as a reminder to myself, and as a resource for you, in case you’re somebody who is new to salad bars or is paralyzed by opportunity when you approach the salad bar, I’m going to put all of my resources in one place to help you (and me) navigate salad bars. Here’s everything I’ve learned:

Understand the Parts of a Salad

There are a lot salads that already exist in the world. They’re pretty famous – and they’re famous for a reason – because they’re good. Let’s take a look at some pre-existing salads.

  • Chef’s Salad: Hard boiled eggs, ham, choice of meat, croutons, tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, lettuce
  • Cobb Salad: Tomatoes, bacon, chicken, avocado, Roquefort cheese, chives, lettuce, vinaigrette
  • Caesar Salad: Parmesan cheese, lemon juice, olive oil, egg, black pepper, romaine lettuce
  • Waldorf Salad: Apple, celery, walnuts, grapes, mayonnaise, lettuce
  • Garden Salad: Tomatoes, carrots, onions, cucumbers, mushrooms, bell peppers, lettuce, croutons
  • Greek Salad: Tomatoes, cucumbers, green bell peppers, red onion, feta cheese, Kalamata olives, lettuce, olive oil
  • Oriental Salad: Mandarin oranges, sliced almonds, peanuts, fried Asian noodles, chicken, field greens, ginger dressing
  • Mexican salad: Lettuce, chicken, avocado, black beans, black olives, corn, tomatoes, tortilla chips, ranch dressing

In taking a look at each of these salads, there’s a few things that really make them work:

  • There’s a lot of color. If you have a salad that is all green things, you’re doing it wrong. Add something red, add something orange – the possibilities are endless.
  • There’s some crunch. If there’s no crunch in your salad, it’s essentially soggy vegetables. Whether your crunch comes from your lettuce choice, a topping (tortilla chips, sunflower seeds, croutons, etc), or bacon, adding that crunch will add more texture to your salad.
  • There’s some kind of protein. Whether you use eggs, chicken, ham, bacon, tofu, or beans, adding some kind of protein is going to be what keeps you full for a little bit after you’ve finished the salad.

I even made a printable that I actually printed and kept in my wallet for over a year.

Understand the Salad Bar

Here’s the part that always trips me up. Every salad bar looks different. Some have tofu, some don’t. Some have that ginger carrot dressing you love, some don’t. Some have buffalo chicken, some only have grilled chicken. My best advice is to get to know one place really well and develop a basic salad that you can quickly substitute your specialties out at other places. So let’s take a look at what you will typically (and atypically) find in a salad bar – sorted by category.

  • Greens: iceberg, romaine, mixed greens, spinach, kale, and more
  • Proteins: bacon, chicken, eggs, turkey, falafel, tofu, shrimp, steak, tuna, shrimp, salmon, beans, chick peas, and more
  • Cheese: feta, crumbled blue, goat, parmesean, mozzarella, cheddar, brie, and more
  • Vegetable-like foods: carrots, beets, roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, avocado, snow peas, artichoke, broccoli, edamame, sprouts, celery, olives, mushrooms, corn, and more
  • Fruit-like foods: apples, strawberries, oranges, grapes, mandarin oranges
  • Toppings: croutons, walnuts, crunchy noodles, tortilla strips, wontons, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, peanuts, dried cranberries, and more
  • Dressings: oil, vinegar, lemon juice, peppercorn, ranch, Caesar, blue cheese, thousand island, carrot ginger, honey Dijon, Italian, sesame ginger, raspberry vinaigrette, and more

Once you have a better idea of what can possibly show up in front of you, you can figure out how to use the pieces to the best of your ability.

Ask Around

This is one that probably isn’t normal, but I started asking people what they put in their salads. Back in 2013, my co-workers thought I was weird. Now they’ve just accepted that this is how I function. I even created little graphics that I could search for and use while at the salad bar. (These are definitely my own personal most searched blog post through the years.) My go-to salad is Salad Bar Option #3.


The amount of times I’ve considered standing at the end of a salad bar and conducting a study just to understand how people put things together is incredible. All of that said, I would really love if you commented below with what your go-to salad is. I’m always looking for new suggestions. My three go-to salads these days are some combination of the following ingredients in each individual salad:

  • My Italian-Influence Choice: Arugala, pasta, roasted red peppers, cucumbers, black olives, broccoli, egg, chick peas, mozzarella, avocado, croutons, and italian dressing
  • My Mexican-Influence Choice: Iceberg lettuce, cheddar cheese, black beans, corn, chick peas, tomatoes, avocado, tortilla chips, and ranch dressing
  • My Asian-Influence Choice: Mixed greens, edamame, tofu, chick peas, snow peas, broccoli, sunflower seeds, avocado, and sesame ginger dressing

Know Your Options

There are some salad options you might have that you weren’t considering before you started this process. I can’t guarantee that your salad bar will have these options, but they’re definitely worth looking into:

  • Salad dressing on the side
  • Bread on the side
  • Getting your salad chopped

These options are specific to certain delis and salad bars, but they’re worth asking about just in case you have more options than you really know.

8 Tips for Mastering the Salad Bar

And with that, I’d love to share with you my top tips for building an excellent salad. Some from me, some from my co-workers, and all from experience.

  1. Choose a basic salad and modify it – this way you don’t end up with anything too crazy.
  2. Make it colorful – this helps bring together complementary flavors.
  3. Think about adding “pairs” of ingredients you know go together. For example, beets and goat cheese; feta, avocado, and tomato; and cranberries and blue cheese.
  4. Don’t forget the crunch – it will keep your mouth entertained.
  5. Don’t forget the cheese – you’ll be sad later.
  6. Don’t forget the spices/topping flavors – salt, pepper, sricacha, or lemon juice can totally bring a little something to the finished product.
  7. Add in a protein – this is what will keep you full.
  8. Avocado is almost never a bad idea.

Once you get to learn the salad bar better, you’ll be able to build even better salads to help nourish you throughout the day. And as one co-worker said, “kale changed my life,” so don’t be afraid to try new things, you never know what will happen.

Did you learn anything? Do you have any tips I don’t know yet? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below. Also, apparently the search engine optimization keyword research tools tell me that there aren’t good options that relate to “navigating a salad bar,” which might mean I’m the only weirdo. I’m okay with that.

My Homemade Manicotti Recipe

How to Make Homemade Manicotti

Four years ago I wrote three blog posts about how to make homemade manicotti. That means these were some of the first blog posts I ever wrote. I divided it into (1) making the crepe batter, (2) making the crepes, and (3) stuffing and baking the crepes. I have no idea why I decided to do it like this. It’s confusing. It’s hard to follow. The recipe isn’t coherent. And you need to have multiple browser tabs open at once. It’s awful.

So today I bring you ONE POST how to make homemade manicotti. With a more comprehensive recipe, better photos, and a lot less of a hot mess.

Here’s what you need to know when you start: you need to start this process at least 36 hours in advance. That said, you could actually make the crepes ahead of time to spread out the work. Alright, now you know. Here we go – homemade manicotti.

Making the Crepe Batter

That’s right. Manicotti is essentially a crepe stuffed with ricotta and mozzarella. You could use these crepes for anything – Nutella, berries, etc.


Makes 20-24 crepes

1 ⅓ cup flour, sifted
1 ¼ cup milk
4 eggs
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons melted butter


Measuring devices
Mixing spoon


  1. Sift the flour.
  2. Add milk to sifted flour a little bit at a time until well-blended.
  3. Put the flour and milk mixture into a blender.
  4. Add eggs, salt, and melted butter to the blender.
  5. Blend ingredients together until smooth.
  6. Cover and refrigerate the batter (in either the blender, bowl, or other container) for 12-24 hours before making crepes to make sure the bubbles have a chance to dissolve.

How to Make Homemade Manicotti 01 How to Make Homemade Manicotti 02

Making the Crepes

This part takes a little bit of time and keeps you standing over the stove for a little bit. It also takes some pretty skilled wrist-work. The first few times I ever tried this I failed miserably.


Oil for frying (if necessary)


⅛ cup measuring cup
Frying pan, approximately 5.5”
Wax paper
Spatula or fork to flip crepes
Plate to cool crepes on
Paper towel to put on plate to cool crepes on


  1. Take the batter out of the refrigerator. Slowly stir it by hand a few times to ensure the mixture is homogenous.
  2. Put very little oil in the frying pan. This may not be necessary if the pan is non-stick.
  3. Heat the pan with the oil to a temperature where if a drop of water is placed in the pan it splashes back out. Keep heat consistently right below this temperature constantly for even cooking.
  4. Add ⅛ cup of batter to the pan and swirl the pan (off the stove) so batter covers the entire bottom of the pan. This must be done immediately after putting the batter in the pan.
  5. When the bottom of the crepe is golden brown, flip it over.
  6. Cook it briefly on the other side.
  7. Once the crepes are cooked, put them on a plate to cool. Once they have cooled, place them in a stack with wax paper in-between each one. This makes it easier to (a) store them, or (b) stuff them. They can be stored in the fridge or freezer until you decide to use them.

It takes about 45 minutes to fry 24 crepes.

How to Make Homemade Manicotti 03 How to Make Homemade Manicotti 04 How to Make Homemade Manicotti 05 How to Make Homemade Manicotti 06

Stuffing the Crepes

Now this next part is going to take some calculation and ratios, but I have faith in you. There’s really no way to screw it up. It’s cheese, in a crepe.


1 1b. Ricotta per 12 crepes
1 lb. shredded mozzarella per 36 crepes
1 egg per 12 crepes
Grated cheese to taste
Black pepper to taste


A large table or counter
Mixing spoon


  1. Mix all ingredients in a bowl
  2. Lay the crepes out on the counter (each one should be on the piece of wax paper it was stored with)
  3. Divide the filling evenly among the crepes. Place the mixture on the lower third of the crepe so that it is easier to roll.
  4. Roll the crepes like a log.

It takes about 1 hour to make the filling and stuff 24 crepes.

How to Make Homemade Manicotti 07 How to Make Homemade Manicotti 08

Baking the Manicotti

Now, yes, you could make your own sauce, but I haven’t quite been that adventurous yet. Nor have I had the time. If you’d like, you can doctor up the jarred sauce by adding an onion and garlic and cooking it for a few hours before you need it.

Also, fun fact. The first time I ever made these my mom told me the way to tell if they were done was to stick your finger in the center of them and see if it burns.


2 jars sauce per 24 crepes
Grated cheese


Oven safe pans that will fit the manicotti
Tin foil


  1. Set the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Grease the bottom of the pan(s)
  3. Put a thin layer of heated sauce on the bottom of each pan
  4. Place the rolled manicotti in the pans all going the same direction so they’re easier to serve.
  5. Coat the manicotti in sauce so they don’t burn.
  6. Sprinkle the top with extra grated cheese.
  7. Cover the pan(s) with tin foil to keep the heat in.
  8. Cook the manicotti for 30-45 minutes, or until the insides are hot.

How to Make Homemade Manicotti 09 How to Make Homemade Manicotti 10

Serving the Manicotti

Serve the manicotti with extra sauce, garlic bread, and salad. And meatballs if they’re your jam.

How to Make Homemade Manicotti 11

And that’s it. I recently had the privilege of cooking manicotti for 12 of my closest blogging friends in Austin. It was so much fun to bring a little bit of Italian goodness down to Texas. I’m definitely hoping to get the chance to do it again next time I’m there.

PS. I definitely forgot to take the money “Pinterest-worthy” photo of the final product, but you can’t always win, right? At least I’m getting closer.

Turkey, Brie, Fig, & Arugula Sandwich

turkey, brie, fig, & arugula

Today I want to share with you the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten in my entire life.  I really mean that.  The weirdest part?  I don’t even like sandwiches.  Ask my mother, she always had to be creative with my school lunches – I did a year of yogurt, a year of graham crackers and peanut butter – oh, there was that year I did peanut butter and fluff, but let’s be honest, it was mostly about the fluff.

Anyway, sandwich bread isn’t my thing.  So I avoided sandwiches.

THEN.  I went to the Whole Foods in Baton Rouge, LA.  Now, I’ve been to plenty of Whole Foods stores, and I don’t know what makes the Baton Rouge store more special than all the others, but the prepared food section is incredible.  And the sandwiches they made were delicious.  I admit, that I was first drawn to this sandwich because of the brie in it.  Then I realized that I really liked the fig as well.  The turkey and the argulua I just tollerate.  I would eat this sandwich 1-2 times a week.

Then I left Louisiana.  I was devastated.

Yes, I realize that I could just buy this to make on my own at home, but honestly, do you know how long it would take me to go through the quantities of stuff I would need to buy.  Cooking for one, man, it’s difficult.

Lucky for me, a few weeks ago my friends Brian, Steve, Tara and I started cooking dinner for each other.  This was my opportunity.  I was going to get to make my sandwiches.  I felt bad because Brian cooked a really nice meal that had 3 courses, Steve cooked a delicious shepherd’s pie, and I was going to make sandwiches.  (Tara is cooking next.)  And lucky for me, my new roommate happens to have a panini maker.  And you know what, they were delicious.

turkey, brie, fig, & arugula 2

Here’s how you do it.  Recipes written by Chrystina.  This is why I’m not a food blogger.

Ciabatta roll
Turkey slices
Fig spread

1. Cut ciabatta roll in half.
2. Spread the fig spread on one half, about 1/8 inch thick.
3. Put three slices of turkey.
4. Slice the brie into 1/4 inch thick pieces and cover all of the turkey.
5. Put a handful of arugula on top.
6.  Put the other half of the bread on top and smoosh.
7.  Put it in the panini maker until you see brie start to melt.

That’s how you do it.  And if I can do it, you can do it too.  Also, I’ve decided it doesn’t matter what brands or kinds or varieties of anything you buy because it’s all delicious.  Make sure you don’t skip out on the ciabatta roll.  And if you’re feeling extra fiesty, double the brie.

WITCH HatToday’s WITCH number is 35.

Learning to Cook

2014-09-18 Learning to Cook

When I found out that my project was ending in Louisiana a few months ago, one of the first things that I would say if they asked where I was going next or if I was excited was, “well, I guess I’m going to have to learn to cook”.

Yes, I’m 25-years-old, I have some concept of how to cook.  Find recipe, buy ingredients, prepare ingredients in the way the recipe tells you to.  And yes, I’m actually a pretty good baker, but somewhere along the line I convinced myself that baking and cooking were so incredibly different that I had to learn to cook now that I was going to be stuck home.

The basis of this new mantra is the fact that when I bake something I put it in an oven at 350 degrees for at least 10 minutes, therefore causing anything that might have given somebody food poisoning to die.  I don’t have that luxury with cooking.  Sometimes you just throw things in a pan on the stove.  Sometimes you don’t need to cook them at all.  With baking it’s easy, you usually just stick a toothpick in to see if it’s done or check to make sure that the bottom of the cookie is the right shade of golden brown, but with cooking, if there’s meat, I have to keep cutting into the meat until it’s many tiny pieces – and then it gets dry.  I’ve been trying to get around this problem by cooking with tofu and beans for protein instead of meat.

Also, I don’t really like chicken.  Unless it’s covered in buffalo sauce.

So where does this leave me?  On a recipe search.  I’ve been looking for recipes that are easy to make that will last a few days.  I’ve invited people over for dinner, I’ve been trading off cooking dinners with people, and my roommate and I have been trading off cooking a little bit.  Here are some of the recipes that have proven to be both delicious and simple to make.

One Pan Beef Stroganoff 

Oatmeal Banana Nut Bread

Beaker’s Vegetable Barley Soup

Buffalo Chicken Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

Baked Ziti, Ricotta, & Mozzarella

I’ve also been eating cereal, making bagel sandwiches, chopping up a lot of tomatoes and basil to put in pasta, and finding up ways to use zucchini.  I’ve been making a Pinterest board for things that I really want to try to cook that seem pretty easy.  But really, I think there are two things that are going to save me when it comes to this cooking thing.

  1. Fresh produce.  For some reason it’s so much easier to be innovative when there’s fresh produce in front of you.  Maybe because it’s easier to imagine the flavors you’re dealing with?  I find myself so much more inspired when there’s a tomato or zucchini or banana sitting on the counter than when I need to start from scratch.
  2. The Crock pot.  I’m pretty sure that it’s going to be a beautiful thing for me to just chop things up and throw it in a crock pot.  I also find that I don’t worry as much about whether or not the meat is cooked.  (Cooking something for longer than 6 hours will do that to you.)

Cooking has been a success thus far.  I’ve even started to get a little bit more innovative and just throw things together that I think will go well.  This week I fried up some onions and peppers, cooked it in a red curry sauce from Whole Foods and threw in some tofu.  I was pretty proud.  I’m still a little bit weary of anything putting in the freezer tasting like freezer, but I guess I’m going to have to get over that sooner than later.

Do you have an simple recipes that you can pass along?  There’s a few more I’m going to share on the site – an easy crustless zuchini quiche, a crock pot recipe for tacos, and I still need to try out a recipe for sweet potato black bean roll ups before I share that, but they were delicious.  Be excited.