filling the empty nest with food

The (Im)Probability of a Good Chopped Salad

The mischevious imp who lives in my computer got control of the “publish” key the other day and made this post public before it was ready.  Some of you received the unfinished version. Here is the complete post. 

christmas 2012 036

I made a chopped salad the other day, and it had a blah taste.  Acceptable, but not delicious.  Not being satisfied with an adequate-tasting salad, I got to wondering how to make a better one next time around.  But that entails sorting out what went wrong, detective style, and determining what to change next time.

Chopped salad is not complicated–no special technique, particular equipment or important temperatures or finicky ingredients to manage.  There is really only the ingredients, the combination of ingredients, and the dressing.  Not too complex, right?  So, I eliminated what I thought didn’t really contribute to the so-so-ness of the salad:  the size and shape of the veggies.  In a chopped salad, all the vegetables should be chopped in bite-sized pieces, fairly uniform.  I had done that, so I crossed that off my list of what needed to be improved.   The vegetables should also be fresh and either raw or just barely steamed to that tender-crisp stage.  Carrots, cauliflower, broccoli and green beans benefit from blanching.

My veggies were fresh all right.  So, that wasn’t the problem.  Cross that off my process-of-elimination list.

So, all that’s left are two things, and the two parts I find the most stubborn in determining a recipe for a successful chopped salad:  the mixture of vegetables and the dressing.  The dressing can be simple–a vinaigrette rarely fails to set off the fresh taste of lettuce and other veggies in a salad. I had prepared that, too:  a ratio of one part red wine vinegar and 3 parts oil, with a little mustard, salt and pepper added in. Sometimes you might want to use lemon juice instead of vinegar, or combine red, white, and balsamic vinegars.  Or go all out and use a richer dressing such as blue cheese.  Check dressing off the list.

So, on to the mixture of vegetables, and the culprit, as I believed.  To figure out the probability of gathering together the right mixture of textures, colors, and flavors of vegetables for a delicious chopped salad, I thought I’d attack it mathematically.  What with all the computer strength and monster databases around, there must be a mathematical formula allowing me to calculate the perfect combination for my salad.

Here’s where I hoped combination formulas in probability theory might help me put together the most delicious mixture of vegetables by giving me mixtures to test.  Maybe because I avoided math in school, I have more faith in it to solve problems than is warranted.

To come up with the some combinations you need to know how many vegetables you have to choose from. Except that it’s quite difficult to find out how many vegetables there are in the world. Guesses range from 1000 to about 4000. Apparently, there might be over 1000 varieties of tomatoes. So, in fact, the numbers of vegetables could skyrocket to the very many thousands, depending on how and what you count.  So, let’s take a guess and say there are 4,000 vegetables in the world.  To put together a chopped salad with, say, 10 ingredients and know how many combinations there could be, you use a “combinations” formula.  (To complete the math lesson, it’s important to distinguish a combination from a permutation when putting together a mixture of things.  It’s a combination if the order of the things, e.g., vegetables, doesn’t matter.  And for a salad, it doesn’t.  If, however, the order does matter, say in a lock combination, then it’s accurately called a permutation, and requires a different mathematical formula.)

Realistically, though, your average grocery store might have about 250 available vegetables and wanting to use 10 in a salad, the combinations formula tells me we have at our disposal approximately 219,005,316,087,032,475 combinations.  Yikes!  That’s beyond the billions and trillions and into the quadrillions of combinations.  (More zeroes than Congress has to deal with!) So much more than can be experimented with.  And that doesn’t even address how to factor in color, texture, and taste.

Sadly, the probability folks and their formulas aren’t going to help here. However, it’s not time to scrap the scientific approach to cooking yet.  There is another math-minded cook on the web who figured this out before I got there.  I knew the solution wasn’t in one particular recipe, since the pleasure of a chopped salad is in the enormous variety and many, many combinations one can assemble. The secret I’m looking for has to preserve the simplicity and ad hoc nature of the mixture.  So, my dear Watson, the secret to a good chopped salad isn’t a particular combination of the exact right veggies.  It’s a formula for quantities and categories of ingredients.

Over at they know that you don’t need to test 219 quadrillion or so combinations (not permutations) to find the right combo.  You just need 5 types of salad ingredients, and you’re on your way!  First is “leaves.” I used Romaine lettuce and parsely, but you can include a few types of lettuces while fresh herbs such as mint or oregano add zest.  Second is “crunchy veggies.”  My salad had orange bell pepper, blanched green beans, cucumber, and celery.  Again, the exact type of vegetable isn’t important; be sure they’re fresh and crunchy.  Third is the “hearty protein.”  I take that to mean meat and/or cheese.  I have rich Christmas-type foods in the house, so my protein was sopresseta (Italian hard salami) and Gruyère.  Next is “crunchy seeds or nuts.”  I tossed in walnuts.  Last is the dressing.  Toss and enjoy.

Mystery solved.  Check out the Eat Life Whole authors’s fool-proof formula for making a fabulous chopped salad. The basics are below, while more details and tips can be found on their website.

(And the problem with my boring salad the other day?  Too many veggies, and a lack of protein and crunchy nuts.  Elementary….)

Fabulous Chopped Salad (from

1 ½ cups leaves

2 cups crisp veggies

½ – 1 cup hearty protein

¼ cup crunchy seeds or nuts

+ 3-4 Tbls dressing


2 comments on “The (Im)Probability of a Good Chopped Salad

  1. Caroline
    December 30, 2012

    That’s a good tactile recipe! I like the idea of putting Italian hard salami in a salad. Jim came up with this salad the other day that followed your recipe, sort of, but it did taste great: butter lettuce, D’anjou pear, blue cheese, toasted walnuts, and raspberry vinaigrette.
    Keep those good recipes coming!

    • Catherine
      December 30, 2012

      Jim’s salad sounds delicious. It got my mouth watering. Happy New Year!

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This entry was posted on December 29, 2012 by in Recipes and tagged .

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