Sometimes, salads are a lifesaver. Whether I'm running late on a weeknight or suddenly entertaining last-minute company, there's one dinner solution I can always trust in a pinch: salad. It's my favorite "go-to" when I'm running low on energy or time.

Simple yet sophisticated, a good salad can please both a hungry appetite and a critical guest.

Properly thought through, a main-course salad is a thing of beauty and ingenuity. It can be based on ingredients that are already on hand, making the most of your pantry and leftovers in the fridge. Make a pit stop at the market for a fresh ingredient or two, and you're set.

RECIPES: 49 favorite salad recipes from the L.A. Times Test Kitchen

Before you begin, think about what ingredients you already have or can quickly procure. Think of a good central element and supplement it with complementary backup. Riff on a classic salad for inspiration, or think original. You want flavors that play well off of each other. What you're going for, ultimately, is harmony: a balance of flavors, colors, textures and temperature. Don't go overboard with components or your theme will get lost in all the noise; you want a few key players.

When you sit down to a meal, you use all of the senses. And when you construct a salad, you should do the same thing. Think about the potential ingredients and imagine how they'll play as part of a group. It's a building process. Taste everything. If there's harmony with the flavors, you have a good match; if something doesn't work, cut it out. Then consider color and shape. Do you want a subtle composition, or are you going for something rich and complex? Same with texture: Is the salad all crunch, like a slaw? Or do you want to play up contrast with, say, rustic croutons on a bed of soft greens?

Each ingredient should be served at the temperature it will taste best. Chicken, for example, can be served cool or even cold, but beef needs to be warmer to avoid tasting waxy. And most greens must be cold to keep their crispness.

RECIPES: 49 favorite salad recipes from the L.A. Times Test Kitchen

Compose your salad starting with the central ingredient. Since this salad is a one-dish meal, protein is a good focus. Cook, saute or grill something if you've got the time: Salmon will cook quickly, as will thin strips of flank steak. Alternatively, slice or chop chilled boiled eggs, or poach fresh eggs and serve them warm. Add last night's leftover steak, sliced thin across the grain. Drain some packed tuna and break it into chunks before combining. Dice cold ham or turkey to add to a chopped salad.

Check out the photo gallery for specific ideas, or use the recipes above as inspiration for your own creations. And have fun! If you have any kitchen tips or questions you'd like me to explore, leave a comment below or shoot me an email at noelle.carter@latimes.com.

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