Friday, July 29, 2011

Side Salads: a fresh perspective

When we first met, my husband did not like salad.  On occasion, he would eat a few pieces of lettuce covered in dressing, but that was usually because someone else expected him to eat it.

His general objection?  Salad is boring.  I have to agree on some level.  I can understand why he didn't want to eat a pile of flavorless lettuce and colorless tomato slices just because of the vague notion that "it's good for you."  I don't want to eat that either.

Eating salad is not really about eating lettuce.  Think of lettuce as a fibrous delivery mechanism for the toppings, and then aim to choose toppings that are both healthy and satisfying.  People who cover their lettuce with loads of dressing, bacon bits, croutons, and tons of cheese have got the right general idea to use lots of toppings, albeit a less-than-healthful execution of that idea.  That particular kind of "salad" mimics the caloric content and nutritional benefits of a loaded baked potato, and should never be confused with health food.

Typical salad greens have subtle flavors, but they really create a pleasing texture and an overall sense of freshness. Choose your greens with texture in mind.  Crunchy, crisp, tender -- there are a wide variety of lettuces available.  Shown here are two varieties we grow in our own garden:  French frisee on the left, and butter crunch on the right.

When choosing the toppings, combine sweet, sharp, and oily flavors to achieve a good overall balance. Add sweetness with some fresh or dried fruit, small pieces of red or orange bell pepper, carrots, cherry tomatoes, or slices and dices of larger tomatoes.  (Tip:  During summer months, choose heirloom tomatoes for their unique flavor.)  Add a hint of sharpness with thin slices of purple onion, pepperoncinis, pickles, radishes, or herbs like fresh chives, dill, or cilantro.  Use high-oil foods like avocado, olives, and nuts to add depth and roundness to the overall flavor.

Salads can be quite beautiful if arranged thoughtfully.  Visual appeal is very important for stimulating the appetite:  if it looks good, it probably tastes good too.  This simple side salad incorporates raw walnuts, avocado, two kinds of heirloom tomatoes, purple onion, and a vinaigrette.  

Look at salad dressing as just another topping, and consider that less dressing is needed for salads that contain many other flavorful ingredients.  If worried about limiting calories, toss the lettuce with a measured amount of dressing, arrange it on the plate, and then add the other toppings.  People who instinctively seek high-calorie creamy dressings need to address their craving for fat.  Adding more healthy high-oil foods and a few cheese crumbles will make lower-calorie vinaigrettes more palatable for people who usually want creamy dressings.  Deleting all fats outright does not produce a satisfying salad, but instead leaves a person feeling hungry.  To construct a truly satisfying salad, try to incorporate good fats such as olive oil and nuts, which are also rich in essential nutrients.     

Be honest with yourself when choosing salad dressing.  Do not try to convince yourself that a "low fat" version of a creamy dressing somehow got healthier when its bad fats were replaced with worse artificial sugars and chemicals.  Marketers have trained people to believe healthful food can be engineered by a corporate food scientist, but most of their advertising claims are based on half-truths and careful omissions.  Look at the ingredients list on a bottle of salad dressing sometime, particularly one that claims to be "low fat."  Do you know what half of that stuff is? Me neither.  

After all this, you might wonder, does my husband still dislike salad?  Not anymore.  These days, he regularly requests it.  

À votre santé!

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