Forget boring salads

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By Cheryle Jones Syracuse
Family and Consumer Science Staff
NC Cooperative Extension
Brunswick County Center

I say salad. You think lettuce. Blah!
It doesn’t have to be that way. The only limits to exciting salads are the limits of your imagination. Even this time of year, you can find some easy ways to make salads more exciting and (dare I say) healthy, too. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 encourage eating more fruits and vegetables than any other food. Salads can help us do this.
To keep the calories in check, go easy on the salad dressing, using about one to one-and-one-half tablespoons per two cups of salad greens. This is where many people get in trouble with salads, by smothering them in a high-fat salad dressing. It’s scary, but a quarter cup of creamy salad dressing can add more than 200 calories to an otherwise healthy salad.
Begin with a variety of salad greens; the darker green, the better. Or, go with the latest restaurant trend, the “wedge” by slicing a head of iceberg lettuce in half or quarters. Instead of high calorie dressings, enhance the taste, texture and eye appeal of a salad by adding colorful fruits and vegetables. Make the flavor really “pop” by adding some of these ideas. You can either put them on top or mix them in the greens.
While some of these salad additions are higher in fat than others, just a small amount (even as small as one tablespoon) can give extra flavor without too many calories. They can also provide a nutrition boost. Many of these are available year-round and easy to store in the cupboard, refrigerator or freezer, so you can have something to add a “zing” to salads, even when fresh items aren’t available.
Artichoke hearts: Enjoy the tangy taste of sliced marinated artichoke hearts in your salad. It’s as easy as opening a jar and adding as desired.
Parmesan Cheese: If your experience with Parmesan cheese is limited to shaking it from a can, try using a vegetable peeler to shave about a tablespoon per serving from a block of cheese, or sprinkle it freshly grated on your salad. Since you’re only using a small amount, you can afford to try some of the more expensive Parmesan cheese that can add flavor and bone-building calcium, too, but go easy.
Dried fruit (cherries, cranberries, raisins): These are great, especially this time of year, when fresh items are less available and more expensive. Add these dried fruits for their flavor, but also benefit from their antioxidants that may protect against cancer and heart disease.
Fresh fruit (apples): Slice apples with their skins into salads. The skin adds eye appeal and important dietary fiber as well. An apple a day may indeed help keep the doctor away by helping reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer.
Citrus fruits (oranges, tangerines or grapefruits): Sliced citrus juices up the flavor of salads and adds brightness with their sunny color. Plus, they give you a healthy dose of Vitamin C and folate. Keep a can or two of mandarin oranges on the shelf for when fresh isn’t available.
Nuts (toasted almonds): Though almonds are a source of fat and calories, they contain mostly unsaturated fat they may help protect against heart disease. They also provide vitamin E, a nutrient that may be good for your heart. One ounce of almonds (about 23) contains about 35 percent of your daily recommended amount of Vitamin E. Nuts can be stored in the freezer until ready to use. Toast nuts to crisp their texture and bring out their aroma and taste.
Sunflower Seeds (toasted): Add some vitamin E to your salad by tossing in a tablespoon of sunflower seeds per serving. One tablespoon provides 50 calories and mostly unsaturated fat. Toast them for extra flavor.
Your creativity is the only limit to ways to “liven up” your salads. There is no excuse for not enjoying a light and healthy salad that isn’t boring or always the same.
References: Special thanks to my friend and colleague Alice Henneman, extension educator with the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension in Lancaster County for the research and some of the ideas given in the column. For other great ideas from her, sign up for her monthly Internet newsletter, Food Reflections, at liferaydemo.unl.edu.