Dressing Well

“The Healthy Gourmet”

April 8, 2010

DRESSING WELL – We all know that colorful Spring sandals and bright shirts are “musts” for dressing well, but dressing our green salads well is also an important component to a healthy diet.

Green salads have come a long way from the days of iceberg lettuce topped with some kind of bottled dressing with a foreign country in its name (French, Russian, Thousand Island!).  Often served as a first course, salads can also be wonderful main courses.  Salads can be colorful with lots of variety – and they can be as healthy or unhealthy as you make them.

Let’s look at the unhealthy side of green salads first.  Generally, creamier dressings are less healthy given that the calorie content is usually higher and they may contain significant quantities of those pesky bad fats (like trans-fats that we looked at last week in this column).  Also, many of the typical salad toppers lend lots of calories and trans-fats – things like cheese, bacon bits, croutons, crackers, and mayonnaise-based salads like those found on salad bars are definitely not healthy additions to salads.

Healthy salads can have a multitude of great ingredients.  When looking at a green salad, consider using the mixed baby greens available in the grocery stores.  Also readily available at the grocery stores and bursting with flavor are baby spinach, arugula (also known as rocket), mache, Butterhead (also called butter, bibb, or Boston) lettuce, Romaine, loose leaf and loose red leaf lettuce, and escarole.  These lettuces have individual tastes and textures so try them all to see which you prefer and don’t be afraid to mix them – some are more expensive so using a cheaper green for the bulk of the salad and adding small amounts of other greens is an economical way to get the most taste.

Salad greens are best eaten as soon as purchased, but we all have to store them at times.  Be sure to keep salad greens in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator to avoid them freezing or being damaged by the colder part of the ‘fridge.  It is best to wash greens just before using, but if you need to wash them ahead be sure to wrap them in a damp paper towel and put in the crisper drawer.

Think colorful when creating your salad – it not only makes a pleasing visual presentation but it also adds nutrients.  Red, orange, and yellow vegetables and fruits are high in beta carotene (vitamin A), lycopene, and vitamin C.  Examples of these include tomatoes, carrots, sweet peppers, oranges, mandarin oranges, fresh or dried strawberries/raspberries, grapefruit, and lemons.  Dark leafy greens are full of iron, folic acid, and fiber – spinach is a great example. Foods that are blue and purple are high in potassium and flavanoids – things like beets, fresh or dried blueberries and cranberries.  Experiment with these and other colorful vegetables and fruits to maximize your nutrition and the look of your plate.

Another way to add taste and nutrients for minimal calories is by adding fresh herbs like mint, basil, chives, thyme, sage, cilantro, or oregano – just wash and chop the herbs finely and add to the salad before dressing.

OK, we’re back to dressing – salad dressings are easy to make which allows you to control the calories, fat, and taste of your salad.  One of my favorite salads is arugula tossed with a bit of fresh lemon juice and canola oil with about a tablespoon of freshly grated Parmesan cheese added.  The nutty/peppery taste of arugula is complimented by the lemon juice and the light flavor of canola oil.

Try some of these simple salad dressings that have little to no fat:

*   Use a Bloody Mary mixture and add a touch of olive oil to smooth out the flavors.

*   Make a Thai-style salad dressing of soy sauce, lime juice and enough brown sugar to offset the acid of the lime juice.

*   Combine apple juice concentrate with mustard.

*   Stir chopped fresh basil, garlic and black pepper into fat-free yogurt.

Lastly, remember the all important guide for any food – portion control.   Don’t be tricked into thinking salad is automatically the most healthy meal option.  Always measure the amount of salad dressing – if you are at home, make your own dressing and then measure out the number of tablespoons you add.  If in  a restaurant, order the dressing “on the side” and then monitor how much you use in total, being sure to start with only  a small amount and adding as needed.  Remember to limit the “bad” stuff – croutons, cheese, bacon, etc, and instead use nuts, fruits, and vegetables.

Stay tuned for more salad info in the coming weeks – salads offer so many delicious possibilities in so many forms and we’ll explore some of those and their nutritional and caloric content.