Salad 101, Lesson 1: The Basics

I love salads. They’re great for a light lunch or for a quick and healthy dinner. What can go in a salad? The better question is what can’t go into a salad? I think that the infinite number of combinations that cause people to go back to tried, true, and ultimately boring salad combinations. Not only that, but some salads can be just as unhealthy as a cheeseburger. Have a side salad with ranch dressing, cheddar cheese, bacon bits, and croutons and eat almost as much calories and fat as a kid’s size cheeseburger. Honestly, I’d rather have the cheeseburger!

You may noticed that while I promote a healthy diet, I don’t talk much about calories on my blog. While I do think that they’re an important tool in diet (note, not diet like “I’m on a diet,” but diet like what you’re eating every day) management I don’t think they’re the end-all-be-all of healthy eating. I think you should eat until you’re satisfied and eat what is good for you. If you eat mindfully you should easily maintain you weight or lose weight at a healthy, controlled rate. What I mean by eat mindfully is if you have a bowl of oatmeal (a big serving of carbs) for breakfast you should maybe grab a piece of fruit with nut butter or a yogurt for a snack instead of a granola bar. Aim to eat a higher percentage of fruits, veggies, and protein than carbs, and don’t eat when you’re not hungry (something that is difficult for everyone to do, who doesn’t want to munch a bag of popcorn while watching their late night shows?). But I’ve digressed. I mainly want to impress on you that calories are important, but they’re not everything, and they’re certainly not more important than your enjoyment of your life and your meals.

The goal of this post is to point you in the right direction to making great salad combinations on your own. There are certainly classic combinations you see at restaurants, but you should do what ever makes your taste buds dance.

My Key Salad Elements:

Oraganic Spinach Salad

Pre-washed baby spinach

1)     Greens

Okay, this is a no-brainer, the leafy stuff is the main part of a salad, but there are so many varieties to choose from. Iceberg and Romaine are probably the two most common, but we also have spinach, arugula, spring mix, butter lettuce, endive, watercress, etc. I keep baby spinach and spring mix on hand most of the time. Regular spinach is good as well, but the baby spinach is more tender, which I think makes it better for salads. I also like a spinach/arugula mix. Arugula is spicy and the mild spinach tones down the bite a little bit. I like arugula by itself best when it’s wilted just a bit. It’s fabulous on top of pizzas, but that’s for another post. 😉

Pecans

Pecans

2)    Protein

Protein doesn’t have to be in the form of meat, although there’s nothing wrong with that. More often than not my protein of choice is nuts, usually walnuts but also hazelnuts, pecans, or almonds.  Be careful to only use 1 serving of nuts if you’re using it as your protein, as they’re high in (good for you) fats. You can also consider adding hard boiled eggs, tofu, or beans as the protein element of the salad.

Organic Strawberry Strawberries Salad

Strawberries

3)    Fruit

I happen to have a huge sweet tooth so I love adding fruit to my salads. Fresh and dried fruits are both welcome additions to my salads. A few of my favorites are: apples, strawberries, dried cranberries, and dried cherries.

Crumbled Greek Feta

Crumbled from a block of greek feta I purchased at a local middle eastern market.

4)    Cheese

I separated cheese from protein, although you could consider it protein as well. I most often use feta in my salads, I find that it goes well with most fruit. Aside from feta I will use gouda, smoked gouda, or cheddar, and some times parmesan depending on the salad contents. I happen to adore goat cheese in my salads, but the boyfriend is not a fan of goat cheese so I only get it when it’s on a menu somewhere. Other good cheese additions are: bleu cheese, mozzarella, smoked mozzarella, ricotta salata, and queso fresco. Careful again here to only use one serving of cheese. 1 oz of cheese is one serving, if you’re not sure try and stick to about 2 tablespoons. I don’t recommend using low-fat cheese, it just doesn’t taste the same! Use less of a full fat cheese if you’re really worried about how much fat you’re eating. You’ll get a better and bolder cheese taste in a smaller amount of full fat cheese than you would in a larger serving of the low fat stuff.

Strawberry Balsamic Vinaigrette

Strawberry Balsamic Vinaigrette

5)    Dressing

I don’t often keep bottled dressing on hand, so for me keeping “dressing” is having oil and vinegar handy. Making your own dressing is simple, and if you don’t want to go through all the effort you can just drizzle on some vinegar and extra virgin olive oil with a little salt and pepper. I will say that having a good quality vinegar makes all the difference. I have a couple of bottles of good quality balsamic vinegar with several different flavors, strawberry, currant, and white balsamic peach. These flavored vinegars take salads to the next level and pair wonderfully with a fruit filled salad. Some good salad vinegars to keep on hand are: balsamic, red wine, sherry, and apple cider. If you don’t have the time or the want to make your own dressing go ahead and grab that bottle of balsamic vinaigrette. No judgment here; eating some salad with some premade vinaigrette is better than eating a cheeseburger and fries any day of the week.

Local Organic Golden Carrots

Local organic golden carrots from my Chow Locally box.

6)    Miscellaneous Veggies

I’m calling this one optional because, for me, I’m more likely to include fruit in my salad than additional veggies, and some veggies don’t go well with fruit. Be selective here. Cucumbers would pair well with something like watermelon or apples, but not as well with pears or strawberries. You can use additional veggies or fruits interchangeably or in combination with one another. A few ideas on additional veggies are: onion, bell pepper, avocado*, tomato*, cucumber, celery, beets, carrots, and jicama.

Including all of these elements makes for a dynamic and interesting salad sure to please the palate.

Strawberry Spinach Salad with Feta and Golden Carrots

Strawberry Spinach Salad including all 6 elements listed above

Easy Vinaigrette:
1/4 c vinegar (for this salad I used strawberry balsamic but any of the above vinegars would be good)
1-2 tbsp of oil (aged balsamic is thick and has less acidity than other vinegars so it needs less oil)
1/4 tsp dijon mustard
1 tsp honey or sugar (you can omit this if using an aged balsamic, they’re syrupy sweet)
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

In a small bowl or wet measure whisk together all of the ingredients except for the oil with a small whisk or a fork. When combined drizzle in the olive oil. Enjoy over your salad creation!

Stay tuned for the next lesson where I’ll be discussing the benefits of different combinations of the above elements.

Be happy! 🙂

*Avocadoes and tomatoes are technically fruit but since they’re more savory than sweet I included them in the veggie section.

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