Finding new ways to love salad

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Question for the day: do you eat salad because you love it, or do you eat it only because it is good for you? (Or not at all?) When people think of healthy eating – whatever the reason – salads are usually one of the first things they think of. When Wayne’s heart disease was diagnosed in early winter, we focused mainly on savory dishes, soups and new ways to put lots of vegetables into our daily lifestyle. But with spring underway, we’ve turned to salads. We’ve decided there are two keys to loving salads: great ingredients and homemade salad dressing.

If your salad has the right combination of colors, flavors, textures, and a great dressing, eating it is enjoyable! Otherwise, it’s just a chore. Salad that is enjoyable will improve your lifestyle.

Great ingredients

If you and your diabetic heart patient love all salads, regardless of the restaurant or ingredients, crispy or not, color or no color, you can skip this section. But we think limp lettuce and sub-par ingredients are the main reason people think of eating salad as a chore rather than a pleasure. One of Wayne’s frequent lines, “Honey, I’m not really in the mood for salad tonight” falls by the wayside when the salad is outstanding. To make this happen, we need our ingredients to be outstanding: crisp lettuce surrounded by our favorite ingredients at their peak of freshness.

Lettuce is the foundation for the kinds of salads we’re talking about today (or spinach, if you like spinach salads). For the best salad, it has to be fresh and crisp. We often slice a head of iceberg lettuce down the middle and scoop out the middle for salads, save the part just outside the middle for sandwiches, and discard the limp outer leaves (no, they aren’t particularly useful for broth, and they add nothing to your salad).

Now, we know iceberg lettuce is sometimes described as void of nutritional value. We don’t include it for the nutrients (although it does provide a dab of fiber and some minerals). We include it because it provides crispiness. (Surely you weren’t going to use croutons for crispiness, with all their carbs and fat, right?) Think of it this way: if your salad is not pleasing to the palate, meaning the right combination of flavors and texture, it’s not going to be fun to eat. If eating it is a chore, you and your family will treat it accordingly. But if eating it is enjoyable, it can actually improve your lifestyle.

We also include iceberg lettuce in our salads because Wayne prefers it. He calls it “regular lettuce.”

Since crispiness is the contribution iceberg lettuce makes to your salad, don’t even think of using the limp outer leaves. Cut the crispy middle into chunks and pair them up with more powerful greens, like spinach, arugula, leaf lettuce, romaine or watercress. Now you have the best of both worlds.

Romaine lettuce (if you use the crispier inner leaves) is also a great option, and you can mix it with iceberg or other lettuces. We love a brand called Organic Girl, which offers crisp, washed inner leaves that are ready to use.

Salad ingredients can be divided into two categories: those that keep for a long time and those that spoil quickly. We’ve made the mistake of buying too many of the highly perishable type and having things go bad, and perhaps you will too. But a little planning can go a long way:

  • Things that spoil quickly include cucumbers, tomatoes, green onions, avocados, peppers and darker greens such as arugula, baby spinach, or watercress. Buy just enough of these as you can use in a few days, and focus on using them up quickly, because they won’t be good in a week or so. (Some of these can be thrown into a stir fry while they’re still good.)
  • Ingredients that keep really well for several days or even weeks include carrots, cabbage, radishes, celery, broccoli, cauliflower and snap peas. Make color a priority! A little chopped red cabbage adds great color contrast, and carrots and radishes add to the visual appeal. Additional crispiness is a plus too, but make sure the salad has a balance between ingredients that blend well and ingredients that stand out. We slice radishes and carrots thinly, to help them blend better.

 We have learned to keep the second category of ingredients on hand for easy availability and we buy limited amounts the ingredients in the first category a couple times a week so they are always fresh.

A word about bagged, pre-cut and salad bar vegetables: if you must use these due to a lack of time, that’s all right, but they might not be as fresh or taste as good as fresh as those you clean and trim yourself. With the exception of Organic Girl lettuces and greens, we’ve found prepackaged lettuces, bagged vegetables and pre-made salads disappointing.

The grocery store salad bar might be all right if you’re going to eat it immediately (and you’re not as picky as we are), but bear in mind that grocers use salad bars to get rid of produce that would otherwise be discarded soon. It won’t be good in a day or two. And remember that if you find it a chore to use it up, try buying the freshest ingredients and see if you enjoy your salads more.

Great dressing

It’s no secret that the nutritional downside with salads is the dressing. Dressing can be the thing that turns salad from a completely healthy dish into a spurge or exception (to use our Diabetic Heart Lifestyle terminology).

First, we know it might sound like unnecessary work: why make your own salad dressing when there are dozens of varieties available commercially at minimal expense? Two reasons: taste and nutrition. We have long appreciated restaurants that offer delicious homemade dressings. Now, with the restrictions we’re observing on sodium, sugar and saturated fat, creating our own versions of homemade salad dressings seems like the best way to maximize flavor and minimize unwanted ingredients.

Our early experiments with homemade dressing produced results that were delicious, but not much more nutritious than the commercial varieties. Some of our favorite dressings, Thousand Island, Blue Cheese and Creamy Peppercorn, rely on mayonnaise, sour cream, or plain yogurt as a base, sometimes supplemented by buttermilk, all with high levels of sodium and saturated fat. We will keep experimenting with versions of these recipes that might reduce the saturated fat and sodium content, and we’ll share the results in the future.

Meanwhile, the good news is we have developed some new favorites that offer great taste without requiring you to use up a lot of your saturated fat and sodium allowances, and we have more ideas in the pipeline, thanks to our Facebook group, called “Diabetes and Heart Disease.”

The recipe we have added this week is for Japanese Ginger Salad Dressing. This dressing is inspired by online recipes designed to duplicate the ginger dressing served at Benihana. We changed it up a little to eliminate the added sugar and salt. We loved the result, and it weighed in at just 52 mg. of sodium and 2.9 g. of saturated fat, for 3 generous sized servings. Note that this sodium measurement assumes the use of China Town Soy Sauce, which is much lower in sodium than any other brand (at 145 mg. per tablespoon). If you use regular soy sauce, or even a reduced sodium variety, your sodium content will be higher. See our Products We Love page for ordering information for China Town Soy Sauce.

Japanese Ginger Salad Dressing

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