How to eat a healthier salad
Although the golden age of the massive salad bar has faded into history a bit – with some notable exceptions – we all remember those days of watching people head back to their table with a nice, crisp, otherwise healthy salad, absolutely drenched with something that had the look and consistency of latex paint… if latex paint came with croutons. And that, of course, would be the salad dressing.
The fact is, just about every salad starts out with a relatively healthy intention. But somewhere along the way, that bottle of varying colors and viscosities, despite its claim as being "fat-free" or "low-cal" or even "natural," comes into the picture and does a number on your greens.
Fortunately, there's something you can do about. But first, let's look at why you should.
To begin with, check the label of any salad dressing bottle and notice that one of the main ingredients is going to be some kind of "oil." What you would hope for is that it would be a high quality olive oil, a heart healthy alternative to the more likely use of corn or soy oils, both of which add calories without the benefit of the "good fat" profile of olive oil.
Another ingredient in many commercial salad dressings, even the higher-end brands, is high-fructose corn syrup. There's been a lot of controversy about the dangers or non-dangers of HFCS but while it is biochemically similar to cane sugar (there are chemical differences, too) it has been associated, through a number of studies, with a higher incidence of Type 2 diabetes and obesity. Regardless of whether it's HFCS or other sugars used in dressing, however, too much sugar contributes to unwanted calories that are linked to health problems.
Another reason to pay more attention to your salad dressing is the addition in some commercial products of color brighteners and dyes that are used to make the contents more appealing to the eye. The problem is that some of these additives – often used in raspberry and other fruit-based vinaigrette dressings – have been linked with a number of health concerns including cancer and ADHD in children.
So, short of avoiding dressing altogether, what can a salad lover do to maintain a healthier approach to a year-round favorite and something we seem to especially enjoy in the hot summer months? One thing is to carefully read labels on salad dressing bottles and packets and avoid the culprits mentioned here.
The other is to make your own from the best possible ingredients. The recipes shown below will help get you started in the right direction:
LIME BUTTERMILK DRESSING
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/3 cup low-fat buttermilk
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Whisk lime juice, vinegar and mustard in medium bowl to blend. Gradually whisk in buttermilk, then oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Dressing can be prepared 6 hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)
TRADITIONAL FRENCH VINAIGRETTE
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon good-quality red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Any fresh herbs on hand such as tarragon, basil or dill
If using immediately, whisk ingredients together in a large salad bowl and then make the salad in the bowl. Otherwise, mix all ingredients in a small bowl and refrigerate until needed.
CREAMY VINAIGRETTE (If you really crave a bit of mayonnaise)
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
3 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons diced, fresh tarragon (optional)
5 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Whisk lemon juice, zest, mayonnaise, Dijon mustard and the olive oil in a medium bowl until emulsified. Add the tarragon leaves. Season the dressing with salt and pepper. Dressing can be used right away or stored in the refrigerator until needed.
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