A kitchen sink salad

Salads are too often taken for granted — yet they are not only delicious and healthy but they are also diverse and ripe for imagination and experimentation.

A friend recently lamented that she finds the salads she makes at home “boring.”  The ones in restaurants, she said, seem so much better.

I couldn’t disagree more!  Restaurants either throw together some random greens with a few pallid tomatoes and watery cucumber slices — hardly my idea of a real salad — or they “compose” an artifice for which they charge $12 and which you could have made yourself for about $2!

Upon further investigation, I discovered the truth.  My friend, who, like me, is trying to lose weight, makes salads that have close to zero calories and fat.  No wonder she finds them uninspiring.

No olives — even though 12 medium-size Kalamata olives equal only 1 Weight Watcher food point. 

Nuts?  No way! 

Way, girl.  Ten walnut halves are 4 WW points.  You break them into smaller pieces to increase the surface area and they add both crunch and depth to your salad.  Four points may seem a lot when your daily allotment is only, say, 29, but when you consider that the rest of your salad is almost zero and you have 14 points left for dinner, what the heck!

For those of you who are not on WW and don’t use the point system, I apologize.  It’s probably a little like trying to understand someone speaking a vaguely foreign language.  But, for better or worse, it’s the language I know.

Let me put it this way:  You can include tastey indulgences like olives, nuts and even cheese (think feta) in your health-conscious salads if you use them judiciously.  Nuts, for example, have many health benefits, but they are also high in (good, I think) fat.  They pack a lot of calories into tight little packages.  A sprinkling is all that you need.

When I’m making a dinner version of my “kitchen sink” salad, I include a small can of water-packed tuna.  (I squeeze out the water first for the cats — they love it.)  This gives me some protein and helps fill me up.  You can also use moderate quantities of beans, like cannelini or chickpeas, or tofu.

Some other tips:

  • In a rut with your greens?  Expand your horizons!  Think arugula or spinach, or maybe even a bunch of parsley for your base with some lovely summer tomatoes (when summer finally gets here again in about a century).  You can even mix ’em up!
  • Texturize.  I love the crunch of carrots, bell peppers and raw haricot vert in a salad.  They break up the softer textures of tomatoes, greens, olives, etc.
  • Keep a variety of good produce on hand.  Not just tomatoes, peppers and greens, but beets, broccoli, scallions, green beans or haricot vert — even fruit.  I made a lovely salad the other night with pears, apples, arugula and feta cheese.
  • Use your imagination. Look at what you have in your fridge and your cupboard.  What about combining some roasted red peppers with fresh basil, Kalamata olives, tomatoes and arugula?  Or spinach and navel oranges with black olives and fennel?  I’ll even throw in leftovers sometimes — good leftovers, mind you, not overcooked, limpid items of questionable identity that have been sitting around in the fridge for more than a day or two.  And if, by good fortune, you have some fresh herbs left over from your Saturday night dinner party languishing and waiting to be thrown out, rescue them!
  • What are you having with your salad ?  A “kitchen sink” salad — greens, tomatoes, peppers, etc. — goes well with a lot of other foods, especially chicken or pasta.  But if you’re doing something, say, Mediterranean, with overlays of cumin and cinnamon, you might want those oranges and fennel with black olives and a dressing tinged with rose water.
  • Dressings can make or break a salad.  I made the mistake of just drizzling some balsamic vinegar over my pear and apple salad.  This works fine with vegetable salads, especially if I throw in some feta, which mixes with the vinegar for a sort of creamy quality.  But the fruit just sucked up the vinegar without spreading it around.  I should have used a little Annie’s low-cal gingerly dressing, which is one of my faves.  Next time.  Of course, you can always make your own dressing, which is nearly always better and very simple to do (see below for an example).

Not everyone enjoys salads.  They don’t think of salads as real food but as “diet food.”  They’re consolation for when you’re trying to lose weight and what you really want is a double cheeseburger with fries.

Well, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way.  Approach your salads with zest and enthusiasm!  Learn to enjoy the creative process of salad-making — and, even more, the results of that process.  There’s nothing like a salad with good, fresh ingredients, made with care and imagination.

And, yes, they are healthy.  Eating a lot of them will help you lose weight.  But, really, that almost seems beside the point!

So here’s a salad dressing from Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites (a go-to cookbook for me).  I had it on my kitchen sink salad and it was very yummy, but I can also see it as an omelet filling (1 whole egg, 2 egg whites — quite satisfying).  Give it a whirl.  And chop chop!

Italian Tomato Basil Dressing

  • 6 sun-dried tomatoes (not packed in oil)
  • 1 tomato, coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 1 garlic clove, minced or pressed (I always use more)
  • 1/4 cup loosely packed, coarsely chopped fresh basil
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 teapspoon salt, or to taste

Cover the sun-dried tomatoes with boiling water in a heat-proof bowl and set aside.  Combine chopped fresh toatoes, garlic, basil, 1/4 cup of water, vinegar or salt in a blender or food processor.  When the sun-dried tomatoes have softened, drain and add them to the other ingredients and puree the mixture until smooth.  Covered and refrigerated, this dressing will keep for about a week.

Yield:  about 1 cup

Per 1-oz serving: 23 calories, 1.2 g protein, 0.3 g fat. 4.9 g carbohyrates, 0 g saturated fatty acids, 0.1 polyunsaturated fatty acids, 0 g monounsaturated fatty acids, 0 mg cholesterol, 209 mg sodium, 1.1 g total dietary fiber