EATING LOCAL - Building a better salad; Ideas to toss around

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Last week I started a new job, teaching a cooking class to teens. When asked what they would like to learn to make, one of the girls said she'd like know how to make a salad, beyond lettuce and tomato.

That got me thinking. What is a salad? And how can we build a better one?

The dictionary defines salad as: "A cold dish of various mixtures of raw or cooked vegetables, usually seasoned with oil, vinegar, or other dressing."

More than just green salads, potato salad, coleslaw, pasta salads, rice salads, and an endless list of assorted vegetable salads, a salad can be a side dish or a stand-alone meal with protein, grain, and vegetables.

To understand what exactly a salad is, allow me to break it down into parts. First, there is the body of the salad, say the lettuce, vegetables, fruit, grain, etc. Then there is the dressing and seasonings. To make it a complete meal, we can then add a protein and grain.

The body of the salad is what it is primarily made up of. If it's a green salad you're going for, get creative and skip the iceburg lettuce, which contains primarily water and little nutritional density. Look for romaine, Bibb, peppery watercress, arugula, baby spinach, bitter endive, leaf lettuce or a combination of these. Finely shredded cabbage adds a nice crunch.

For a vegetable salad, chop into bite-sized pieces and vary colors for beautiful and delicious results. If it's a grain- or potato-based salad, consider adding vegetables for a nutritional boost, like red pepper, shredded carrot or celery.

Dressing consists of an oil, acid (vinegar or lemon), salt and pepper. Some salads go nicely with an olive oil and red wine vinegar combination, while others suggest sesame oil and rice vinegar, or olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Adding mustard to a dressing gives the dressing a nice flavor kick, while also emulsifying the dressing to keep it from separating.

Many people buy bottled dressing, perhaps because they don't know how easy it is to make. Simply combine three parts oil to one part vinegar. Add a dash of salt and pepper and you have yourself a dressing. Seriously, it's that easy!

Add some flavor elements, such as garlic, mustard or fresh herbs if you like.

So now, we've got the body of our salad built and dressing made, but we're not stopping there.

Adding protein and maybe a grain makes for a complete meal.

Many proteins go nicely with salads - chicken breast, sliced beef, boiled egg, canned tuna, shredded cheese, toasted nuts, or cooked beans all make fine additions. Some salads that come to mind: Chinese chicken, thai beef with spinach, Cobb, white bean-tuna. taco, and Waldorf with apples and walnuts.

Adding protein also will help you stick to your New Year's resolutions without feeling deprived and hungry. If your salad is not already grain-based, consider adding grain.

Croutons add a nice crunch, as do ramen noodles. Toss in a scoop of cooked rice, spelt or wheat berries, or maybe just have some crackers or toast with your salad.

Our salad is almost ready to go. Before you dig in, consider adding a garnish. Fresh herb leaves add color and fresh flavors. Toasted nuts or seeds add nutritional crunch. Shaved Parmesan or crumbled feta adds protein and flavor.

Or maybe a dash of flax seeds or a spoonful of sauerkraut or kimchi for some digestive power. Now you're salad is ready.

Salads can be more than mere lettuce and tomato. Build a better, more interesting one by varying the vegetables, making your own dressing, and adding protein.

Your tummy, your waistline - and your mother - will be happy you did.

Melissa Davis, a local chef with a bachelor's degree in nutrition, specializes in natural foods. She can be reached at jadenluna@gmail.com. More of her writing is at www.melissadavisfood.wordpress.com.
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