Wednesday Wisdom: Learning to Love Salads (Part 1 – The Greens)

Just because you know that vegetables are good for you doesn’t stop you from feeling like this:

With a little practice, you can learn to love at least some vegetables. Rather than sneaking spinach into brownies, I’m jumping into the deep end of the veggie pool and selling you on salads.

Over the next few weeks I’ll talk about ways to make salad more fun – toppings, dressings, alternative bases – but today I’m starting with the most basic salad staple: greens!

Think back to the last salad you ate.  Was it a mound of wimpy iceberg lettuce and barely-pink tomatoes covered in blue cheese dressing, or a vibrant plate that burst with flavor and texture?  I’ll show you how to achieve that second option…the first one won’t be featured here, sorry.

Houston grocery stores stock a wide variety of leafy green vegetables.  Some common options:

  • Romaine – sturdy, medium-green leaves with a light, neutral flavor
  • Spinach – small, dark green leaves with an assertive flavor
  • Arugula – small, medium-green leaves with a bright, peppery flavor
  • Kale – dark green leaves with thick ribs (remove the stems and save for another use if eating raw)
  • Mesclun – a blend of various leafy greens that sometimes includes fresh herbs

We also have a wealth of farmers’ markets that offer fresh-picked versions of these greens (and many others!).  The growers will be more than happy to talk to you about their seasonal delicacies, and many offer free samples and recipes.

Short on time?  Speed up your greens:

  • Buy a box of pre-washed, pre-cut greens.  I find that boxed greens stay fresh longer than those in bags. There’s no consensus on whether or not you need to re-wash pre-washed greens (they’re washed in an industrial chlorine solution which is much more powerful than a quick rinse under your home faucet), so you make the call on that one. To me, HEB has the best local selection of boxed greens, but all major grocery store chains carry them.
    • Tip: A plastic box of spinach or arugula stays fresh for at least a week in my crisper drawer, and these veggies can do double-duty as either salads or side dishes. If you’re re-washing, don’t wash your greens until you’re ready to use them.
  • Shop the salad bar for your salad base but add your own toppings and dressing to save some…green.  (Too cheesy?) My favorite local salad bar for greens is Whole Foods – they’re always fresh and there’s always a good variety.
    • Tip: I find that salad bar greens don’t last more than a day or 2 in the fridge, so only buy what you need for the day.

By starting with fresh, flavorful greens, you are much more likely to end up with a salad that you will actually enjoy.

Building Your Base

If your greens aren’t pre-washed, give them a thorough rinse to remove any dirt or sand, and pat or spin them dry. Remove any leaves or leaf areas that look off, and trim out any thick ribs (like those found in kale and at the base of romaine).

Tear large lettuce leaves into manageable pieces before serving.  Some greens may “rust” if you cut them with a knife – they’re still fine to eat, but many people don’t find them appetizing.  (Fun fact – it’s not actual rust, just oxidation on the cut edge of the lettuce.)

You can prepare your greens a few days in advance if you store them properly.  Once you’ve washed, dried, and torn your greens, you can store them in an airtight container in your refrigerator.  I like to store mine in a zip-top bag or in a glass container with a lid, and I always include an unbleached paper towel to absorb any excess moisture.  (Make sure to change out the paper towel daily so you’re not defeating its purpose and making your greens soggy!)

Now that your greens are ready, you can top them with a dressing to make a basic salad.  We’ll look at dressings in-depth in a week or two, but here’s a quick homemade dressing to get you started.

Lemon Dressing

Ingredients:

  • 1 T fresh lemon juice (about one small lemon’s worth of juice)
  • 3 T extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (or more, to taste)
  • fresh black pepper (to taste)
  • optional: fresh or dried herbs (1/2 teaspoon dried or 1-2 teaspoons chopped fresh) such as oregano, dill, chervil, basil, marjoram, cilantro, chives, thyme, or mint

Method:

  1. Combine all ingredients in a small jar or other container.  Attach the jar lid tightly and shake well to blend.
  2. Season to taste.
  3. Pour over greens and serve!
  4. Store excess dressing in the refrigerator.  The oil will solidify when cold but will return to its normal consistency at room temperature.

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