Kitchen & Pantry

Most Vegetable Salads Are Pretty Bad But They Don’t Have To Be

Most Vegetable Salads Are Pretty Bad But They Don’t Have To Be |

Colin Morrello, a lawyer in the State Attorney’s office, is called in by his boss, Wilbur Dincon, to discuss an on-going investigation. As Morrello talks, Dincon is digging into his take-out salad.

Morrello: “Sir, I don’t understand why we’re undercutting our most important case by letting the suspect out on bail…”

Dincon (interrupting Morrello): “Look at this salad… Are there any actually good salads?”

Morrello: “Chinese chicken salad?”

Dincon: “The cashews and oranges are good but the rest is just… salad.”

The conversation took place in the sixth episode of the first season of The Good Fight, the spinoff and sequel of The Good Wife. It played and re-played in my head as I pondered numerous episodes of The Big Bang Theory where the characters are having their meal—mostly salad—and, ninety per cent of the time, they are just toying with their food. Then, I tried to recall every movie scene where a couple go on a date, the man orders a huge steak while the woman opts for nothing more than a plate of salad.

Taken all together, what message does that send the public? One, salad is unappetizing. Two, salad is the go-to meal for people who eat healthy. Both are far from accurate.

Salad is not always low-calorie and low-fat

I know very few people who whip up their own salad dressing. Most simply browse the grocery shelves and pick up a couple of bottles of salad dressing. Ranch, Blue Cheese, Caesar, Thousand Island… they’ve been around since I was a kid and people are still buying them today.

If you’re one of those people who regularly buy bottled salad dressings, let me ask you this: Have you ever read the fine print on those bottles? Have you noticed the caloric value vis a vis the size of the serving? You might think that 400 calories per serving (about 1/3 cup) is not a bad thing. After all, who pours 1/3 cup of dressing in a single serve salad, right? But 1/3 cup is equal to 5.33333 tablespoons. It takes about two tablespoons of dressing to properly flavor and moisten a regular serving of salad. So, that’s about 160 calories in the dressing alone.

Now consider the toppings on the salad. Croutons, bacon, ham, cheese… Low-calorie and low fat? Seriously?

But… BUT without those toppings, salad is so… boring. Exactly! The question is: Does it have to be boring without croutons, bacon, ham and cheese?

Roasted bell peppers make a wonderful addition to vegetable salad

Salad veggies don’t always need to be raw; try grilling veggies for flavor

I understand the convenience of picking up a bag of mixed greens from the grocery and tossing the contents with commercial salad dressing. If the serving is generous, the salad can be filling. But is it a good meal or a mere tummy filler? If you say yes, it’s a good meal (and that’s something I will never ever say), do you mean it or are you just kidding yourself while, in your head, there is that persistent image of juicy fried chicken or grilled pork ribs?

Years ago, at a cafe right here in the boondocks, we enjoyed a mango salsa that was simply packed with flavors. The trick, according to the chef, was roasting the ingredients to coax out the flavors. I took that advice to heart. I have learned that char-grilling eggplants, for instance, before throwing them into a salad, can make a hell of a difference. Same thing with roasted bell peppers.

It’s all about caramelization and bringing out the natural juices of the vegetable. When you opt for raw greens only, they are so dry and bland that there is an almost automatic reaction to infuse them with flavor and moisture by pouring in a ridiculous amount dressing and turning the salad into a soupy mess. Gross, really.

Vietnamese shrimp and pomelo salad

Salad does not always have to be vegan

Oh, you already know that. That’s why you like your salad with croutons, bacon, ham, cheese… and all those things that, if not used as salad topping, most self-proclaimed “healthy eaters” would declare to be unhealthy.

Australian chef Luke Nguyen, whose Vietnamese roots remain strong in his culinary style, has a better approach to salad-making. If you’ve seen his shows, you might be familiar with how he builds his salads by combining vegetables, shredded chicken or whole shrimps, nuts and an array of fresh herbs with simple dressings that are mostly made with citrus juice, fish sauce, chilies and sugar for balance.

You might say it’s a Vietnamese thing and you’d probably be correct. Vietnamese cuisine has a reputation for being one of the healthiest and most flavorful in the world. The Vietnamese pomelo and shrimp salad in the photo above was dressed with nuoc mam pha (mixed fish sauce) which has no egg yolks and no oil. The topping? Poached shrimps. Damn, it’s good. Why can’t we adopt the Vietnamese philosophy when making salads? I can think of three things:

1. Laziness. It’s easier to toss together grocery-bought mixed greens with grocery-bought salad dressing.

2. The mindset that a “healthy” salad contains raw vegetables; no meat, no seafood.

3. Insufficient knowledge about not-so-familiar ingredients.

Oriental chicken salad at Rowena's, Tagaytay City

Simple ingredients to add flavor and texture to salads

Four basic ingredients to add to salad for texture and flavor:

1. Nuts

2. Diced fresh fruits

3. Legumes (beans, for instance)

4. Fresh herbs and spices

Nuts and legumes are rich in protein.

Fruits, or a combination of fruits, will add flavorful juices to the vegetables making the salad less reliant on the dressing for moisture and taste.

Herbs and spices add not only flavor but a variety of nutrients too. Parsley, for instance, that herb that we sprinkle on salads and even stews to make them look more colorful and appetizing, is rich in Vitamins K, C and A, among other things.

Be honest about your reason for choosing vegetable salad for your entire meal

Armed with all those tips and tricks, you can probably whip up a kick-ass salad for your every meal. But do you really want to eat nothing but salad three times a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year?

In Facts of Life, a TV series I used to watch when I was in college, Edna Garrett (played by Charlotte Rae) was the overweight housemother of a dormitory at Eastland School. In one episode, she was trying to lose weight and was shown cutting a raw bell pepper while describing to her teenaged charges how the vegetable burst with flavors. The implication was that eating nothing but raw vegetables could be satisfying too. By the end of the episode, she had given up her diet and declared that she was happy with the way she was. Hooray for the triumph of her positive approach to body image.

The point is that your choice of food is determined not only by what is available and what you can afford. The effect of mass media, persistent advertising and peer pressure are also factors. If you choose to eat nothing but vegetable salad three times a day because you really love salad and it energizes you, then by all means, go make those kick-ass salads everyday and have a ball with them.

But if you’re picking on those raw vegetables in your salad plate because it’s fashionable to eat “healthy” or because you think that a strict vegetable salad diet will make you lose weight so you can “fit in” with today’s definition of “sexy”, then, I’m afraid I can’t be of any help to you. You have a body image issue and you need to see a shrink; the sooner, the better.

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