Healthy Salads Deserve Healthy Dressings

As the weather heats up, you may find yourself seeking lighter meals. Salads are a great option — cool, crunchy and refreshing. Add some protein, such as grilled chicken, shrimp, fish or tofu, and you have a truly satisfying meal. But if you want to maximize the health benefits, you must be conscious about not only what’s in your salad, but also what’s on it.

Americans have a tendency to drown their salads in dressing, adding a lot of fat and calories. If you use a commercially prepared dressing, you’re also adding chemicals, additives and ingredients you might wish to avoid.

“Prepared salad dressing that you buy in the store is filled with hidden salts and sugars, along with all sorts of artificial flavors and fillers,” explains Thi Squire, the manager of Homestead Hospital’s Grow2Heal organic community garden. “If you look at the ingredient list on the label of a prepared salad dressing, it is filled with things you don’t recognize. There are texture agents, emulsifiers, preservatives. The list is long. There are some words that you can’t even pronounce.”

Ms. Squire strongly recommends making your own dressing. It’s quick, easy, and “you’ll know what the ingredients are.” Try some of the recipes below, or invent your own dressing. Here are some tips to keep in mind.

SIMPLY DELICIOUS. Salad dressing can range from just one ingredient, such as squeezing fresh lemon, lime or orange juice on your greens, to a bit of Dijon mustard and vinegar mixed together, or a combo of four or five ingredients when you’re feeling creative. There are no rules, as long as it tastes good to you.

MAKING MAGIC. To make a dressing with multiple ingredients, throw them into a blender or even shake them up in a Mason jar. “Anyone can make a salad dressing,” Ms. Squire says. In fact, it can be a great way to draw young kids into the kitchen. “When kids have had a hand in the meal preparation, they are more likely to try and appreciate what they helped prepare.”

OLD FAVORITE. Traditional vinaigrette is typically made of one-third acid such as vinegar or lemon juice, and two-thirds oil. If you wish, you can add or substitute a bit of water to cut down on the oil. Ms. Squire recommends buying the best quality olive oil you can afford, and adding mustard, ginger, fresh herbs or even dried spices for a boost of flavor. “It can be anything — chopped scallions, basil, mint, parsley, oregano, garlic or onion. The sky is the limit and it’s fun to experiment.”

SMOOTH OPERATORS. For a creamy consistency, toss in some mashed avocado or some plain yogurt, which will be tart as well as tasty. Stay away from mayonnaise, which packs a hefty caloric punch.

SWEET SPOT. Avoid sugar if you want to add some sweetness to your dressing. Instead, incorporate sweet or tart fruits like raspberries, pomegranates or pears. They should be juiced, mashed or mixed thoroughly to avoid chunks. Or, if you don’t think fruit is a good fit, go for natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup, used sparingly.

LOW-FAT FALLACY. You might be tempted to avoid oil in your dressing, and that’s fine. But keep in mind that some fat helps absorb plant-based nutrients such as beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene, which are associated with a reduced risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and other ailments. Still, the fat does not have to come from oil in your dressing; sliced avocado, a sprinkling of nuts or seeds, or even a small amount of cheese can also create a balanced salad with the fat needed to absorb nutrients.

LESS IS MORE. Homemade dressings have a much better flavor profile than anything you can buy in a bottle or jar, and most recipes will easily keep in the fridge for up to a week, Ms. Squire says. Be sure to taste-test your dressing and make any needed adjustments before you add it to your salad. Most important, limit how much you use. When you drown your salad with dressing, the vegetables become almost irrelevant. “If your ingredients are fresh and flavorful, why mask them? You don’t need much dressing,” Ms. Squire says. “A salad should only be lightly kissed by the dressing.”

Here are some recipes to get you started:

Lemon Drizzle

(Great over savory watermelon salad!)

½ cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
½ cup olive oil
2 Tbs. red wine vinegar
1Tbs. honey
1 Tbsp. fresh oregano, minced, or 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
Salt & pepper to taste

Directions: Combine in Mason jar and shake vigorously until well-blended.

Raspberry Vinaigrette

¼ cup fresh raspberries, smashed
¼ cup white wine vinegar
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
½ cup olive oil
1 Tbs. honey

Directions: Combine in blender or Mason jar.

Green Goddess

½ avocado
½ cup Greek yogurt
½ cup water
3 Tbs. fresh lime juice
1 cup of fresh cilantro or spinach
1 clove of garlic
1 tsp. onion powder
Pinch of salt

Directions: Process in blender.

Basic Creamy Dressing

1 cup plain yogurt
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoon chives, dried
2 Tbs. dill, dried
2 Tbs. lemon juice

Directions: Mix and refrigerate.

Blackberry Vinaigrette

1/3 cup red wine vinegar
3 Tbs. reduced-sugar blackberry jam
1 Tbs. honey
1 Tbs. Dijon mustard
¼ tsp. each of salt and pepper
½ cup olive oil
2 Tbs. yogurt (optional)
2 tsp. dried rosemary (or 1 Tbs. fresh)

Directions: Whisk together first five ingredients. Keep whisking while drizzling in olive oil. Add in yogurt (if using) and herbs and whisk again.

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