Being Smart About Salads

Build ‘em with care—and maybe make your own dressing

We all hope that our daily meal choices will guide us to healthy eating. Salads would seem to be a safe option, but it’s hard not to fall prey to the allure of those cafeteria-style setups. Even after all the healthy ingredients like lettuce, tomato and carrots are added, who doesn’t want to top them with bacon bits, croutons and full-fat ranch dressing to reward ourselves for being health-conscious?

While they have long been relegated to the appetizer section of the menu, salads can be the main course, if you choose the ideal mix of vegetables, protein and fats. And hold the fat-laden dressing.

Building Blocks

Salads are made up of four basic components: base, protein, toppings and dressing. What makes a salad unique is the ability to mix-and-match combinations.

Liz Freeman Abel, a licensed dietitian/nutritionist and owner of free + abel, a “food + lifestyle” company based in Yorklyn, says that salads are the perfect meal for trying something new and expanding your food choices.

“I’m all for variety,” says Abel. “Salads combine new and unique ingredients in one bowl, and with it a wealth of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, including vitamins A, C, E and zinc, among others—which protect cells from oxidation or damage.”

Base

When selecting your base, start with a fresh bed of greens, says Dan O’Brien, head farmer for the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program at Coverdale Farm Preserve. The CSA program provides weekly produce shares from June to October to its members and as O’Brien points out, always includes a head of lettuce because, he says, “most people know what to do with it.” To keep salads exciting, he recommends mixing and matching different greens.

“I like pairing delicate lettuces with hardier greens like kale or collard greens,” O’Brien says. “The contrast between soft and crunchy is delicious and adds another dimension to the salad base.”

Other base options to consider are spinach, mixed greens, mesclun, arugula and romaine lettuce.

Protein

For the protein component, there are so many options to choose from. Here’s a handy guide, based on a quick scan through Bon Appétit magazine:

Carnivore Chicken, beef, lamb, hard-boiled egg, pork, prosciutto, bacon

Vegan/Vegetarian Tofu, tempeh, avocado, beans, chickpeas, black beans, jackfruit, seitan

Pescatarian Tuna, salmon, shrimp, tilapia

One way to save on cost is to use leftover proteins, like ground beef from taco night to make tomorrow’s taco salad, or shredded rotisserie chicken to make a quick chicken salad on top of a bed of greens. This not only saves time, but also makes it easier to plan lunches for the week ahead.

Toppings

When selecting toppings, keep in mind Abel’s maxim: “We should eat a variety of colorful foods on a regular basis.”

With summer upon us, fresh and local produce is available at various farmers markets across New Castle County. And though we all tend to gravitate to the standard salad fixings like tomato, carrot and cucumber, July to September is high season for other colorful vegetables, so keep an eye out for purple eggplants, sweet and hot peppers, summer squashes and other nutrient-dense vegetables.

And don’t hesitate to speak with your local farmer. “They want to talk to you, so don’t be afraid to ask, ‘How do you cook or use this?’” says Abel.

Dressing

Finally, be mindful of the dressing, which can override the healthy benefits of a salad.

“I’m a big believer that consumers should understand what is in their commercial salad dressing. Most salad dressings are made with oil, sugar or artificial sweeteners,” says Abel.

In addition, O’Brien says it’s important to alter the dressing based on the texture of the lettuce. For lighter, delicate lettuces, pair with a vinaigrette. For hearty greens like romaine or kale, which can hold more weight, a richer, creamier dressing pairs well.

Save 20 minutes by not having to stand in front of the hundreds of salad dressing options at the grocery store. Instead, make your own salad dressing using fresh herbs and yogurt or olive oil. Now that it’s summer, herbs are available at grocery stores or, if you have a green thumb, they’re easy to grow at home.

Abel recommends a flavorful, refreshing dressing using a combination of herbs like parsley, basil and mint. Here’s an example:

Creamy Herb Dressing

• ½ cup yogurt, plain or Greek

• ¼ cup olive oil

• ¼ cup chopped fresh herbs such as basil, rosemary, thyme, parsley or a combination

• ½ lemon, juiced

• 1 tbsp red wine vinegar

• 1 garlic clove, minced

• Salt and ground black pepper to taste

Add all ingredients in a bowl and whisk until combined.

Store in the fridge for up to one week.

Finding Healthy Options

Looking for healthy salad places? Look no further than Main Street in Newark and the variety of salads offered by Home Grown Café and Roots Natural Kitchen.

Roots Natural Kitchen’s Mayweather salad, featuring a base of kale and bulgur with sweet potatoes, beets, red onions, goat cheese, avocado, chicken and lemon Tahini & pesto vinaigrette. Photo courtesy of Roots Natural Kitchen

Sasha Aber, owner of Home Grown Café, believes in “eating less processed foods in order to reap the full nutritional benefits, whether it’s vitamins, minerals or other important micronutrients.” Aber’s menu at Home Grown reflects this philosophy. Currently the restaurant serves six salads that often change based on diners’ tastes and produce availability.

For example, Home Grown used to have a Thai salad on the menu when Thai food was especially popular a couple of years ago. As multicultural food trends have shifted and changed, so has the menu, which now includes “a Korean salad topped with house-made kale and radish kimchi, crispy rice strings and ginger cilantro vinaigrette.”

And, as it gets closer to the height of the growing season, Aber will be able to get more fresh produce locally, including tomatoes (late summer) and hardy vegetables and greens (spring through fall, sometimes even as late as winter).

In addition to fresh produce, all dressings at Home Grown are house-made. There’s even a vegan ranch dressing made with vegan mayonnaise using silken tofu, apple cider vinegar and a variety of spices.

All salads are priced based on the final protein, which includes chicken, sirloin steak, tuna, salmon, shrimp, tofu, portobello, falafel, seitan, and veggie burger. In a rush? Salads can be wrapped in a white or whole wheat wrap.

Right across the street lies Roots Natural Kitchen, a fast-casual concept started in 2015 that serves a variety of salad and grain bowls.

Roots’ motto is simple: “Eat delicious food often. Eat mostly stuff that grows.” Co-founder Albert Namnum says Roots’ main goal is “for customers to feel good after eating our food,” which is why all food and dressings are prepared in-house and priced to be affordable—each bowl is $7 to $9, a bit more if you create your own.

The restaurant had humble beginnings near the campus of University of Virginia in Charlottesville. A year later, Namnum decided Newark would make a great location after visiting his best friend at the University of Delaware.

“Like UVA, Newark’s Main Street is perfectly situated between housing and campus, so everyone has to walk on it to get from point A to point B,” says Namnum. “Our Main Street location was a natural fit for the brand; it is always busy, and the vibe was similar to UVA.” 

And though local competitor Honeygrow opened its doors on Main Street first—by a matter of months—Namnum insists that it’s not a big deal that so many salad-based concepts are nearby.

“We don’t need to be that different than our competitors,” he says. “Plant-based diets and eating are becoming the norm, so if we all do well, everyone benefits.”

Roots’ menu consists of signature bowls and create-your-own bowls. Two of its most popular bowls are the Mayweather and the El Jefe, which are pre-selected using an almost mathematical formula—base(s) plus five ingredients, a dressing and finally, a grill item. The concept is reminiscent of Chipotle, where everything is customizable and pricing is determined by the grill item (and additional ingredients).

In addition to Home Grown Café and Roots Natural Kitchen, there are a handful of other salad locations throughout the region:

• Saladworks, one of the largest salad-based chains in the U.S., filed for bankruptcy in 2015, but with some right-sizing is now actively expanding in markets like Dallas and Atlanta. Saladworks serves a variety of salads, sandwiches and soups, which can be made into a combo. Delaware locations include Christiana Mall, Harmony Plaza (Newark), Kirkwood Highway, Middletown and Dover.

• Honeygrow, founded in Philadelphia in 2012, is known for its stir fry, salads, cold-pressed juices and signature honeybar (fruit, crunchy toppings and either yogurt or house-made whipped cream). Delaware locations include Newark, Wilmington and soon-to-open Christiana.

• Sweetgreen began as a single shop in Georgetown, one of DC’s hippest neighborhoods. Founded in 2007, Sweetgreen led the way in the salad startup space and is known for high-end salads, “warm” bowls and house-made drinks. No Delaware locations yet. There are multiple locations in downtown Philadelphia and the Main Line, including Ardmore and King of Prussia Mall.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.