Originally created 08/25/02

Restaurant-caliber salads don't have to be complicated



Salads seem to hit the spot during the summer season. They are a cool way of combating the heat, while still eating hearty and healthy.

Entree salads first appeared in high-end restaurants, moved to chains such as Applebee's and T.G.I. Fridays and now are common fare at fast-food restaurants. Oddly enough, many of us view mixing up one of those green creations as intimidating. How do restaurants make such cool, enticing salads? It can be as easy or complex, as the cook desires.

The beauty of a salad starts with its presentation and continues into the freshest of ingredients. But while salads can be a remarkably healthy meal to eat, they also can be deceptively fattening.

If you make a salad loaded with fresh veggies, then pile on shredded cheese and ladle on the dressing, you've done yourself no favors as far as fat is concerned.

Using less of a strong-flavored cheese will serve you better than using lots of mild cheese. Even a small amount of crumbled blue cheese adds lots of salty, creamy flavor and feta cheese is available in low-fat, fat-free and herbed varieties.

If you use store-bought dressings, read the labels. You will see that most of the calories in a 2-tablespoon serving come from fat. That's about 150 calories (all from fat), 17 grams and 26 percent of your recommended portion of fat for the entire day.

Add that to the fact that most people put four or six tablespoons of dressing on a large salad (rather than two tablespoons) and you have a very high-calorie, high-fat meal.

Reduced-fat bottled dressings have about half of the fat and calories and some actually taste good (Wishbone's Just 2 Good, Ken's Low-Fat and Garlic Expressions are three brands that I like). But I have yet to find a tolerable fat-free dressing.

You control the fat even more by making your own dressing. Some tricks to making a healthy dressing is to substitute some of the fattier ingredients with low- or no-fat ones and to supplement with additional, flavorful ingredients.

For a basic oil-and-vinegar dressing, use equal parts vinegar, oil and water (rather than two parts oil to one part vinegar), then season it with salt and pepper, fresh garlic and herbs, red pepper flakes or lemon zest. Using a mild vinegar such as balsamic, requires less oil to balance out the acidity. And adding honey or Dijon mustard to the mix will thicken the dressing and add flavor.

Make a creamy dressing by using fat-free yogurt, cottage cheese (pureed in a food processor) or low-fat mayonnaise as the base, rather than full-fat mayo or sour cream.

When choosing greens remember, the darker the color, the healthier. Spinach is packed with vitamins (including anti-oxidants) but romaine and red leaf are good, too. And all lettuce provides a good source of fiber.

Pastas that are best to use in cold salads are more a matter of taste. Spiral, macaroni, farfalle and penne are easiest to spear with a fork. If you really want to maximize your nutritional intake, use whole-wheat pasta.

From summer's simplest greens tossed with slices of cucumber and ripe tomatoes, to the more filling salad that is topped with marinated, grilled meat, to the composed salad made up of al dente pasta, steamed seafood and fresh, heady herbs. They are all within reach, as close as your next trip to the grocery store.

CURRIED SPINACH SALAD WITH WARM PORK TENDERLOIN

Dressing:

1 cup low-fat or reduced-fat mayonnaise

1/4 cup Major Grey's hot chutney

1/4 cup mango nectar or juice (found in most grocery stores' juice or ethnic foods aisle)

1 teaspoon curry powder (hot or mild)

1/2 cup skim milk

Salad:

3 bags washed, cleaned baby spinach

Place all dressing ingredients into a jar and shake to combine. May be made up to three days ahead. Makes 2 cups.

Pork marinade

5 cloves garlic, minced

Juice of one lemon

1/3 cup Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon honey

1/3 cup olive oil

2 medium Bermuda onions, peeled, halved and sliced into half moons

2 pork tenderloins

Place all marinade ingredients into a large zipper-top bag and shake to combine. Then add sliced onion and pork tenderloins. Place in the refrigerator and allow to marinate for 2-8 hours, turning the bag occasionally.

When ready to cook, heat oven to 400 degrees. Remove the onions from the marinade with a slotted spoon and over-lap in a baking pan sprayed with nonstick cooking spray. Place the pork tenderloins on top of the onions and roast, uncovered for 35-45 minutes, until pork is just done, but still juicy. Remove from the oven and allow the tenderloins to "rest" 5-10 minutes before slicing.

Toss the spinach with curry dressing and warm, roasted onions then place slices of tenderloin on top and serve. Makes 6-8 servings.

ANTIPASTO PASTA SALAD

In this recipe I tried to incorporate all the flavors of an antipasto dish. The secret to this highly flavored salad is in adding the cooked pasta to the crumbled feta cheese while the pasta is hot. That way the cheese melts and seasons the pasta. This salad is very low in fat per serving.

1/4 pound prosciutto ham, ask the deli to slice it paper thin, then cut into strips

4 green onions, trimmed, washed and sliced (including the green tops)

1 clove garlic, minced

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 8-ounce package fat-free feta cheese with Mediterranean herbs (found in the gourmet cheese section of the grocery store) chopped into small pieces

1 16-ounce box orzo, spiral or farfalle pasta

1 to 1 1/2 pounds raw shrimp, deveined and shells removed

20 sun-dried tomato halves (dry, not packed in oil) cut into strips with scissors

1 can whole artichoke hearts, drained and roughly chopped

1/4 cup chopped fresh basil

Have all ingredients chopped or sliced and ready to go. Place a large pot of hot, salted water on the stove and cover it. Bring the water to a boil.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine the first six ingredients and mash around a bit with a fork or whisk to break up the cheese. Add the pasta once the water is boiling. Bring back to a boil then cook for 6-8 minutes.

After pasta has cooked for 6-8 minutes add the shrimp and sliced sun-dried tomatoes. Bring back to a boil and cook for 3 more minutes, until shrimp are pink and pasta is al dente (just done).

Drain everything together well, then pour the pasta, shrimp and tomato mixture in with the feta mixture. Stir to combine and melt the cheese. Season well with salt and pepper and allow to cool in the refrigerator for 30 minutes (stirring occasionally).

Once the pasta has cooled a bit, add the artichoke hearts and basil and toss. Serve cold. Serves 8-10 for dinner or 12-14 for a luncheon.

Jenny Brule has a degree in the culinary arts and has written for several magazines, including Cooking Light. If you have any food or wine-related tips for her, e-mail them to Brule@knology.net.



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