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Spring for salads, but make healthy choices in ingredients

Whether you want to enjoy a salad at your favorite restaurant, breeze through a salad bar for a quick and nutritious lunch, or stock your fridge and pantry so you can make a bountiful salad at home, one thing is for sure: Now is the time to do it.

While much of the U.S. is at least a few weeks away from harvesting local lettuce, our appetites – oh, really, our very souls – are ready to put the long cold winter behind us and put the stock pot in a dark closet.

Amy Schiller – a healthy eating specialist at Whole Foods in Memphis, Tenn., who is working on her master’s degree in clinical nutrition – offers dietary advice to store customers.

“And eating seasonally is really part of eating on a budget,” she said.

Cookbook author Jennifer Chandler published “Simply Salads” in 2007, inspired by bags of pre-cleaned salad greens in the grocery store. It was the first in her “Simply” series, which also includes “Simply Suppers” and “Simply Grilling.” “The Southern Pantry Cookbook” will be released in September. In her salad book, she advised her readers that a home washing was unnecessary, and she stands by that today.

“I think that the technology over the years has only gotten better,” she said.

And here’s a tip from her: “I advise people to buy in the clamshell instead of a bag because the salad lasts longer, if only because it’s handled less.”

Whichever you prefer, Chandler says you should store the greens in whatever you buy them in.

“Both the clamshell and the bag are specially designed,” she said. “They’re breathable, so keep the salad in the packaging, and it will last longer.”

Schiller is also a fan of clamshell-packaged salads, and agrees that the greens don’t need to be washed before eating (in fact, some studies say that washing the pre-cleaned mix at home only heightens the risk of introducing contaminants, so take the easy way out, and know it’s the best thing, too).

In season, Chandler will buy salad greens from farmers markets, and she offers a good tip for the often-buggy heads that beats picking out the pests:

Store the head of lettuce in a salad spinner, root end up, in the refrigerator for several hours. The cold kills the bugs, which fall to the bottom of the container. Toss them, and proceed with your salad. Chandler says cutting is fine, but use a very sharp knife, and don’t cut your greens until just before you use them.

Schiller is a vegan, so her salads contain no animal products. She relies on nuts, seeds, beans and grains for protein.

While salads can make a protein-packed meal for the omnivorous among us, the calories in a restaurant salad or one prepared at a salad bar can be astounding. Keep these tips in mind:

Start your salad with a generous serving of healthy greens. Generally, the darker the leaf, the healthier it is – so pick dark green spinach over pale iceberg, or at least mix in a bit.

Load up on all the fresh vegetables you want, such as tomatoes, mushrooms, onion, peppers, broccoli, cucumber and so on. Nuts and seeds are healthy, but they’re high in calories, so use sparingly.

Diced meats such as ham or turkey have less fat than cheese, so keep that in mind. Stay away from mayonnaise-laden sides such as pasta, chicken or tuna salad, and use care even when adding a scoop of hummus or olive salad; a small amount is fine, but they can be high in fat.

Salad dressing recipes:

Jelly Jar Salad Dressing
Makes 4 to 6 servings.

1 almost empty jar of jelly (about 2 tablespoons)
1⁄4 cup white wine vinegar
1⁄3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1⁄2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
– Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Place the vinegar in the almost empty jelly jar and shake well. Add the olive oil, garlic, and mustard and shake again until well combined. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Notes: Some favorite jellies to use are raspberry, cherry, and strawberry. I like it with apricot too. You can even try it with spicier jellies like ginger or hot pepper for vinaigrette with a kick. Salad dressings can be made up to two days in advance. Store covered in the refrigerator until ready to serve. If the oil has congealed or the dressing separated, let the mixture come to room temperature and shake well before serving.

Source: “The Southern Pantry Cookbook,” Jennifer Chandler (release date September 2014)

Low-fat Creamy Dressing Base
Makes 2 cups.

1 cup nonfat buttermilk
1 cup nonfat Greek yogurt OR low-fat cottage cheese OR a mix of the two
1 tablespoon mayonnaise, optional
See below for additions

1. Mix the ingredients in a blender until smooth (this is essential if using cottage cheese). The mayonnaise provides flavor, but the dressing is fine without it. When blended, stir in add-ins:

2. You can use a package of dressing mix from the grocery, if desired, or use these add-ins:

Make blue cheese dressing by adding 1/4-1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese, 1 small clove garlic and salt and pepper to taste.

For Creamy Caesar, add 3 anchovy fillets, 2 cloves minced garlic, 1 tablespoons Dijon mustard, juice of 1 lemon and salt and pepper.

For Green Goddess, add 3 anchovy fillets, 2 cloves minced garlic, 2 tablespoons chopped parsley and chives and 1 tablespoon chopped tarragon with salt and pepper and juice of 1 lemon.

Source: Jennifer Biggs

Basic Vinaigrette
Makes 1/2 cup.

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
– Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Place the vinegar in a small bowl and whisk together. Slowly add the oil in a stream, whisking to emulsify. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Note: This is the basic formula for all vinaigrettes: 1 parts vinegar to 2 parts oil. If you prefer a tartier vinaigrette, alter the ratio to equal parts vinegar to oil. Substitute your favorite vinegar or oil as desired.

Source: “Simply Salads,” Jennifer Chandler

Buttermilk Ranch Dressing

Makes 3/4 cup.

1⁄2 cup buttermilk
1⁄4 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon sour cream
1⁄4 teaspoon cider vinegar
1⁄2 teaspoon minced garlic
1⁄8 teaspoon dry mustard powder
1⁄4 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chives
– Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1. In a small bowl whisk together the buttermilk, mayonnaise, sour cream, cider vinegar, garlic, mustard, thyme, and chives. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Note: The buttermilk, mayonnaise, sour cream and vinegar base of this dressing can be used to make other creamy dressing. Add a teaspoon of Dijon mustard for a creamy Dijon dressing. Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of crumbled blue cheese for a blue cheese dressing.

Source: “Simply Salads,” Jennifer Chandler

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