May is National Salad Month and a reminder that fresh leafy greens are good for you.

When I was a little girl growing up in Northeast Nebraska, vegetable salads on our table were not exciting. A typical salad consisted of iceberg lettuce and tomatoes with a few shredded carrots. Unless the tomatoes were from a summer garden, they weren’t very flavorful so a serving of salad was often topped with fat-laden dressing to make it palatable. It wasn’t that my mother and grandmother weren’t willing to try new things – that’s what was available.

We have so many wonderful lettuce varieties on our market shelves now that it’s hard to imagine a time when iceberg was king. While I still like the crunch of iceberg lettuce for certain salads, we most often enjoy romaine, Bibb or green leaf varieties at our home. When they are available, I also enjoy the spicy flavor of arugula and radicchio combined with the milder tasting varieties. Because these lettuces are so flavorful, just a touch of olive oil and salt is enough to dress a salad fit for a king.

I recently Googled National Salad Month and was pleased to find a local website that had fantastic advice on how to top and dress a salad. The University of Nebraska Extension has a wonderful website dedicated to food. I found a great article on ways to tempt your family to eat their greens. The article that caught my eye was by Alice C. Henneman MS, RD. Ms. Henneman’s “12 Tasty Salad Toppers” is a primer on ways to add nutrition and flavor to your favorite greens.

Her suggestions begin with using fresh greens and limiting dressing to about 1 tablespoon per 2 cups of greens. Then top with one of the following items:

Marinated artichoke hearts – Ms. Henneman states that these are one of the easiest ways to enhance a salad – just open the jar and add to your favorite greens.

Parmesan cheese – not from the can but freshly sliced or grated. Because the cheese is so flavorful just a small amount kicks up the taste. Cheese also adds calcium to your salad.

Croutons – Ms. Henneman’s recipe is included as part of this column. Using whole wheat bread adds a bit more fiber to your salads.

Dried fruit – Try cherries, cranberries and raisins. I love the chewiness of dried fruit with the crispness of greens and dried cherries are my personal favorite.

Fresh herbs – chopped dill, chives and parsley are all flavor boosters that don’t add calories to your salad. Ms. Henneman suggests a teaspoon of herbs per person for starters.

Fresh fruit – Apples and pears are wonderful accompaniments to your greens. Keep the peels on for a fiber and nutrition boost. Be sure to coat them with an acidic juice such as lemon, orange or pineapple to prevent browning and add even more flavor.

Black or green olives are inexpensive and easy to keep in the pantry when fresh ingredients are not readily available.

Toasted almonds and walnuts add good fat and vitamin E to your salads. Their crunch is a welcomed addition to salads and if you toast them the flavor is even better.

I agree with Ms. Henneman that thin slices of red onion are a great way to top a green salad. I recently learned that if their flavor is a bit strong it’s a good idea to soak them in ice water for 15 minutes before serving. The bitter flavor is greatly diminished.

Oranges are a great salad topper, especially in the winter. While I prefer the fresh, a can of drained mandarins is also great.

Toasted sunflower seeds also add texture and fiber. I keep them on my pantry shelves at all times so I can add that great crunch.

Radishes add a spicy taste that can’t be beat. If you’re lucky enough to have a garden that is producing radishes right now, you can add flavor and crunch for a delightful taste treat. Ms Henneman reminded me that radishes don’t keep well if their leafy tops are not removed.

The following instructions for croutons and toasted nuts are courtesy of Ms. Henneman. The croutons are so simple and such a good use of leftover bread that you’ll wonder why you ever picked up a box of croutons at the store.

Homemade Whole Wheat Croutons

Whole grain bread

Olive oil or olive oil flavored/garlic-flavored cooking spray

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. If using olive oil: Lightly brush top side of bread with olive oil. Cut into one-half inch cubes and spread in a single layer on an ungreased baking sheet. If using cooking spray: Cut bread into one-half-inch cubes and spread in a single layer on an ungreased baking sheet. Spray bread cubes lightly with an olive oil-flavored or garlic-flavored cooking spray. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 10 minutes or until browned and crisp. Enjoy! These taste best if eaten the same day they’re made.

Toasted Nuts or Sunflower Seeds

Oven Method

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toast walnuts before chopping them into smaller pieces. Almonds may be toasted whole, sliced or slivered.

2. Place nut/seeds in a single layer in an ungreased shallow pan or rimmed baking sheet such as a cookie sheet or jelly roll pan. Do not use a baking sheet without sides. You may have nuts or seeds all over the oven if you accidentally tip the sheet when removing it from the oven.

3. Bake 5 to 10 minutes or until they are golden brown. A toasted nut or seed may look more golden than brown. They will continue to brown slightly after they’re removed from the oven. Stir once or twice or shake the pan during toasting to aid in even browning. Sliced and slivered almonds will toast faster than whole almonds.

Stove-top Toasting

1. Toast walnuts before chopping them into smaller pieces. Almonds may be toasted whole, slivered or sliced.

2. Heat nuts or seeds in a dry, heavy skillet over medium heat for 1 to 2 minutes or until they’re golden brown and they give off a rich, toasty fragrance. Watch closely when using this method as it’s easy to burn them. Whole almonds will take longer than slivered or sliced forms.

3. Stir or toss nuts or seeds frequently for even toasting. Remove from pan to cool.

Quote of the Week: Hey, salads don’t have to be boring, they can be wild! — Emeril Lagasse

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Ellen Lund of Fremont is a freelance food columnist.


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