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Build a Better Salad

Blueprint, May/June 2007

Making a great salad is an art. With the right mix of nutrition-packed and taste-bud-popping ingredients, it can add up to the perfect meal, says Ellie Krieger, R.D., a nutritionist in New York City and author of Small Changes, Big Results.

But when you eat the same greens-with-grilled-chicken all the time, its a quick way to become bored and fall off the health wagon. Blueprint breaks down the well-tossed salad into five delicious components -- reducing this fine art to a simple paint-by-numbers.

Start With Good Greens

For Spice
Give your salad some zing with peppery arugula or watercress. A cruciferous vegetable, arugula has fiber and cancer-fighting nutrients, such as vitamin C and beta-carotene. Watercress, a mustard green, contains calcium, iron, and lots of lutein, which can help prevent macular degeneration; a cup of the spindly green also has fiber and a mere four calories.

For Variety
Loose-leaf lettuce mixes -- especially darker blends -- bring together on one plate the virtues of different flavors, textures, vitamins, and minerals. Wash these and all greens thoroughly by soaking leaves in cold water for two minutes, then rinsing.

For Flavor
Used as a base or an add-in, bittersweet dandelion leaves are a good source of vitamins A and B; they also help detoxify the liver. Spinach adds sweetness, plus calcium and vitamin K, an essential nutrient for healthy blood and strong bone density.

For Texture
The rule for greens: "The deeper the color, the richer the nutrients, says Joy Bauer, R.D., a New York City nutritionist and author of Joy Bauer's Food Cures (Rodale, $19). In-stead of near-albino iceberg, consider crisp romaine, which has over seven times more vitamin A (essential for vision) and vitamin C (an immune-system booster). For a softer crunch, try butter lettuce, also high in these vitamins.

Add a Lean Protein

With nutrients that aid the eyes, heart, and brain, eggs are nature's perfect food, says Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., author of "The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth" (Fair Winds Press, $25).

Its low in fat and loaded with protein, but eating it in salads day in and day out gets dull. Keep taste buds awake by varying the preparation: grill with olive oil and squeeze with lemon one day; try lime the next.

All beans are like protein pellets (and a lean option for vegetarians, who don't always get enough protein in their diet). They're rich in cholesterol-lowering fiber (especially black beans and black-eyed peas), cancer-fighting antioxidants (particularly red beans), and folic acid, which helps build DNA -- a boon to those pregnant or planning to be.

Sure, fish offers protein, but it's also full of the omega-3 fats that protect the heart and encourage healthy pregnancies. And fatty fish contains the elusive vitamin D, which studies link to lower breast-cancer rates. As for mercury concerns, the benefits of eating fish -- aim for twice a week -- far outweigh the risks. Wild salmon and sardines are among the highest in omega-3s and the lowest in mercury.

It has a whopping 20 grams of protein per half cup (an egg has 6.7). It's high in iron and heart-healthy isoflavones and low in saturated fat. And it contains all the essential amino acids a body needs. To add flavor, pat the tofu dry, then marinate in dressing before adding to salad.

Throw In Lots of Color

A few leaves lend some texture plus disease-defending selenium; the red variety
also boasts bright color. Studies show that eating cabbage may even help reduce body fat.

These root vegetables give a salad a spicy crunch, along with vitamin C and stomach-filling fiber. The prettier varieties, like watermelon radishes, add extra eye appeal.

All these immune-system boosters contain antioxidants to fend off cancer-causing free radicals. Fresh berries have more vitamins, while dried versions contain more minerals.

This nutritious fruit has a high water content, so you get a lot of sweet, juicy flavor at a bargain rate of only 107 calories per cup.

These tubers are the poster children for health for good reason: They brim with beta-carotene, which benefits skin, bones, and eyes.

All onions are powerful cancer fighters. They also contain quercetin, an anti-inflammatory, and sulfides, which may lower blood pressure.

Tomatoes of any hue contain more than 4,000 plant nu-trients, including lycopene, which helps prevent heart disease and may ward off many cancers. A tip: Eating any vegetable with a little fatfrom nuts, cheese, or dressing helps the body absorb more nutrients.

Plants hold different nutrients in their roots, stems, and leaves, Bowden says. So eating a sprout -- essentially an entire baby plant -- gives many health benefits."

"Peppers are one of the best sources of vitamin C, Krieger says. One has as much as three oranges. Red types, which are actually fully ripened green peppers, are the sweetest

Sometimes a salad's not a salad without a little cheese. Try a lower-fat variety, like goat or sheep's milk. Or use strongly flavored cheeses such as blue or feta -- "Just a tiny little bit goes a long way on flavor, Krieger says.

Whole-Grain Crunch
For texture and to bolster the fiber content, toast whole-grain bread cubes or whole-wheat tortilla strips and scatter them on your salad as a substitute for fried croutons or noodles

All seeds are nutrient-dense. Sunflower seeds have betaine, which helps lower heart-disease risk. Sesame seeds are loaded with lignans, which reduce cholesterol levels. And pumpkin seeds contain many minerals

A small handful of these nutritional powerhouses will supercharge a salad. Theyre chock-full of protein and fiber, contain many antioxidants (pecans have the most), which ward off degenerative diseases, and are low in saturated fat. Almonds have biotin, which benefits hair and nails, and heart-healthy arginine. Pecans are packed with vitamin E and potassium. Walnuts contain omega-3s.

A few thin slices add protein; monounsaturated fats, which help lower cholesterol levels; and a satisfying rich, creamy texture.

Drizzle On the Dressing
Why drench your dream team of healthy ingredients with artery-clogging fat? Opt for dressings that contain canola, walnut, or extra-virgin olive oils.

Citrus Dressing
Makes 1 1/2 cups. In a small bowl, combine 3 tablespoons lemon juice with 2 tablespoons each of mixed citrus zests, orange juice, lime juice, grapefruit juice, and minced shallots. Stir in 4 teaspoons white wine vinegar, teaspoon salt, and teaspoon sugar. Let sit for 15 minutes. Whisk in 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil.

Red-Wine Vinaigrette
Makes 1 cups. Stir together 6 tablespoons aged red-wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, and 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt. Add 1 tablespoon minced shallots. While whisk-ing, slowly drizzle 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil into the bowl. Add freshly ground pepper to taste.

Walnut Dressing
Makes 1 1/3 cups. In a food processor, blend 1/2 cup walnut halves and 1/2 peeled garlic clove to a coarse paste. Add 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, and 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar; pulse to combine. With machine running, slowly add 1/2 cup walnut oil and 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil to emulsify. Season to taste with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper.

Yogurt-Chive Dressing
Makes 1 1/2 cups. Stir together cup plain fat-free yogurt and 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar in a bowl. Whisk in 1/3 cup canola oil and 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil to combine. Season with 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt and stir in 2 teaspoons finely chopped chives, 1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro, and, if desired, 1 teaspoon coarsely chopped capers.

Blueprint Blends
With these combos, you could eat a different salad every day, which is a good idea: One recent study found that daily salad eaters were more likely to get their RDA of nutrients than non-salad eaters.

Peppery & Rich
Brisling sardines
Hard-boiled eggs
Cherry tomatoes
Chopped parsley
Whole-grain croutons
Red-wine vinaigrette

Bright & Sweet
Mixed greens
Grilled chicken Breast
Dried cranberries
Jo's Japanese Miso Dressing (available at grocery stores)

Light & Crisp
Butter lettuce
Marinated tofu
Mixed seeds
Citrus dressing

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