18 Jun Creating the freshest salads – Lettuce get this right
Salads are usually the first go-to when trying to eat healthy, and thank goodness there are a million interesting ways to toss, dress and crunch down on the mighty leafy greens. Greens are fairly easy to grow and groceries stores are making it easier than ever to buy pre-washed, picked-over salad greens that may even be accompanied with a packet of dressing!
Yes, salads remain one of health’s best friend, especially in the warmer months of the year. Salad greens are hydrating, pack a satisfying crunch and may even make your heart sing knowing how well they synergies with your body’s need for chlorophyll, water soluble vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. We know salads are healthy, but here’s a look at how to make the most from your glorious green salad. Alright, lettuce begin.
Great nutrition – Leaf it up to greens
Leafy greens provide a significant amount of calcium. Actually, the more bitter a green leaf tastes, the higher the calcium content. In addition to B vitamins for energy, Vitamin C for immune system, greens contains phytonutrients, something the human body needs on a daily basis to stay healthy. Phytonutrients are unique to plants and play a role in their beautiful pigments. They contain antioxidants which help zap free radicals that could otherwise do harm in our bodies. In the case of green leaves like lettuce, kale, spinach, etc, their phytonutrient is typically chlorophyll and lutein.
However, not all green leaves are completely green, at that’s a good thing. In fact, when lettuce or kale varieties are red, reddish brown or purple, they contain extra phytonutrients.
Leafy greens with red or purple hues contain the specific phytonutrient anthocyanin, an extremely powerful antioxidant that has been shown to help fight cancer, lower blood pressure, slowing down age and memory loss, reducing side effects of eating high sugar and high fat foods. I will just come out and say it – red leaf lettuce actually wins for its richest nutrient content. Dark green found in romaine, spinach, arugula and dinosaur kale contains the phytonutrient lutein, which protects eye health and is anti-inflammatory. Arugula contains the phytonutrient glucosinolates, which helps protect itself from disease, carrying over these benefits to humans. The potent peppery flavour in arugula is an acquired tastes for some but the smaller the leaf, the less potent it is. Arugula is best mixed with other salad greens, or steamed/sautéed with other greens like swiss chard, kale or spinach. Speaking of spinach, it is extremely high in lutein, and has been known to improve strength and mental abilities. Just like most greens, the strong ‘green’ taste becomes more prominent the bigger the leaf grows.
Even though light green lettuce varieties (being iceberg and crisp head) offer soluble vitamins and fibre, unfortunately they aren’t packed with vital nutrients like their darker brothers and sisters. Their leaves are tightly wrapped around each other, with little exposure to the sun’s light resulting in low nutrients. I still love to use these leaves as an alternative to sandwich wraps.You are still in “the green” for choosing healthy, as long as you are experiencing a variety of other options. The lighter lettuce leaves also help to cut down the bitter taste of darker greens, so go ahead and add them if it means you’ll enjoy the salads more.
Limit the amount of raw spinach you eat to 3 times a week since it’s high oxalates which can bind and excrete good minerals your body needs. Then there’s kale, the king of all greens high in many vitamins, fibre, iron, calcium, vitamin K, carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin (a phytonutrient that greatly slows the progression of macular degeneration). Baby kale is usually most enjoyable in raw salads, while the bigger leaves do better in sautéed/steamed dishes.
Loose leaf varieties are spread out letting the sun light hit their leaves. This make a big different in the nutrient content. While the sun provides nutrients to the plant, it can also cause harm in excess, just as it would to our skin on a long hot summer day. To protect themselves from UV damages, the leaves produce their own botanical sunscreen – pigmented antioxidant. And would you know it, these sun protective antioxidants are delivered to us once we consume the leaves. This is what I call the circle of life!
Pick it right
- It’s best to buy whole heads of lettuce which keep their nutrition in tact longer. When lettuce is separated from the stalk, they will produce chemicals that speed up decay.
- Avoid Yellowing or pale leaves – this is definitely a sign of age and lack of nutrient
- Always choose Arugula with the longer expiry date, as it has a very short shelf life
- Choose midsize-leaves of spinach in bunches – they contain the highest amount of nutrients
As tempting as the salad greens look in pre-washed bags, how many times have you opened them to find wilted, slimy, stinky and yellowing leaves? Plastic clamshell containers will protect the greens from travel and being smushed but even then, it is common to find wilted greens. Hearty greens like baby spinach and baby kale do better in clamshells, while salads greens have a better chance when purchased as a full head. Regardless, look for the packages with later expiry dates, which may require a bit of digging to the back. Ideally, the fresher salads greens are found at farmer’s markets, so opt to shop there before a grocery store if possible.
Store it right
The absolute best way to keep packaged greens at their freshest is to transfer them to a different storage container. With heads of lettuce, spinach or kale, take them out of the bag they were purchased in. Tear the leaves of the head from the bottom – (avoid cutting the bottom core off) and soak them in a bowl of cold water for 10 minutes. The cold water slows the aging process and helps keep the moisture inside the leaves so they stay crispy and not limp.Dry off the leaves in a salad spinner or use a paper towel or tea towel to pat them dry. It is important the leaves aren’t wet before storing them, or that will speed up the aging process. To be safe, place a paper towel in the bag you are storing the greens, to help soak up the excess moisture.
There is debate on whether to store leaves in an airtight bag, or a plastic bag puffed up with air. I find it’s best to store them somewhere in the middle. Keep the leaves in a re-seleable bag with holes. These can be found in grocery store, or you can create your own by using a pin prick 10-20 holes. The holes in the bag allows enough oxygen to keep them breathing to stay fresh, flavourful and crisp. Without the holes, carbon dioxide levels will outweigh the levels of oxygen speeding up decayIf the greens are put in the fridge without being in a bag at all, the excess exposure to oxygen causes low humidity, the leaves will rapidly respire causing the nutrients and moisture to evaporate – nobody wants to eat wimpy lettuce.
Take note not to jam a bunch of lettuce leaves in one bag, let them breath and use two-three bags if you have to. Place the bag in the crisper, where the level of humidity creates an ideal exchange of gases.
If you have the fridge room, you could also try storing greens in a long plastic container that will supply enough oxygen to breath, but not too much to cause wilting. A layer of paper towels on the bottom of the container helps absorb extra moisture and the container will also prevent the lettuce from being squished in the fridge.
If you are planning to eat the lettuce in the next day or two, try tearing the lettuce into bite size pieces before storing it. The lettuce goes into survival mode when it’s torn and produces more antioxidants to protect itself. Lucky for us, the antioxidant benefits us when we eat this lettuce. But the trick is not to wait tool long, because after a couple of days, the tearing eventually speeds up decay.
Even if greens are stored properly, they will eventually being to deteriorate. I’m sure this is instinct, but avoid eating yellowing or slimy leaves, as this indicates there is bad bacteria growth. The browning on the tips of the leaves usually results from oxidation from air exposure or the chemical ethylene (produced by most fruits that could be in the crisper with your beloved lettuce) or the browning could be a result of “tip burn” which occurs in the field because of climate or soil conditions. Browning isn’t thought to be caused by bacteria like the yellowing parts, but it’s not the most appetizing or nutritious, so tearing these bits off is a good idea.
Dress it right
Salad dressing actually helps us absorb the fat soluble nutrients in greens. Home made dressing are by far the better choice as most store bought dressings contain soybean oil, canola oil, sunflower/safflower oil, which can do more harm than good in our bodies. Fresh ingredients in homemade dressing like lemon juice and herbs can’t compare to ingredients stuck in a bottle for several weeks to a month.
Before dressing, always make sure the green leaves are dry which allows the dressing to adhere a lot better.
A homemade dressing can be as simple as 3 TBSP of olive oil, 1 TBS fresh lemon juice or balsamic vinegar and a pinch of salt and pepper.
Or, if you have bit more time and ingredients on hand, try this version:
- 1 small lemon, juiced
- ½ cup olive oil
- 2 TB balsamic vinegar (or apple cider vinegar)
- 2 tsp. dijon mustard
- 1 TB Honey
- 3 TB fresh basil, chopped
- 2 TB fresh chives
- 1 TB fresh oregano
- ½ tsp. sea salt
Your salad greens love company – mix in grated carrots, beets, sprouts, cut up peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, fresh herbs like basil, chickpeas, quinoa, olives, boiled eggs, apples, grapefruit, avocado, etc!
Vive la salade!