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Turn over a new leaf for the new year

4 salads illustrate that healthy eating is also delicious

By Gretchen McKay, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Published: December 27, 2023, 6:04am

A new year is always celebrated — maybe even revered — for its boundless possibilities.

Seeing those empty 365 days on the calendar as a blank slate, we can’t help but feel optimistic when January rolls around. We resolve to improve our relationships, exercise more, stop smoking, curtail drinking and generally just live life to the fullest.

Many of us also pledge to be kinder to our bodies by making healthier choices at mealtime. Maybe you over-indulged over the holidays or (finally) came to the realization that, yes, you really are what you eat. Perhaps you just want to feel lighter, with more energy. To that end, experts advise filling our plates and bowls with a variety of fruits and vegetables each and every day.

A well-built salad can accomplish that goal.

Leafy greens and raw veggies are full of dietary fiber, which not only helps lower cholesterol levels but also keeps your gut healthy. Fiber also helps regulate your blood sugar, keeping hunger and mindless snacking in check.

Naturally low in calories, salad greens and their accoutrements also pack a nutritional punch, with vitamins A, C, E, B6 and folic acid. Why not throw a handful of nuts on top, or build the salad on a whole grain such as farro, bulgar or quinoa? You’ll add some much-needed protein and healthy fats, too, while turning a snack or appetizer into a full-fledged, good-for-you meal.

One problem: Salads can be boring! Especially if it’s just a wedge of iceberg lettuce or handful of pre-packaged, chopped greens topped with a high-fat, processed bottled dressing.

It doesn’t have to be so.

The following four salads aim to build excitement by offering bright colors, a range of textures and crunchy and/or tangy add-ons such as nuts, finely grated cheese and dried fruit that assure every bite is super satisfying.

Make-your-own dressings add to their appeal, with seasonal ingredients such a maple syrup and citrus as key components.

Happy New Year!

Spinach Salad With Warm Maple Dressing

Serves 4. Adapted from foodandwine.com

Rich in antioxidants, baby spinach is the original super food. Here, it’s paired with crunchy apple, fresh blueberries and crumbled feta for a low-cal and healthful salad. I added a cup of shredded roasted chicken tossed in 1 tablespoon of dressing for added protein, along with a handful of smoked or toasted almonds for crunch.

For dressing:

1/3 cup avocado or good-quality olive oil

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

11/2 tablespoons pure maple syrup

3/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/2 teaspoon honey

1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

For salad:

5-ounce bag of baby spinach (about 4 cups)

1/2 unpeeled Granny Smith apple, thinly sliced

1/2 cup fresh blueberries

1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese

Kosher salt, to taste

Black pepper, to taste

1/3 cup sliced or whole smoked almonds

1 cup shredded, roasted chicken, optional

Prepare maple dressing: Combine oil, vinegar, maple syrup, mustard, honey, paprika, salt and pepper in a lidded glass jar. Process with an immersion blender until well combined, about 30 seconds, or seal with lid and shake vigorously.

Prepare salad: Toss together spinach, apple, blueberries, feta and toasted almonds in a large heatproof bowl. Set aside.

Add dressing to skillet; heat over medium until it just begins to simmer, about 1 minute. Pour about 6 tablespoons warm dressing over salad and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with smoked almonds and roasted chicken, if using.

Serve salad with remaining warm dressing, if desired.

Hearty Sweet Potato, Arugula & Farro Salad With Ginger Dressing

Serves 4. Adapted from cookieandkate.com

Spicy arugula offers a nutritious, green base for this hearty grain-based salad. The sweetness of the caramelized, roasted sweet potatoes is balanced by a spicy ginger dressing.

Crumbled blue cheese, red onion and sweet dried cherries round out the flavors and add some heft to this meal-in-a-bowl. The original recipe calls for building the salad on wild rice but I used farro, an ancient whole-grain wheat with a nutty flavor and chewy texture. You also could substitute barley or couscous.

1 cup farro or barley, rinsed

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, divided

11/2 pounds sweet potatoes (2 medium or 3 small), peeled and sliced into 1-inch cubes

11/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3/4 cup chopped pecans, toasted

4 cups packed arugula

1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese

1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion

1/4 cup dried cherries

For ginger dressing

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar, or to taste

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon maple syrup or honey

2 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Prepare farro or barley as the label directs. Drain and rinse under cold water, then transfer to a large bowl and toss with 2 tablespoons olive oil.

Meanwhile, roast the sweet potatoes: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper for easy cleanup. Place the cubed sweet potato on the pan, drizzle with the olive oil and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt. Toss until the sweet potatoes are lightly and evenly coated in oil.

Arrange sweet potatoes in a single layer and roast for 25-30 minutes, tossing halfway, until they are caramelized on the edges and tender when pierced through with a fork. Leave the oven on and let the sweet potatoes cool for a few minutes.

Make the dressing by combining all ingredients in a small bowl and whisk until thoroughly combined. Set aside.

Combine arugula, cooked farro or barley, and roasted sweet potatoes in a large serving bowl or platter. Spread toasted pecans over the salad. Top with crumbled blue cheese, red onion and dried cranberries.

If you’re serving the salad immediately, go ahead and drizzle most of the dressing on top (you probably won’t use it all). Gently toss to combine, and let the salad rest for a few minutes so the grains have time to absorb some of the dressing. Serve.

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If you’re planning to have leftovers, divide the salad into portions and store the dressing separately. The salad and dressing will keep well, each covered in the refrigerator, for up to 5 days. Leftover dressing is great for future salads!

Winter Citrus Salad With Honey Vinaigrette

Serves 4. Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette

Winter citrus is great for boosting your immune system — and it just makes a gloomy, overcast winter day feel cheery.

For salad:

2 oranges

1 yellow grapefruit

1 pink grapefruit

Large flaked sea salt such as Maldon

1 shallot, finely chopped

For dressing:

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

1 teaspoon honey

Juice of 1 lime, or more to taste

Sliced fresh parsley, tarragon or chives, for garnish

Peel oranges and grapefruit, removing as much pith as possible, then slice fruit horizontally into thin wheels. Remove any pits, then layer fruit on a serving dish. Sprinkle with salt and garnish with chopped shallot.

Make dressing by whisking together olive oil, vinegar, honey and lime juice until well combined, or vigorously shaking ingredients in a mason jar with lid on. Taste, adjust seasoning as needed and drizzle over salad, then garnish with herbs.

Tuscan Kale Salad

Serves 4. nyt.com

This low-cal, easy-to-make kale salad might be a cliche “healthy” dish, but it’s incredibly tasty, with easy-to-find ingredients.

1 bunch Tuscan kale (also known as black or lacinato kale) or regular kale

1 thin slice country bread or 1/4 cup homemade bread crumbs (coarse)

1/2 garlic clove, finely chopped

1/4 cup finely grated pecorino cheese, more for garnish

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, more for garnish

Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon

Pinch of kosher salt

Pinch of red pepper flakes

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Trim bottom 2 inches off kale stems and discard. Slice kale, including ribs, into 3/4-inch-wide ribbons. You should have 4-5 cups. Place kale in a large bowl.

If using bread, toast it until golden on both sides. Tear into small pieces and grind in a food processor until mixture forms coarse crumbs.

Using a mortar and pestle, or with the back of a knife, pound garlic into a paste. Transfer garlic to a small bowl. Add 1/4 cup cheese, 3 tablespoons oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper flakes and black pepper, and whisk to combine.

Pour dressing over kale and toss well to thoroughly combine (dressing will be thick and need lots of tossing to coat leaves — don’t be afraid to use your hands).

Let salad sit for 5 minutes, then serve topped with bread crumbs, additional cheese and a drizzle of oil.