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watercress with cranberries and walnuts, drizzled with lemon-dill vinaigrette

Posted Jun 05 2009 5:07pm

I am learning to love salads. As a child, I rarely ate any sort of vegetable, much less a raw, fresh vegetable, picked at the height of flavor and prepared almost immediately. Sometimes we had salad, big salads made with hothouse tomatoes, chopped carrots and iceberg lettuce, but we always drowned them in bottled dressing - often a "lite" "Italian" dressing. Blech! Restaurant salads are rarely much better. It's not a surprise that so many of us approach salad with a lackluster attitude, viewing it as the "healthy" part of the meal we must plow through to move on to the main course.

A good salad is a thing of beauty, and with a little experimentation, it's an easy thing to grow to love them. Here are some basic guidelines that I have developed in my own appreciation of the green stuff.

Mix up your greens. Stay away from iceberg lettuce, which has no nutritional or flavorful value. Don't bother with pre-mixed salad; it's cheaper, less wasteful, and more interesting to choose your own ingredients. Salads are best when they include more than one kind of green - though it's also fun to really show off a specific flavor, as I did in this salad. My favorite salads include delicate butter lettuce with a heavier green like kale or chard, peppered with spicy greens like arugula or mustard. Spicy greens and dark greens are often too strongly flavored to be used on their own, but pair them with a light green such as butterhead or red leaf, and you'll have a masterpiece.

Use organic and local ingredients, especially in your greens. Organic food just tastes better, and the chemical flavor of food doused in pesticide is especially apparent when you don't cook it. Local greens are especially delicious, if you can get them. Most greens can be grown in a very small space. I grew my own spinach last spring and I couldn't believe how amazing it tasted. The leaves were so plump and juicy. I ate bowl after bowl of that salad. Pale iceberg lettuce, limp cabbage, and exhausted, sopping romaine just cannot compare.

Make your own dressing. Most salad dressings are packed with unsavory ingredients. Even "natural" salad dressings contain too many ingredients and many of them are based on unhealthy oils. It is not a difficult task to make your own dressing, and it's a lot of fun to play with different flavors, experimenting with a variety of oils, vinegars and herbs. Throw in some nut butter or tahini for a creamy, nutritious dressing. Base your dressing on lemon juice instead of vinegar for a crisp, clean flavor. Add hempseed oil for an omega-3 kick. Treat yourself to champagne vinegar for its surprising depth. Save your richest, most expensive oils for a dressing where their flavor will be on full display. Don't worry about the fat content. Just make sure it's a healthy fat. Olive oil, walnut oil and flax- or hempseed oil are the best choices; I usually use a blend, dolloping a few drops of hemp here, a quart-cup of olive there, dipping in a finger sporadically to ascertain when the dressing has reached the tipping point of perfection. The experience of making your own salad dressing can be surprisingly sensual and exciting. You just can't replicate it with something from a bottle. I do use bottled salad dressing on occasion, but I definitely prefer to make my own.

Don't be afraid to play around. Pomegranate molasses in the dressing? Oh yes. Cashews and sesame seeds sprinkled on top? Uh huh. Tossed with ruby red grapefruit? You bet. Topped with smoky tempeh? Yes, please. Follow your instincts. Listen to what your body is craving. And then put that in the salad. It doesn't have to be complicated, but it must speak to you. Salad is one of the healthiest things we can eat. We should all be eating at least one salad a day. With that standard, we should be playing with our salads until they embody the best foods we love and need.

Myself, I have been craving fresh, spicy greens and lemons. Watercress is a wonderfully cleansing spring food and this salad really showcases its unique flavor. Buy your watercress with the roots intact and store it in a cup of water in the refrigerator until you're ready to use it. But definitely use it within a day or two.

This is the sort of salad that makes your body sing with delight.

1 bunch of watercress, roots and most of the stems removed
1 c. dried cranberries
1 c. walnuts, chopped

lemon-dill vinaigrette:
1/4 c. fruity olive oil
2 T. hempseed oil (or another oil)
1/4 c. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1 t. lemon zest
2 T. fresh or dry dill
1 T. agave nectar
salt and pepper to taste

1. Combine the lemon juice, zest, hempseed oil, dill and agave nectar in a food processor and blend until smooth. With the motor running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Transfer to a bowl.

2. Toss the watercress with the cranberries and walnuts.

3. Serve the salad on a plate and allow each person to drizzle the beautiful green dressing to their liking.
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