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Beautiful. Delicious. Let’s Eat.

The perfect late spring supper for our north east coast growing season. Planting has started but only asparagus and ramps are coming in right now so I’m still dependent on California, Texas, and Florida. The arrangement on my plate is what the French call a Salade Composée. Call me a thwarted graphic designer, but I have always loved making stylized plate designs.

Simple ingredients:  greens, vegetables (tomato, cucumber, legumes, red cabbage), grains preferable whole grain, protein, and dressing.

Homemade vinaigrette is always on hand because I make my own and we eat salads all the time.  Basic extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, and salt.

Legumes are always on hand too because I buy dry beans in bulk and cook batches as needed. The only component that requires cooking is the grain.  The one I used for this salad is freekeh, an ancient grain with roots in the Middle East. Traditionally, it’s made from wheat so freekeh is not gluten free. The berries are harvested while still green or yellow, then roasting during processing. Smoky. Nutty. Chewy. Freekeh is a perfect grain for a savory salad. But it needs to be cooked first and that takes about 15 to 20 minutes.

While the grain is cooking, I wash and trim all the vegetables. I don’t measure when I’m doing a quick supper like I did the night I made this salad. But I know from past scrutiny I want about 16 ounces (450 grams) on the plate and look for a distribution by weigh of 40% vegetables, 20% legume, 20% protein, 10% grain, and 10% dressing.

Once everything is washed, peeled, chopped, drained, cooked, and ready to go, the fun begins.

The plate starts with a bed of arugula and green leaf lettuce.

Then portion the protein. That is canned tuna you see up there in the upper right. A couple of tablespoons of a Spanish line caught tuna packed in olive oil. Tonnino Ventresca. Really delicious but on the expensive side.

Next in line going clockwise is the grain. My personal choice is freehka, but farro or buckwheat or quinoa work just as well.

Now some chopped red cabbage. Cabbages are good keepers and help to bridge the gap between the end of the last year’s harvest and the green shoots of spring.

Next are some Kirby cucumbers.

For legumes, I used chickpeas because that is what I had on hand.  Use what you like or use what’s sitting on the shelf or in the frig. Home cooked tastes better, but canned is more convenient when time is a factor.

The final touches are a hard cooked egg cut in six pieces, a handful of cherry tomatoes, and a scallion for garnish. With a couple of generous tablespoons of vinaigrette, the salad is dressed and ready to go.

So at this point you may be asking me why mess up the meal with counting?

I don’t disagree. But I feel a responsible. A cook needs to know what the people they feed are eating. Pleasure and good company is key to healthy eating. But so are healthy food choices. And that means you count, even if it’s only miles travelled between farm to table. Here are some good examples of the kind of counting I do.

  • Portioning the Protein.  Prep cooks in restaurants portion protein for the line cooks for two reasons. The chef needs to manage costs and the customer needs to feel the portion is good value. Some of us, chefs and eaters alike, check for sustainability. But nutritionists like me portion protein for other reasons. We like to know the grams and we like to know the distribution between animal (egg and tuna) and plant (legumes and grain).
  • Salt and Sodium.  Whichever side you take as the salt wars rage on, knowing how much you use and where it comes from is required for baseline.
  • Balance the Plate. The Dietary Guidelines and MyPlate get criticized from both sides of the food spectrum. Manufacturers and producers don’t want to count anything that can be perceived as a negative. The healthy eating crew has for understandable reasons lost faith in the government’s ability to provide valid advice. But here are some observations. Using 16 ounces (450 grams) as the reference amount, my salad provides 3 cups of vegetables, 2 ounces of protein, and 1 ounce of grain. Bonus points for fish, plant protein, leafy greens, and whole grains.

The calorie count for the 16 ounce (450 gram) salad which includes 3 generous tablespoons dressingis 590 calories. As for the other nutrients:  26 grams protein, 41 grams fat, 41 grams carbohydrate, 10 grams fiber. The largest contributor to those 16 ounces is the water weight from the vegetables which accounts for 74% or about 10 1/2 ounces.

And for the usual suspects:  720 mg sodium, 6 grams saturated fat, no added sugar.

Salt sources in descending order:   vinaigrette, chickpeas, tuna, freekeh, egg, vegetables.

Saturated fat in descending order:  vinaigrette, egg, tuna, chickpea.

So why bother counting when it all tastes so good? Because the cook need to know. The people at table don’t necessarily need to know. And it’s important to keep in mind that too much obsession with eating healthy can be as detrimental to good health as too little. But the cook still needs to know that nutrition bases are covered and that salt and fats have been put to good culinary use.