It's hard to eat healthy foods at lunch and not spend a fortune with expensive restaurant salads, pricey "grain bowls" from trendy pop-ups, or the Whole Foods salad bar. (Sorry Whole Foods, I love you, but at almost $10/lb, your salads are just too much!) My solution takes a little prep work and planning on Sunday, but the results really can pay off!
Ok, this salad is a little more fancy than the ones I prep for lunch, but that's only because I got home late one night this week, was pressed for time and wanted one for dinner. For lunch, I normally throw all the ingredients into a slightly larger container than needed and shake to toss. Less glamorous, for sure, but just as tasty. Below are the basic components.
I like some kind of grain in my salads. I think it gives it a nice texture, and it cuts my craving for eating junk.(Ahem....raiding the vending machine for potato chips at 3pm and feeling terrible about it.) Whole grains take a long time to cook, however. This is why I create a big pot of them on Sunday either on my stove or rice cooker (Have I mentioned how much I love my rice cooker?), throw them in the fridge, and I have grains for salads or yogurt toppings all week. I normally make about two cups of dried grain (that's 4 cups of cooked) for the two of us. My favorite is spelt (an older type of wheat, popular in Germany), but I switch it up with quinoa (red quinoa is my favorite), wheat berries, farro (the original wheat grain), kamut (a type of wheat from Egypt), bulgur, groats (un-cut oat grain), imperial black rice, brown rice, wild rice* (which isn't rice, but a grain from grass) or barley. Please don't ever use those "instant" rice or grain products. Not only are you sacrificing on taste, but also nutrition!
* My one exception to "quick cooking" grain is Bob's Red Mill wild rice. They do not pre-cook and dry, but scratch the tough outer covering of the grain to speed up cooking time.
The process is easy. Rinse your grain. You can let grains like wheat and spelt soak in water overnight, then cook them, or you can just increase the cook time and add more water. For every 1 cup of grain, add about 2 1/2 cups of water. Don't add salt - save that for the end. You can check with the package's label for how to cook it for your particular grain, or if you bought in bulk, you can refer to this chart below. Turn the heat on medium until it boils, then turn down to low (or set that rice cooker for "brown rice") and wait. Some grains can take an hour or more to fully cook. Be patient - you won't regret it!
Sure, you could cut up you typical raw salad veggies - tomato, broccoli, and cucumber. But in the fall and winter months, I think it's nice to roast some vegetables for your salad. It will also give you another reason to eat up all the squash you have harvested from the garden or purchased when it was in season. (I know I always feel like I need an occasion to eat squash, and if I don't pre-cook it, I will almost never eat it because of its long cook time.)
I like to pick from a mix of brassica vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage), sweet potatoes, fennel bulbs, hard winter squashes, beets, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, turnips, etc.
This week, I roasted fennel, red cabbage and some baby parsnips. To prepare, pre-heat your oven to 425°F. Wash and cut the veggies. The trick is to cut them into sizes where they will all cook at the same time. This can be tricky, since something like cut cabbage will roast much faster than squash, but you can always just keep an eye on it and remove it from the pan when its done. Line a low-lipped pan with parchment paper. Arrange the vegetables on the pan so they are close, but not crowed. Drizzle olive oil on top, and sprinkle with kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper. You can use other seasonings, but I like to keep it simple so my salads can be more versatile. Pop the pan into the hot oven and wait. Depending on the veggie and the size of your pieces, they could be cooked in 10 - 30 minutes. My pan of fennel, cabbage and parsnips cooked in about 15.
Don't forget this ingredient in your salad! It will definitely make you feel full and satisfied. Protein choices can include hard-boiled eggs, nuts, seeds, or lean meats.
For this dinner salad, I decided to use some chicken breasts I had in my freezer. I will often cut up two different sized chickens, and freeze boneless, skinless breasts of these birds in the same package (one size for me, one size for my husband). I could have roasted them, but I needed something quick and flavorful, so I decided to steam them in my rice cooker. I created a steam bath with 3 cups water, two bay leaves, a handful of fresh thyme, 1 TBS red peppercorns, two crushed cloves of garlic and a 1/2 cup of red onion. But you can customize this mix for any flavor profile. Asian? Orange peel, garlic, five-spice powder (ground cinnamon, black/szechaun peppercorns, clove, fennel and star anise) and chili flakes. Mexican? Oregano, cumin, onion, lime, chili and cilantro. Italian? Bay leaf, thyme, oregano, and garlic.
I salted and peppered the chicken breasts, and put them in the steamer basket of my rice cooker and let them cook through (about 10 - 15 min. or internal temperature at 165°F). Steamed chicken is a great choice - its moist, tender, fast-cooking and delicious!
This should form the bulk of your salad, but it's often an ingredient that is overlooked. Go beyond boring romaine lettuce. Think about mixing in or using mostly one of these choices in your salads: arugula (spicy and peppery), baby kale (crunchy and slightly bitter), spinach, endives (pleasantly bitter), leafy herbs (basil, parsley, cilantro), or micro greens (Slightly-further along than sprouts, micro-greens have 2-3 leaves and are full of flavor. Try radish, kale, mustard, or lettuce. They are also really easy to grow at home. There will be a a future blog post about how to grow your own micro-greens soon!)
I hate commercial salad dressings. Salad dressings are so easy to make at home! I love simple vinaigrettes because they allow the elements in your salad to shine. With a vinaigrette, the choices are endless. Chose and oil, a vinegar (or lemon juice), salt, pepper, and any other herb or spice. Simple!
The basic recipe is one part vinegar (or lemon juice) to two to three parts oil. Salt to taste. Then add your "flavors." To make mixing easy, I put all the ingredients into a mason jar, put on the lid and shake.
For this salad, I mixed 2TBS balsamic vinegar, 4TBS extra virgin olive oil, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp pepper, and 1/2 tsp smoked paprika. (I had dressing leftover, but I wanted some for lunch.)
Prepping your grain/salad bowls this way will make lunch choices easy, healthy, and less-expensive during your busy week. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes. I want to hear what kind of combinations you create! Leave your ideas in the comments.