12 tasty toppers for salads

Author: Alice Henneman, MS, RDN, Nebraska Extension in Lancaster County

"You can put everything and the more things the better into a salad, as into a conversation, but everything depends on the skill of mixing." ~ Charles Dudley Warner

Sometimes people think green salad = lettuce = blah. Not so. The only limits to exciting salads are limits of the imagination.

Begin with salad greens. Enhance the eye appeal and nutrition of a salad by adding colorful fruits and vegetables. Keep it light by limiting the amount of salad dressing to about 1 tablespoon per 1-1/2 to 2 cups of greens. Then make the flavor really POP by adding some of the following ingredients. You can either put them atop or mix them in with your salad.

While some of these salad additions are higher in fat than others, just small amounts (about 1 tablespoon) can give extra flavor without too many calories. Also, many provide a nutrition boost! Add from one to three of these flavor accents, depending on how many other ingredients are in your salad.

1. Artichoke Hearts: Marinated

Enjoy the tangy taste of sliced marinated artichoke hearts in your salad. It's as easy as opening a jar and adding as desired.

2. Cheese: Parmesan

If your experience with Parmesan cheese is limited to shaking it from a can, try using a vegetable peeler to shave about a tablespoon per serving from a block of cheese. Or, sprinkle freshly grated Parmesan on salads. As just a small amount kicks up the flavor, you may find you can afford trying some of the more expensive Parmesan cheeses. Add flavor and bone-building calcium, too!

3. Croutons

Add crunch, flavor and fiber with homemade wholegrain croutonsAdd crunch, flavor and fiber with homemade whole grain croutons. Find directions for making Homemade Whole Grain Croutons HERE.

4. Dried Fruit: Cherries, Cranberries, Raisins

Add these dried fruits for their flavor. Benefit from their antioxidants that may help protect against cancer and heart disease.

5. Fresh herbs: Basil, Chives, Dill, Parsley

Toss small basil leaves or chopped larger ones in with your greens. Try chopped fresh dill. Add some minced chives or parsley. Start with about a teaspoon of herbs per person and adjust according to taste preference. Herbs boost flavor without increasing calories. Researchers also are finding many culinary herbs (both fresh and dried) have antioxidants that may help protect against such diseases as cancer and heart disease.

6. Fresh Fruit: Apples and Pears

Slide apples and pears with their skins left on for eye and taste appealSlice apples with their skins into salads. The skin adds eye appeal and important dietary fiber, as well. Research shows an apple a day may indeed help keep the doctor away by helping reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer.

Some commonly available apples that may be especially tasty in salads include Braeburn, Fuji, Gala, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Jonathan, Red Delicious and Winesap.

The juicy sweetness of pear slices, skin included, also tastes great in salads. Pears continue to ripen after they're picked. To determine if a pear is ripe, gently press it at the stem end. Most types yield to pressure when ripe.

To speed the ripening of pears, put them in a ripening bowl or in a loosely closed brown paper bag at room temperature. Or, just set them in a pretty bowl on your counter and enjoy their appearance as they ripen. Plastic bags don't work for ripening. Refrigerate pears when ripe in an open or a perforated plastic bag in your refrigerator crisper drawer. (If you don't have access to commercial perforated bags, use a sharp object to make several small holes in a regular plastic bag.)

Store fruits in a refrigerator crisper drawer separate from the one in which you store vegetablesStore fruits in a refrigerator crisper drawer separate from the one in which you store vegetables. Fruits give off ethylene gas which can shorten the storage life of vegetables. Some vegetables give off odors that can be absorbed by fruits and affect their quality.

For more information on handling fresh fruits and vegetables, check "Storing Fresh Fruits and Vegetables for Better Taste" by the University of California, Davis Postharvest Technology Center.

Cook's Tip: Keep Cut Fruit from Browning

Keep cut fruits, such as apples, pears, bananas and peaches, from turning brown by coating them with an acidic juice such as lemon, orange or pineapple juice. Or use a commercial produce protector with fruits, such as  Fruit-Fresh® and follow the manufacturer's directions.

Cut fruits as close to serving time as possible. Cover and refrigerate cut fruit until ready to serve. Refrigerate peeled/cut fruits and vegetables so the TOTAL time they're at room temperature is less than 2 hours.

7. Olives: Black or Green

For ease of eating and to distribute their flavor throughout the salad, pit and slice olivesAdd extra oomph with olives. For ease of eating and to distribute their flavor throughout the salad, pit and slice olives before placing them in your salad (see directions below for pitting olives).

According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, one tablespoon of olives provides about 10 calories.

Experiment with different types for different flavors. For example, many people enjoy the rich flavor of kalamata olives, a black olive frequently found in Greek salad, pasta and pizza recipes. (By the way, did you know olives are a FRUIT?)

Cook's Tip: Pitting Olives

Several methods have been suggested for pitting olives. Here are two of the most common — you might experiment to find which is most convenient for you.

If you already have a cherry pitter, you might try this on your olives. This is the easiest method for pitting olives. Cherry/olive pitters are available in the kitchen gadgets section of many stores. Or, you can search for a source on the Internet by putting the words "cherry/olive pitter" into your favorite search engine.

A second method is use a rolling pin to lightly roll over olives to loosen the pits. Then pick out the pits. The resulting pitted olive may not look as good with this method as when you use a cherry/olive pitter. 

8. Nuts: Toasted Almonds and Walnuts

Though almonds are a source of fat and calories, they contain mostly unsaturated fat that may help protect against heart disease. They also provide vitamin E, a nutrient that may be good for your heart. Almonds have about 7 calories apiece.

Likewise, the fat in walnuts is mostly unsaturated. Walnuts also provide heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. A tablespoon or two of walnuts adds just 50 to 100 calories to a meal.

Toast nuts to crisp their texture and bring out their rich aroma and taste.Find directions for toasting nuts and seeds HERE.

9. Onions: Red

Slip thin slices of sweet red onions into salads. 

Cook's Tip: Storing Onions

The National Onion Association recommmends after you purchase onions, you should store them in a cool, dry, ventilated place — not in your refrigerator. Avoid storing onions in plastic bags during storage outside of the refrigerator; the lack of air movement will reduce their storage life.

10. Oranges

Sliced oranges juice up the flavor of salads and add brightness with their sunny color. Plus, they give you a healthy dose of vitamin C and folate.

11. Sunflower Seeds: Toasted

Add some vitamin E by tossing a tablespoon of sunflower seeds per serving into salads. One tablespoon provides about 50 calories and mostly unsaturated fat. Toast them for extra flavor — find directions for toasting nuts and seeds HERE.

12. Radishes

Thinly slide radishes and sprinkle into salads for their crisp texture and peppery flavorThinly slice radishes and sprinkle into salads for their crisp texture and peppery flavor.

If the leafy radish tops are attached, remove them before storing. Radishes don't keep as well if their tops are left on. Store unwashed radishes in an open or perforated plastic bag in a refrigerator crisper drawer that is separate from the one in which you store fruits. Wash radishes and trim their roots just before using.