Healthy Cooking: The salad that says ‘bite me’

As I study the contents of my crisper drawer, I know I just can’t do it. I cannot eat a cold, plainly dressed salad. I’ve been reveling in the decadent flavors of the holiday season since I pre-gamed with Halloween candy in mid-October. And now I’m starting down the long road to arterial recovery, and I want to throat-punch anyone who cheerfully suggests raw carrots will satisfy my crunchy cravings. I could work on changing my mood, but I like wallowing in discontent. Instead, I’ll change the salad.

Leeks are onions’ punk rock cousins. Their thick leaves stand tall like a green mohawk in my fridge. Sure, they have a reputation for being a little bitter, and you may think of leeks purely as a sidekick to pan-fried chicken, or an aromatic in potato soup. But I believe their distinctive, bad-boy flavor makes leeks uniquely qualified to play a starring role in a meal. Need proof? The classic French dish “leeks vinaigrette” is made from braised leeks that have been lightly perfumed with Dijon mustard and oil. While it’s certainly delicious, I take exception to the braising, which renders the otherwise fierce leeks limp. In my salad, my leeks will hold forth with the strength of a thousand resolutions that have yet to be broken.

First, I trimmed the leaks, removing the fuzzy roots at one end and the dark green leaves at the other. I used my food processor fitted with the slicing blade to cut the leeks into thin circles; a mandoline works, too. Your inspiration should be the shaved Brussels sprout salad that dominated the greens scene last winter. Think: slender slices of vegetal yumminess. Leeks are notorious for hanging onto their dirt, like me after a holiday meal with my extended family. So transfer your sliced leeks to a colander and rinse them well.

This is where you get to choose your own adventure. If you are a fan of strong flavors, go ahead and marinate the leek slices in Dijon vinaigrette for about 20 minutes, and enjoy the salad raw. Unfortunately, my children did not inherit my love of food that makes me wince. So, after I rinsed their leeks, I gave the colander a solid shake or two, but didn’t blot the moisture away. Instead, I used the clinging water to steam the leeks in the microwave. Two or three minutes is just long enough to temper their sharpness without compromising the leeks’ crunch, or attitude. I tossed the hot leeks with the vinaigrette, and served them on a bed of sweet butter lettuce. A garnish of creamy goat cheese adds contrasting mellowness, but if you eschew dairy, feel free to leave it off. Either way, you have a warm, flavor-packed salad that is infinitely more interesting that the garden variety.

Once you’ve acquired a taste for zesty leeks, look for new opportunities to enjoy them in your favorite recipes. The Dijon adds a fermented umami flavor, so try these wilted wonders anyplace you’d use sauerkraut: in a Reuben, on a brat or dabbed behind your ears. You can also celebrate the leeks’ onion-y sensibility by using them in place of caramelized onions in a whole-wheat pasta dish or over baked sweet potatoes. It’s a new year, people. Skip the boring old diet foods, and embrace healthy eating with attitude.

Wilted Leek Salad

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons fresh tarragon leaves, chopped

1-2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon olive oil

2 whole leeks

1 head butter lettuce

2 ounces goat cheese crumbles

Combine the lemon juice, tarragon, Dijon and olive oil in a small jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake the jar until the dressing is emulsified. Taste, adjust flavors and set aside.

Trim the root ends and dark green leaves from the leeks. Using a mandoline or a food processor fitted with the slicing wheel, slice the leeks into very thin circles. Place the leek slices in a colander, gently separating the rings with your fingers, and rinse thoroughly.

Leave any remaining water droplets on the leeks and place the leeks in a microwave-safe bowl with a lid. Heat the leeks on high for 2-3 minutes, until the leeks wilt but retain some crunch. Gently blot the wilted leeks with a clean dishtowel or paper towels.

Toss the leeks with the dressing, using a fork to fluff and separate the pieces. Serve warm, on a bed of butter lettuce, garnished with goat cheese crumbles. Serves 4.

Per serving: 123 calories (percent of calories from fat, 50), 6 grams protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 7 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 15 milligrams cholesterol, 92 milligrams sodium.

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