Staff photo by Anne Braly / Chopped Thai salad

When we hear the word "salad," the word that usually accompanies it is "side." Salads are often more of an afterthought that adds color to a meal, but they can actually be all you need for a complete and satiating repast.

Main-dish salads are nothing new. They followed the salad bar craze of the 1970s, when folks went through a line and made salads unlike any we'd ever seen before: plates piled high with lettuce, cheese, peas, onions, carrots, peppers and little chunks of chicken or ham.

Somewhere along the way, salad bars lost their appeal. But the craving for a salad that could make a meal has persisted. Some thought that it made for a more-healthful offering — even when the protein was fried chicken and the salad was drowning in some creamy ranch or blue cheese dressing.

Spring is the time of year, though, when we want to lighten our load, shed a few pounds and say "so long" to the heavy meats and stews of winter. Garden-fresh one-bowl wonders are just what we need, a way to eat a lot of vegetables and other good-for-you toppings and still feel fully satisfied.

"Consuming a big bowl of vegetables at lunch or dinner is always a great idea, especially when paired with healthy proteins, fats and carbohydrates," says registered dietitian Danielle Townsend with Primary Healthcare Centers in Rossville. "Vegetables have a multitude of nutrients that are beneficial for overall health, and a high-fiber content which helps to keep us full longer and keep our cholesterol in check."

It's a toss-up when it comes to ways to create a salad that's nutrient-dense. But three come to mind when Townsend considers healthful ingredients:

1. To keep a salad healthy, it's best to limit thick, creamy salad dressings. Many — such as ranch, blue cheese and Thousand Island — are so tempting, but they are typically high in fat. Optimal salad dressing choices are going to be oil-and-vinegar based dressings. Although, even with healthier oils it's still important to stick to the serving size on the back of the bottle, as these can still be high in calories. Always read the label.

2. The dried fruits we see on salads typically have a large amount of sugar in them, which is why it's important to stick to fresh fruits on salad — or at least have much smaller servings of the dried varieties. Keep your measuring cup and spoons in a handy place and follow the recommended serving size on the label.

3. Cheese adds great flavor to salads, but restaurants usually load it on. Cheese should be sprinkled as a salad topping in moderation, and should not exceed a 1/4-cup serving size.

When it comes to healthy salads, just like with everything, a strong foundation is important. Back when salad bars ruled, iceberg lettuce was king. Its 96% water content, while refreshing, leaves room for only negligible amounts of vitamins and minerals. Now, our taste for iceberg has melted away in favor of power-packed greens that offer lots of flavor and nutrients: spinach; kale; delicate butter lettuce; red and green leaf lettuce; raddicio; romaine. Add some raw shredded cabbage to the mix for extra crunch and you're also adding fiber that helps fill you up and nutrients that help keep your stomach and intestines strong.

As for toppings, nix the cheese and load up on carrots, celery, broccoli slaw, cucumbers, mushrooms, even shredded Brussels sprouts.

"By adding protein to a salad, it's likely the salad will be more satisfying and filling," Townsend adds. Some of her favorite choices are grilled chicken breast, salmon, white or black beans, boiled eggs and chickpeas.

You can keep your main-dish salad a solid vegetarian meal by adding quinoa, brown rice and other whole grains to the mix for some protein. Nuts, too, such as sliced almonds or pecans can pull double duty, adding bursts of flavor as well. (Toast them for even more taste.) But remember, moderation is key, so get out that measuring cup. One-fourth cup of nuts is all you need.

To top it all off, the importance of choosing a light vinaigrette cannot be stressed enough. Make your own, or, if using a bottled variety, again, read the label. Don't drown your salad. Be mindful of the serving size and add only as much as you need for a little flavor. If you must have a creamy dressing, use yogurt rather than sour cream. Or, in the case of the following Thai salad, use natural peanut butter for less sugar and more protein.

Here are three recipes that will make you forget all about skimpy side salads.


Chopped Thai Salad

Makes 2-3 servings

What you need:

3 cups finely shredded romaine lettuce

1 cup chopped cucumbers

1 cup shelled edamame

1 cup shredded carrots

1 cup chopped red, orange or yellow bell peppers, or a combination of all three

1/2 cup chopped roasted peanuts

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

For the Thai dressing:

1/3 cup natural peanut butter (chunky if you like it)

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon lime juice

2 teaspoons sesame oil

1/2-1 teaspoon chili-garlic sauce

3 tablespoons warm water

What you do:

1. Place lettuce in a large bowl. Arrange cucumbers, edamame, carrots, bell peppers and peanuts on top. Sprinkle with cilantro.

2. Make the dressing: Whisk together peanut butter, soy sauce, honey, lime juice, sesame oil, chili-garlic sauce and warm water until smooth.

3. Drizzle dressing over the vegetables, then serve immediately. (Dressing ingredients are easily doubled if you need more.)

Cook's note: This salad is fine on its own, but add cooked shrimp, turkey or chicken for a more filling meal, if desired.


Buffalo Chicken Salad

Makes 2-3 servings

What you need:

2 heads romaine lettuce, shredded

4 carrots, shredded

4 celery stalks, chopped

2 cucumbers, chopped

4 radishes, thinly sliced

1/2 cup fresh parsley, roughly chopped

1 avocado, sliced

1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

For the Buffalo chicken:

1 pound boneless chicken breasts, cutlets or tenders

1/2 cup Buffalo sauce (homemade or store-bought)

1 cup panko breadcrumbs

1 tablespoon each dried chives and dried parsley

2 teaspoons dried dill

1 teaspoon each garlic powder and onion powder

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, more or less to taste

1 pinch each kosher salt and black pepper

Olive oil

For the yogurt goddess dressing:

1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup fresh parsley

1/2 cup fresh basil

1 jalapeno pepper, halved and seeded

Juice of 1 lemon

What you do:

1. Make the chicken: Preheat oven to 425F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Toss chicken with 2 tablespoons Buffalo sauce. Combine breadcrumbs, chives, parsley, dill, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne pepper, salt and black pepper, and stir. Dredge chicken through the crumbs, pressing firmly to adhere, then place on prepared baking sheet. Repeat until all the chicken has been used. Lightly drizzle chicken with olive oil, transfer to oven and bake for 15-20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through. Drizzle chicken with remaining Buffalo sauce.

2. While chicken is baking, make the salad: In a large bowl, combine lettuce, carrots, celery, cucumbers, radishes and parsley.

3. Make the dressing: Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth and creamy, adding water, 1 tablespoon at a time as needed, to thin to desired consistency.

4. Toss salad with a few tablespoons of dressing. To serve, divide salad among bowls, then add chicken, avocado and feta cheese to each. Serve with fresh chives, additional Buffalo sauce and additional goddess dressing.


Grilled Salmon Salad

Makes 2 servings

What you need:

1 pound skinless salmon fillets

4 cups romaine lettuce leaves, washed and dried

1 large cucumber, peeled and diced

2 roma tomatoes, diced

1 red onion, thinly sliced

1 avocado, sliced

1/2 cup feta or blue cheese, crumbled

1/3 cup pitted black olives, sliced (optional)

Lemon wedges, to serve

For the marinade/dressing:

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice

1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

2 teaspoons minced garlic

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

What you do:

1. Whisk together all of the the marinade/dressing ingredients in a large container. Pour half of the marinade into a large, shallow dish. Refrigerate remaining marinade to use as the dressing later.

2. Coat salmon with marinade and discard the rest. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Sear salmon on both sides until crispy and cooked to your liking.

3. While salmon is cooking, combine all of the salad ingredients in a large bowl.

4. Slice salmon and arrange over salad. Drizzle with remaining dressing and serve with lemon wedges.