Salads are one of summertime’s tasty pleasures, as one can more easily find luscious produce at farmer’s markets, via a community-supported-agriculture (CSA) share, or one’s own garden if you’re lucky. Lucky for gluten-free eaters, a green salad is a very safe (and smart) addition to the menu.
As is so often said when discussing salads and health, “It’s not the salad, it’s what you put ON it” that can cause the problems (the same phrase is often used when lamenting the “loaded” baked potato). But it’s true. It’s not the greens, it’s the fixin’s. Here are a few areas of concern, and what to do about them:
Salad Dressing: There are some commercial gluten-free salad dressings, which you may find will do in a pinch. Or you could just make your own, which takes about 2 minutes and stores nicely in your fridge for a week or so generally. There are lots of G-Free dressing recipes on the Internet. Vinegar can be a major area of confusion. Our advice is to stick to using distilled vinegar, cider vinegar (or apple vinegar) or balsamic vinegar. Some folks say they have problems with wine vinegars, but in general, wine vinegar is considered gluten-free. All distilled vinegar is gluten-free–even if it’s made from a wheat, barley or rye. The way that distilled vinegar is made results in it being completely protein-free and therefore gluten-free. Non-distilled vinegar can also be gluten-free, but it depends on what the starting ingredient was. If it used a gluten-containing grain as a starting material, it will not be a gluten-free vinegar (check the labels). Malt vinegar is never gluten-free, so avoid it. Products labeled “salad vinegar” frequently contains barley and should be avoided as well. Also, some flavored vinegars may not be gluten-free as they can contain malt vinegar or other no-no ingredients. If you see just the simple word “vinegar” on an ingredient list, that means cider vinegar, according to the FDA, so it will be fine.
Bacon tidbits: Not everyone likes bacon on their salads, but for those times when you do (hello wedge salad with blue cheese dressing, chopped tomatoes and yes, bacon!) it’s nice to know that there are commercially available bacon tidbits that are gluten-free (Hormel’s Bacon Bits are G-free). As always, be sure to check the labels before buying.
Croutons: Obviously, making your own croutons from gluten-free bread is the best way to ensure your safety. It’s also the way to make the tastiest croutons, since you can season them the way you want. I’ve even heard of people using frozen, gluten-free stuffing cubes and then seasoning those, presumably to save a step or two. In my mind, using some decent gluten-free bread, whether home-baked or not, is pretty easy anyhow. Any leftover bread will suffice—a gluten-free baguette would be awesome. You choose. Just brush a little olive oil or melted butter on the bread cubes, sprinkle with some salt, some garlic powder and whatever other seasoning you like (maybe just that old stand-by, Italian seasoning). Then bake them at 350 degrees until they’re as crispy as you like (don’t under-bake or they will be chewy inside–it may take about 30 minutes or a little more). See, I told you it was easy.
Alternatively (or if you want to get all fancy-pants), you could make a tasty cheese crisp. Of course, if you’re avoiding your oven this summer, then the cheese crisp idea won’t fly at your house. But if you do want to try it, it really just involves making little mounds of grated Parmesan cheese on a baking sheet (use about 1 Tablespoon for each mound), flatten the mounds a bit by patting them with clean fingers until they are about 2 inches long and 1.5 inches wide. Then bake them for about 8 minutes at 325 degrees. The edges will be light brown and the cheese will appear somewhat lace-like. Let them sit on the sheet for a minute to firm up, then use a metal spatula to transfer them to a rolling pin (it gives them a nice, fancy curve). Let them cool about 20 minutes, then carefully pick them off the rolling pin. That’s it–super easy, yet impressive salad garnish that gives texture and some saltiness and flavor.
Nuts and seeds: Nuts and seeds are awesome salad toppers, adding visual interest, flavor, a variety of nutrients, fiber and of course, textural contrast. Nuts that are plain, raw/unseasoned or roasted/unseasoned are safe. Avoid open bulk bins of nuts since they can be easily contaminated. Watch the labels on mixes of nuts and fruit/nut mixes as they can contain gluten ingredients or may have been processed in a facility that also processes wheat ingredients. Don’t be afraid of nuts and seeds—they are highly nutritious—and readily available. Many major nut companies have lots of gluten-free products to choose from.
Dried Fruit: My neighbor always (and I mean always), puts dried cranberries in her salads. And that’s fine with me because I love dried cranberries. Dried fruit in a salad can add a nice flavor contrast; I especially in a salad that contains onions. I also like the chewiness of dried fruit in contrast with crisp greens. Consider putting dried fruit in other types of salads as well (chicken salad, broccoli salad, etc). However, not all dried fruit is gluten-free. Dates are sometimes dusted with flour, and some dried fruits/fruit mixes can have wheat starch added. Also, sometimes dried fruit is produced in a facility that also processed gluten-containing products. Read the label every time.
Ok, it’s now summer. So go and make some delicious, safe salads already!
Images from Ocean Spray, seriouseats.com