[This is the seventh post in a long series. You may wish to start at the beginning. Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week. Just that I will eventually finish it, someday. Unless I get hit by a bus.]
So far in our journey to salad nirvana, we’ve bought a whole lotta produce, plus some trail mix fodder. Now it’s time to pick out some proteins: meat and cheeses.
MeatsThe main thing we’re going to need meat for is our chef’s salad. In my opinion, you can’t make chef’s salad without meat, but your opinion may vary, especially if you’re a member of the Vegan tribe. We won’t need meat for any other salad (although I’ll throw in a few optional ideas), so, if you happen to be a firm vegan, you could skip this particular salad (and this whole section), and not be any the worse for wear.
For those of you still with me, let me tell you what you’re going to need for the perfect chef’s salad. Finding good pre-sliced, deli-style meat is a challenge, even in a relatively good shopping environment such as Trader Joe’s. If you’re a TJ’s fan too, I’ll give you exact brand names. If not, you’ll just have to do basically what I did: spend 10 or 15 minutes at the lunchmeat section of your favorite store reading labels. What you basically want is to find the meats that:
- don’t have any added sweeteners, and
- don’t have any preservatives (e.g. sulfites, nitrates, etc).
And, when it comes to preservatives, lunchmeat is some of the worst offenders in the store. Lunchmeat needs to have a longer shelf-life than, say, ground beef. So they fill it full of chemicals to make it last. You don’t need that. Pay a little extra for the preservative-free meat and just eat it quickly. This will probably not be a problem, as it will be so tasty.
You will have to work extra hard to find meat without any added sweeteners or preservatives, but you’ll be better off in the long run: not only is it almost certainly healthier by nearly any tribe’s standards, but it’ll taste better too. Win-win.
Turkey. At my Trader Joe’s, I have 3 brand options for sliced turkey: Applegate, Columbus, and the TJ’s store brand. Of these, only Applegate fits my criteria. Columbus has brown sugar, not to mention a moderately frightening list of -ites and -ates, including sodium nitrite, sodoum phosphate, and potassium chloride. The TJ’s brand has sugar and disodium phosphate. Applegate, on the other hand, has no sugar, and only carrageenan in the “what’s that?” department.1 Carrageenan isn’t technically a preservative, and it comes from seaweed, so I give it a pass. Applegate makes an organic version of their slicked turkey, but my TJ’s doensn’t carry it. I would probably buy it, if it wasn’t too much more expensive than the other kind. But so far I’ve been very pleased with this product even in its non-organic form.
Roast beef. I only have 2 options here: Columbus and TJ’s. Again, the Columbus is a bit of a mess; it has brown sugar and/or dextrose (yet another cleverly disguised name for “sugar”), plus potassium acetate and potassium lactate, plus some varities throw in sodium phosphate as well. Happily, the TJ’s brand is much nicer here in the roast beef department than it was in the turkey area: the worst thing on the ingredient list is xanthan gum, which is not too awful in comparison. Again, no organic options, but I’m okay with that.
That’s all we’ll need for our chef’s salad, but there’s a few other options I can recommend.
First of all, what are you going to do with any leftover slices of meat you have? You can make sandwiches out of them, of course, but that involves grains and carbs,2 which you probably don’t want to deal with. Happily, I’ve discovered that I don’t need bread to enjoy a sandwich: I just make a “cheesewich” instead. Cheesewich (patent pending) is my personal concoction for enjoying sandwiches without bread. The concept is extremely simple: Get yourself some decent sliced cheese that isn’t going to fall apart on you, take two slices, put your meat in between them, then eat it. The end. Brilliant, no? I’ve honestly found that I don’t even miss the bread any more. A turkey and roast beef cheesewich is really awesome, and I’ve come to like it even more without the bread. Another excellent choice for the cheesewich is black forest ham. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to find any without added sweeteners, but, if you’re willing to overlook that (or cheat a little every once in a while), a ham-and-cheese cheesewich makes a pretty awesome lunch, especially when paired with a small salad such as the ones in this series.
Now, while none of the salads I’m going show you other than my chef’s salad will require meat, that’s not to say that you can’t add meat to any of them. One excellent choice is canned chicken. It’s precooked, easy to use, and typically has a ridiculously short ingredient list (look for something like: chicken, water, salt—this is what Trader Joe’s brand has). You can toss this into a salad as is, or add some simple seasonings first and maybe even give it a short trip in the microwave to add a hot element to an otherwise cold salad.
CheeseHavarti (sliced). When it comes to sliced cheese, Havarti is my new best friend. Way more interesting than Monterey Jack (which is hard to find sliced anyway), typically firmer than provolone, more solid (and less ... distinct, shall we say) than Swiss—it’s the perfect pre-sliced white cheese for our chef’s salad, and excellent for cheesewiches as well. Don’t get the “light” stuff: it tastes awful.3
Mexican blend (shredded). Typically this will be a blend of cheddar, Monterey Jack, asadero and queso blanco (although some crappier brands may try to sneak in Colby or even mozzarella on you). The TJ’s store brand is pretty good. This is crucial for our Mexican salad. Note that nearly all shredded cheese uses corn starch to keep it from clumping. I generally accept this as an exception to my “no grains” policy, as it’s a pretty small amount.
Bleu cheese (crumbled). So far I have yet to find a bleu cheese dressing that I like that’s also free from disreputable ingredients. But happily I’ve found that, if you buy blue cheese crumbles and just add them directly to the salad, you don’t actually need bleu cheese dressing.
Feta cheese (crumbled). Feta cheese is remarkably versatile; you may recall that it’s a crucial ingredient back in our original salad. I still like the “Mediterranean herbs” version that TJ’s sells, but whatever you can lay hands on is good. Just look out for preservatives.
Parmesan (grated). We won’t be adding this directly to a salad, but it’s a vital ingredient in one of our dressings. I actually like the blend of parmesan and romano cheese that TJ’s sells, but choose your own favorite. As always, be wary of unnecessary preservatives.
As far as other cheeses go, we won’t need any, but I can always recommend a good sliced cheddar as being excellent for cheesewiches (I actually make all my cheesewiches with one slice of cheddar and one of Havarti), and you could try some crumbled goat cheese instead of feta if you’re into that sort of thing. Personally I find goat cheese to be a bit strong for my tastes, but to each his own.
StorageTypically you want to put your meat and cheese into the refrigerator drawer that’s not the fruit drawer (where you’ve got the humidity cranked up) or the veggie drawer (where you’ve got it cranked down). But the main thing you want is a good, airtight seal. If your meat comes in one of those packages with a little piece of plastic that “seals to keep in freshness,” screw that: stick it in a Ziploc bag. For me, my roast beef will fit nicely in a quart-sized Ziploc, as long as I cut off the corners with a pair of scissors first. (If I don’t, the sharp corners will tear holes in the bag.) The Applegate turkey thankfully comes with its own Ziploc-style sealer. The black forest ham is a long package that requires a gallon-size Ziploc. Meats stored this way should last a few weeks. The ham will eventually get white, crusty stuff on it (this is the fat congealing), and the roast beef will just turn shiny and make rainbows in the fluorescent kitchen lights. The turkey will be hard to identify visually. Trust your nose for all the meats: if it doesn’t smell yummy, toss it out.4
If you don’t use an entire can of the canned chicken, you’ll need to put those leftovers in your own sealed containers (either Tupperware-style, or Rubbermaid-style glass containers if you’re trying to avoid plastic).
The grated and crumbled cheeses come in plastic containers that seal pretty well. I can keep the grated parmesan roughly forever, but the crumbled cheeses will start to smell a bit sour if they last more than 3 weeks or so (at which point, toss ’em). The sliced and shredded cheeses typically have a Ziploc-style sealer, but really make sure you get as much air out of those packages as you can before you seal them. Air is your enemy. (Well, actually aerobic bacteria are your enemy. So squish all the air out of the package and starve those little buggers out.) For the sliced cheeses (or the meats), squish the living hell out of the packages to remove maximal air. For the shredded cheeses, be a little more gentle, or else you’ll end up with a giant rubber cheese mass that won’t work in your salad nearly as well. If you do a good job keeping the air out, the sliced and shredded cheeses should also last several weeks. When they give up the ghost, they will nearly always start growing mold. Unless you’re a qualified penicillin extractor or something, that means it’s time to toss ’em out.
Next time around, there’s still more shopping to do! Next up: condiments.
1 The ingredient list for my particular package has only 4 ingredients, actually: turkey, water, salt, and carrageenan, in that order.
2 Which aspect of the bread you consider worse depends on which of the nutritional tribes you’ve joined. And let’s not even get into the whole gluten debate.
3 Of course, this is true of “light” cheese in general. If you’re a staunch member of the low-fat tribe, this will be difficult for you. But hopefully you at least believe that fat from cheese is “good” fat.
4 Or give it to your dogs. Remember: their digestive systems can kill bacteria that would make us sick.