Salad dressing is at the forefront of the cognitive dissonance that’s a hallmark of our collective food selection. On the one hand, we desire vegetables because of their health-sustaining benefits, and also because they tend to be extremely low in calories. On the other hand, most of us don’t appreciate the way vegetables taste by themselves, and our instinctive reaction is to take a 100-calorie salad, drench it in more than double its value in salad dressing, and then not factor the calories from the salad dressing into our daily caloric count as if all of those delicious creamy blobs had merely been a spray-on flavoring.
This isn’t to say that salad dressing is necessarily unhealthy; there’s nothing fundamentally harmful about fat, and all things being equal, fats are usually going to be a more beneficial calorie source for you than empty, sugary carbohydrates. However, it’s understandable that you’d want to serve up your vegetables with something other than a salad dressing or a bean dip. There’s also no requirement that your vegetables must play second fiddle to the dips they’re served with, or that they should be demoted to mere vessels in the service of the tastier, higher-calorie nourishment that they’re transporting into your belly.
In the spirit of finding an optimal method for eating vegetables that honors both their nutritional essence, along with your intent not to adulterate your veggies with something that defeats the purpose of consuming them in the first place, here’s a list of some of the healthiest dips to serve as a complement…
I’ve never enjoyed the taste of avocados, which is an opinion that’s more than enough to get me blackballed by my Bahamian family members. Personal tastes aside, it’s difficult to think of a healthier dip. When you eat guacamole, you’re essentially dipping a vegetable into a healthy fruit that’s been mixed with another healthy fruit and then blended together with the juice of another fruit. Yes, avocados, tomatoes and limes are all fruits; it’s a fact. It’s also a solid 3:1 fruit-to-vegetable ratio that beats anything with Velveeta every single time.
In the same vein as guacamole, salsa is ordinarily a simple mixture of tomatoes, onions, peppers, lime juice and seasonings. From a nutrient standpoint, it’s difficult to come up with a reason to dislike salsa, and if you can somehow manage to scoop up an entire cup’s worth with the vegetables in your hands, it would still only amount to 75 calories… composed primarily of additional vegetables. Salsa may be considered a bit too ordinary in this day and age, but there’s nothing wrong with relying upon the classics.
The core ingredients of hummus are ground chickpeas, tahini (which is primarily a paste made of ground sesame seeds), garlic and olive oil. We can (and will) debate whether or not olive oil is fundamentally healthy or unhealthy for you (I’m of the opinion that it’s fine for you in moderation, and when you don’t overheat it). However, the resulting hummus is a well-balanced, nutrient-dense food source. As long as you can resist the urge of replacing your celery or bell peppers with the traditional flatbread or pita, you can even use hummus as the foundation for a satisfying, low-calorie meal. An entire 10-ounce container of Sabra hummus contains only 700 calories, and you should probably be able to get four days’ worth of dippings out of that.
Fun fact: I didn’t even know what an eggplant was until the Kid Icarus video game was released, and the Eggplant Wizard was one of the bad guys. Well, if you take hummus and simply swap out the chickpeas for eggplant, you’re left with baba ganoush. Eggplants aren’t exactly sky high in vitamin content, especially when you take the entire eggplant into consideration. That said, the eggplant isn’t exactly high in calories either; a whole eggplant usually contains fewer than 140. So if you’re looking for something with a similar texture to hummus, but with a different flavor and fewer calories, baba ganoush is another healthy dip option to explore, and creates another instance of scooping up one vegetable with another vegetable — even though eggplant is also technically a fruit.
When you stop thinking of your dip as something that needs to be creamy and smooth, and instead view it as an entree unto itself, that’s when you end up with something like miso pork dip. As its name suggests, this contains ground pork as its base, but also includes walnuts, yellow onions, miso (obviously) and a single Mary Poppins-approved spoonful of sugar. There are dozens of similar dip recipes you can produce on your own by applying a touch of imagination, but this is meant to remind you that there’s no rule that the dips that you immerse your vegetables in can’t have meat in them, or that the presence of meat transforms that dip into something intrinsically unhealthy.
You can take everything I just said about meat and apply it to fish as well. Salmon rillettes use salmon as a base, and then mix that salmon with onion, celery, shallots and lemon juice. (If you’re on a budget, you can swap out salmon for tuna.) This is a way of taking a lot of people’s post-gym protein snack that they’d typically scoop out with crackers (read: I do this), and turning it into the centerpiece dip of your New Year’s Eve party.
Yes, I’m fully aware that anchovies aren’t for everyone (not even Ninja Turtles), but this is another divergent dip to add some diversity to your snack offerings. Aside from the aforementioned salty fish, tapenade also contains olives (technically another a fruit), garlic, capers (also technically a fruit) and lemon juice, which means if you have some leftover olives that didn’t make their way into your martini, along with a few remaining anchovies from your recent attempt at composing a classic Roman pizza, you can whip up something distinctly French, and fool your friends into thinking you provided them with a European delicacy to showcase the range of your kitchen competence.
Speaking of showing off your range, you can take a crack at serving up some Nam Prik Ong from Thailand, provided that you and your friends can stand the heat. This is another dipping accoutrement that starts with ground pork, to which you will add shallots, garlic, scallions, cherry tomatoes, chillies and shrimp paste. It’s a creation your guests are unlikely to enjoy at too many other gatherings in their lives, and they’re likely to be highly impressed by both you and the Nam Prik Ong — if they don’t burn their tongues off in the process.