Summer is just around the corner; and along with its arrival comes a bounty of beautiful, fresh produce. Because summer also marks the beginning of "swim-suit season"--which can be daunting!--many people begin to look for ways to lighten up their meals.

Fortunately, creating lighter meals does not have to mean eating bland food. There are so many simple things—such as vinegars, herbs and spices—that can be added to fruits, salads and vegetables to make them more satisfying.

Salads are one of the most versatile meals; and can be served as either a main entree or a side-dish. They are quick to prepare, healthy and a great way to use left-over fruits and vegetables. They can also be extremely cost-efficient if you purchase ingredients that are in-season for your area.

Currently, stunning green lettuces and asparagus are beginning to show up at farmers' markets around the country. Although asparagus can seem a little intimidating if you've never before eaten it; I assure you it is very good for your health, and very easy to prepare.

Asparagus:

This tender vegetable has long been considered a delicacy; and it's no wonder why! Asparagus is an excellent source of vitamin K (important for bone health), folic acid (essential for healthy cells), iron (critical for healthy blood) and many other necessary vitamins.

Aside from being a nutritional power-house, asparagus has anti-inflammatory properties and is also high in antioxidants. These two benefits alone are reason enough to add it into your diet; as vegetables high in both antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients are some of the best "medicines" to reduce the risk of heart disease and type-2 diabetes.

Strawberries:

Strawberries are jam-packed with nutrition. Not only are they incredibly tasty, they are also high in fiber and low in calories. Like asparagus, they contain antioxidants and are also considered to be anti-inflammatory.

Strawberry And Asparagus Salad:

serves 4

This salad makes an excellent side-dish, and would be wonderful taken to a picnic or shared at a potluck. If you would like to make the salad an entree, simply add a bunch of beautiful spring lettuce, diced chicken breast or some cooked, whole wheat noodles.

½ lb. Asparagus, trimmed and cut into small pieces

½ lb. Strawberries, rinsed, hulled and cut into pieces

½ medium red onion, very thinly sliced

3 tbsp. balsamic vinegar

1 tbsp. dijon mustard (course-grain is best)

1 tbsp. honey

¼ c. olive oil

½ c. goat cheese (optional)

Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions:

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Toss in the asparagus and blanch it for about 4 minutes. It should be tender, but also a little crisp. Immediately transfer the blanched asparagus into a bowl filled with ice-water (this will stop the cooking). Drain.

In a large bowl combine the asparagus, strawberries and onion. Toss everything together.

In a small jar, add the balsamic vinegar, mustard, and honey. Add the oil, seal the jar and shake it vigorously until everything is combined. Pour the vinegrette over the asparagus mixture and toss everything to coat.

Top the salad with crumbled goat cheese and salt and pepper to taste.

Notes:

*Keeping asparagus fresh can sometimes be a challenge. The best way I have found is to fill a tall container with about 2 inches of ice-cubes. Set the asparagus spears on top of the ice-cubes and store in the refrigerator.

*Before using asparagus, the woody ends need to be discarded. Simply snap the last inch—or so—off the bottom of the stalk. When you put pressure on the stalk, you'll feel where it needs to be broken.

*Do not wash strawberries until you are ready to use them. Washing strawberries causes them to take on water. Once they've soaked up excess water, they begin to rot and turn to mush.

About the author: Shari enjoys learning about food, making food, and eating food. She especially has an affinity for unique ingredients and Indian recipes. You can read her blog over at MyFancyPantry.com

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