Green, simple and mixed salads remain a standard on menus, and the classic entrée salads have morphed into appealing combinations of local, regional and seasonal ingredients, and globally inspired flavors. As Americans try to eat more healthfully and want more fresh ingredients, salads play an even more prominent role as entrées.
The image of salads as rabbit food on menus has been replaced with an expectation of satisfying flavors, colors, textures and temperatures. People who dine in my restaurant, Chef Allens in Aventura, FL, are ordering more salads, whether a bistro salad with beets and arugula, or a marinated steak and mango salad. In the retail setting, the prepared salad entrée movement is the opposite of the microwave- and frozen-meal movement, with salad entrées being offered at convenience and drug stores, in addition to more traditional retail outlets selling food for at-home consumption.
For the base, heads of iceberg lettuce have been supplemented with a variety of leafy, non-bitter lettuce varieties, such as loose-leaf, butter, romaine and crisphead, and a civilized dose of bitterness from chicories and endives that patrons are eager to try. The subcategory of microgreens is also growing. These are the leaves and stems of specific types of plants, such as arugula, celery, radish, fennel, spinach, kale and others that are specially grown and harvested shortly after sprouting.
Production and service protocols should drive your selections. For example, sturdy greens like spinach, cabbage and escarole stand up to the rigors of salad bars and banquet service. Cleaned, micro versions of heartier greens save time and add value. Microgreens and herb mixes are delicate and flavor-forward. Micro celery is one of my current favorites.
Whether at foodservice or retail, salads offer something for consumers from all walks of life, and they are a cost-effective way to differentiate your offering with trendy, ethnic and local flavor profiles. Crisp, succulent and wilt-resistant crisphead lettuce varieties, such as iceberg, Imperial, Great Lakes, Vanguard and Western, have long been popular beds for seafood and cold meat salads. Today, there is renewed interest in serving head lettucefrom local farmers, if practicalthats smothered in, and surrounded by, new ingredients. For example, a butter lettuce wedge salad with pancetta, avocado, blue cheese and cava vinaigrette can be enjoyed as a satisfying light entrée.
Ethnic meets traditional
Mediterranean cuisines continue to be popular, as does an interpretation of the classic tuna niçoise salad: tomatoes, black olives, garlic and anchovies, in addition to French green beans, onions, tuna, hard-cooked eggs and herbs. It works equally well on chain, fine-dining and college menus by simply altering the ingredients to fit the format. One option might feature seared fresh tuna, mixed greens, new potatoes, green beans, tomato and olives, while another could have grilled salmon on baby spinach, green beans, new potatoes and red onion.
Some fine-dining chefs are finding that interest in Caesar salad is waning, but the opportunity to successfully menu it is still strong in casual-dining and quick-service restaurants. Caesar salad can be easily sold as a to-go salad entrée and topped with grilled chicken, steak, salmon or shrimp. A Caesar can take a Mexican spin by replacing croutons with tortilla strips and swapping Cotija cheese for the Parmesan.
When it arrived on the culinary scene, the Chinese chicken salad was quite different compared to other entrée salads. It was one of the first highly textured salads that achieved widespread popularity in the United States.
Meanwhile, ongoing demand for spice and heat paves the way for salads inspired by Latin American, Middle Eastern and Asian cuisines. A Latin American salad might include ingredients like jalapeño, avocado and fruits like grapefruit or mango. Chipotle vinaigrette works well on a taco salad with shredded lettuce, cheese, peppers and avocado. For Middle Eastern, sesame seeds, sumac, thyme, zaatar spice blend, chickpeas, olives, tomatoes and olive oil can come into play. A salad travels an Asian route with ingredients like ginger and wasabi in the dressing.
The format of the salad itself can also serve as a point of inspiration. Smaller, portable versions of Caesar and Chinese chicken salad, as well as chef salad (greens with julienne cheeses, meats and vegetables, along with hard-boiled egg), can work well in a portable salad cup for grab-and-go customers.
Dressing the salad
One important aspect of creating an effectiveand deliciousentrée salad is matching the salad dressing with the characteristics of the greens (bitterness, size of cut, etc.) and with the other salad ingredients. For instance, a tiny-dice romaine would work better with less of the same dressing than the amount used with large cuts. Bitter greens work well with sharper, fruitier vinaigrettes. Iceberg lettuce types better with dressings based on yogurt, buttermilk and mayo, along with herbs and vegetables like carrots and beets. Butter types match well with richer vinaigrettes with wine or champagne vinegars, mustard and aromatic herbs. Romaine works well with emulsionsCaesar, ranch, aioli, etc.
Fruit-based dressings are a good way to test the waters when it comes to new flavors. I use mango with Caribbean spices and cilantro, or Ill combine the fruit with sesame and ginger for an Asian accent. When ingredients like char-grilled lemon are listed on menus, it piques customers curiosity and provides a new flavor experience.
Fruit-based dressings, as well as fresh fruit, appeal to younger diners and help introduce them to healthier eating patterns.
Different types of vinegar (apple cider, cane sugar, molasses and chocolate) add flavor nuance to dressings. Exotic oils like grape seed and avocado add dimension and make a salad memorable.
Meats and cheeses have been a tradition on salads. Seafood has generally been used individually on salads, and a seafood salad can be cold or hot, such as deep-fried calamari with Asian greens and julienne red pepper.
Today, everyone is doing Caesar salads with grilled meats, poultry and seafood. Salads can feature hot, grilled steak. Chicken can be deep-fried and placed over hearts of lettuce with blue cheese. Poached chicken goes well with arugula and thin strips of zucchini. Even slowly braised short ribs can find a home atop a salad. Poached eggs are much more popular on salads these days.
Cheese can serve as the star protein on salads. Cheeses can be pan-roasted or nut-encrusted and oven-baked to top a salad. Risotto balls, made with rice, Italian herbs and cheese, then fried, work well with arugula and fennel.
In addition to protein, which defines salad entrées, consumers are looking for more healthful, fresh fruit and vegetables across the menu.
Whether recognized as a superfruit or not, unique pear and apple varieties, pomegranate seeds, açaí berries, blueberries, grapes, mango, papaya, kiwifruit, and strawberries equate to freshness and flavor on salads. In addition to being healthful, fresh fruit adds refreshing flavor and texture and contrasting color to salads, often working in concert with the protein.
Theres so much fruit to choose from for saladstropical, citrus, stone fruit, etc. Each season presents new flavors and textures to incorporate in the salad mix. As a salad component, fruit brightens the overall flavor and becomes part of the sugar and acid equation. When you use fruit in the dressing, you need less fat because of the way a puréed fruit feels on the palate.
I use fresh basil, mint, tarragon and young scallions as a subtle complement to fresh fruit. For more-aggressive flavor, I turn to cilantro and marjoram. Citrus works well with basil, mint and scallion, and even parsley. Orange and basil pair well, as do rosemary and grapefruit. Mango works well with cilantro, mint and Thai basil, as well as scallions. Apples and dill make a good match. Combine melons with mint and lemon basil or lemon grass. Try watermelon with marjoram.
A mango chicken chop salad is a pleasing combination of romaine, jicama, fresh mango, orange sections, cucumber, red onion, black beans and grilled ancho barbecue chicken thats dressed with chipotle-orange dressing. Another option is peaches and shrimp with a vanilla vinaigrette. Grapes accent salmon nicely in an entrée salad.
The composition of salads has undergone a major shift and has moved the salad firmly into the center-of-the-plate category, as evidenced on menus from fine dining to fast food.
I predict the use of vegetables in salads will increase and the amount of greens will be less important than the specific variety used. Beet salads are mainstream now. Roasted vegetables contribute satisfying flavor and pair well with seafood, meat, poultry and myriad cheeses. Theres also a lot of room to get creative with the addition of hot, fried artichokes, tempura vegetables and vegetable chips.
Labor-saving salad ingredientscleaned greens, precut vegetables and fruits, cheese developed specifically for salads, fully cooked meats, etc.cut down production time. However, with that convenience comes the responsibility to protect the integrity and safety of these ingredients.
Its important to understand the protocols your suppliers have in place to increase food safety and shelf life. If you bring in raw greens, they require care in selection and preparation. Less-fibrous young leaves have a delicate flavor and texture. They should be handled with the least possible physical pressure, which can crush cells and result in development of unappetizing off flavors and darkened areas. In many cases, it makes good business sense to buy greens that are cleaned and ready to serve.
Chefs will continue to be inventive with salad entrée components, from produce and protein options to dressings and toppings, providing contrasting flavors, textures, temperatures and colors that heighten the senses.
Chef Allen Sussers translation of the bounty of South Floridas foodstuffs became known as New World cuisine, an innovative signature and important contribution to American culinary craftsmanship. Susser opened his namesake restaurant, Chef Allens, in Aventura, FL, a Miami suburb, in 1986. He is a member of the Research Chefs Association, has written several books, publishes a monthly newsletter and has created a number of gourmet products. For more information, visit his website at chefallens.com.
Greens Growth in the Bag
According to The Nielsen Company, New York, U.S. bagged salad sales saw total sales of $2,789,403 in 2007 (52 weeks ending June 2, 2007). Although iceberg-based mixes still dominated the market, capturing 24% of total bagged-salad sales, compared to 2006 sales, they were down 10.7%. However, more-specialized bagged salads were on the rise during that period, with spring mix up 5.2% and romaine hearts up 13.6%. Salad kits also grew by 1.4%.