Techniques like pickling, grilling, and layering textures are giving customers a new spin on a classic.
From staples like Caesar and house salads to more international variations like Thai green mango and papaya salad, salads are one of the more versatile menu items. Fresh produce acts as a canvas for chefs to layer flavors and textures. The result can fall anywhere between light and refreshing to hearty and comforting.
This wide range of possibilities is something executive chef Dreux Ellis of Café Gratitude loves, and it’s one of the reasons he considers salads to be among his favorite foods.
“I love that you have this endless sort of rainbow of colors and textures,” Ellis says. “They’re a reflection of the wealth and abundance in the plant kingdom.”
He adds that salads are one of the rare items that can be both healthy and a type of comfort food, with health benefits coming from nutrient-rich greens and the comfort element supplied by supplementary ingredients like roasted vegetables and healthy fats like avocados.
Classics like chopped salads are being reinvented all the time, the chef says. To that point, Café Gratitude, which serves organic, plant-based fare, has a torta española chopped salad that uses a chickpea frittata in place of the usual egg. The menu at the multiunit Southern California concept features half a dozen salads in total, including a warm broccolini and edamame salad, a kale and sea vegetable salad, and an asparagus and tomato confit.
While greens provide a familiar starting point, new ingredients are sprinkled in to keep up with trends. Hot ingredients of the moment include pickled vegetables, specialty radishes, heirloom tomatoes, and marinated proteins like tofu, all of which Ellis says have become more and more popular as customers place a greater focus on health and wellness while dining.
“I definitely see an Asian-fusion trend going on,” he says. “Lots of alternate uses of fruits, vegetables, and proteins in salads [and] in combinations that we’re not accustomed to as Americans, like tofu that has been marinated and lightly fried in panko and sesame—I love that.”
Another trend Ellis has noticed is salad dressing becoming healthier. Creamy ingredients like tahini and ricotta are replacing mayonnaise and other heavy bases found in rich dressings like ranch and blue cheese.
“While it’s delicious, oil really has no other nutritional value except for containing some fat,” he says. “At the café, I try to use a base for the dressings that has more nutrients like fiber and overall more nutritional value.”
Ellis suggests pairing tahini with garlic, lemon, and parsley to create a simple, Mediterranean-style dressing, which offers a rich mouthfeel without the added fats of ranch and French varieties.
He says that finishing the salad with roasted vegetables to add depth—or even fermented veggies for digestive benefits—makes for a winning combination that’s both healthy and appetizing.
“Roasted beets add a really gorgeous bright red color, and things like sauerkraut can give the salad a probiotic quality,” Ellis says.
Placing a premium on probiotic and microbiome health is a trend the chef believes will be on the rise this summer. Vegetables and fiber-rich foods like asparagus, leeks, artichokes, sunchokes, and fennel, which all support a healthy gut, should be making appearances on salads across menus. Ellis also expects to see grilled items in the summer months, like charred romaine and grilled stone fruits. This technique can add a level of sophistication to salads, making them more appetizing and visually appealing, he says.
From an operator’s perspective, Ellis thinks salads can be great for the bottom line, even when running an organic operation like Café Gratitude. Despite recent pressures from supply chain disruption and inflation, he believes it’s still possible to turn a profit on salads, especially at restaurants where the menu primarily revolves around animal proteins.
“They’re going to be great for the bottom line,” he says. “You can get a lot of mileage out of more traditional greens like romaine and baby gems, which aren’t so expensive. Combining them with a few star players will come up with something that’s special without really increasing the bottom line.”
Michael Sullivan, vice president of culinary at NextGen Casual chain True Food Kitchen, thinks fruits like peaches and blueberries will be in style this summer. In addition, he foresees more nuanced textures shaping menus.
“A lot of times people feel like they’re a rabbit just eating vegetables,” he says. “I think we’re going to see a lot more texture this year coming off salads because that’s what’s going to act as a differentiator.” Sullivan points to ingredients like dried garbanzo beans, dehydrated corn, and popped sorghum as texture vehicles.
He adds that as people’s appetite for newer flavors increases, international influences from spicy and acidic foods will become more popular. Ingredients like Fresno and Calabrian chilies, pickled peppadew peppers, and yuzu pack a novel punch.
Like Ellis, Sullivan has observed an increased interest in probiotics and nutrient-dense food as consumers shift their focus toward wholesome ingredients, like avocados, even if they have a higher fat content. This has led to salads becoming heartier while still maintaining all the benefits of healthy eating.
“People are more health-conscious, health-aware right now,” Sullivan says. And when all else fails, he says pickling is a surefire way to bring in fresh flavor and a health halo.
“Pickled is always a big win,” he says.