Restaurants are pulling out all the stops to ensure that salads are bold and beautiful these days.
Toppings such as spicy nuts, pureed purple onions and crispy potatoes are just a few of the complements that chefs are using to liven up the greens.
“Nowadays people look at the ingredients in salads and look for the new and different,” says Kathy Hayden, who is a foodservice analyst at Mintel.
“I am always curious to see how far or how wacky salads can go and still be considered a salad.”
Hayden says operators are mixing super fruits and vegetables such as grilled peaches and grilled asparagus or summer squashes. “Also, I see a lot of strawberries, grilled pineapple, mangoes, and roasted beets in salads.”
With 27 restaurants throughout Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and Washington, D.C., the Greene Turtle is a popular casual-dining spot for locals and features several salads on its menu.
“Currently, we have nine entrée salads on our menu,” says Bob Barry, the concept’s chief operating officer, who says that these days healthy eating isn’t just talk.
“We have added things on our menu for the health-conscious, and we are seeing a lot more salads. The trend is that people really are ordering more healthfully and not just talking about it.”
For a salad to be a big seller, Barry says, the lettuce leaf has to be cut well, and the salad must be boldly flavored and have activity.
“Ideally the salad should have several ingredients that marry well so that every last bite has that uniqueness to it,” he says.
The Greene Turtle’s popular salads include its Apple Walnut Salad, with mixed greens, apple wedges, walnuts, crumbled blue cheese, dried cranberries and a sweet Vidalia onion dressing; Jamaican Chicken Salad; BLT Wedge Salad; Southwest Chicken Salad; and its newest addition, Steak Fajita Salad.
One of tahe hottest trends identified in the National Restaurant Association’s 2010 Chef Survey is locally grown produce, which is enthusiastically embraced by Rob Perez, owner of two Saul Good Restaurant & Pub locations in Lexington, Kentucky.
“I think a perfect salad has to have the freshest ingredients possible,” Perez says. “A great entrée salad has to have something to really sink your fork into. It has to be complex and have several complements that give it some strength.”
Before hanging out his own shingle, Perez was a restaurant veteran with more than 20 years of experience in the industry, having worked for such national brands as the Hard Rock Café, The Walt Disney Co. and Copeland’s restaurants.
Perez points out that interesting and unique dressings should also be part of the perfect salad offering.
One of Perez’s dressing creations is a pureed purple onion that provides the salad with a beautiful pink color. He also poaches pears in champagne and purees them for the restaurant’s spinach salad.
Salad offerings at Saul Good Restaurant & Pub include Fiesta Shrimp Salad, which is tequila- and grapefruit-marinated shrimp atop a bed of crisp romaine with fresh black bean and corn salsa, avocado, tomato and red onions tossed in a light cilantro lime vinaigrette and garnished with white corn tortilla strips; Spinach Salad with fresh spinach leaves topped with pears, red onion, blue cheese, spiced pecans and sun-dried cranberries tossed in the previously mentioned pear champagne vinaigrette and a Chopped Cobb Salad, which is farm-fresh romaine lettuce with turkey, maple-pepper bacon, blue cheese crumbles, avocado, tomatoes and cucumbers tossed in a house-made Dijon-ranch.
At his restaurants, Perez says they are starting to think about salads as a side and possible replacement for French fries or other potatoes, which also correlates to another “hot trend,” identified by chefs in the NRA survey: warm appetizer salads.
“We are doing a fire-roasted vegetable salad and topping it with a Szechwan or Tzatziki sauce and that is proving really popular with our guests,” Perez says.
At Recess in Indianapolis, chef and owner Greg Hardesty creates a new four-course menu daily that showcases local ingredients. Salads are a big part of the mix.
Recently Hardesty created such innovative creations as Truffled Asparagus Egg Salad with shaved Serrano jamon and mizuna greens; Salad of Gunthorp Farms duck breast with mixed greens, radishes, cucumber and lime herb vinaigrette; and Tonkatsu Inspired Salad with panko-breaded Gunthorp Farms pork loin, bok choy, carrots, apples and yuzu miso vinaigrette.
“To waste a course on your average salad would be boring,” Hardesty says.
“I look at the products with substance that I have and try and figure out, How do I put it into a salad?”
Hardesty thinks of Recess as his “culinary playground,” and hence the name.
“I build salads to stand on their own as a course. They can be big and bold, and they can be subtle, but it all plays into the four courses. The meal should have a progression,” he says.
When Hardesty is designing his daily menu, he has a specific method for developing salads.
“I start with the green and then I want to have some kind of crunchy texture, and so I might use hazelnuts or pine nuts. Then I usually like to put a cheese in there for saltiness or creaminess, and then sometimes I add something acidic,” he says.
“Salads should be a little bit of this and a little bit of that in every bite.”
With the move toward more healthful menu items, several chains and independents are creating additional salad options for the menu.
“We feel over the last year there was a kind of tipping point,” says John Dillon, vice president of marketing for Denny’s, the Spartanburg, South Carolina-based family chain. “We have noted in a big way that consumers are expecting healthy items, and because of that we have made a lot of adjustments on our menu.
“Salads have become a critical part of the overall Denny’s experience.”
Dillon says the chain has experienced a lot of success with their cranberry, apple, chicken salad, which also has glazed pecans and is topped with balsamic vinaigrette. The entrée has less than 500 calories.
He says the chain also is launching a junior garden salad for Denny’s kid’s menu, which the NRA’s Chef Survey points to as a “hot trend.”
“Kids are interested in salads and not just French fries anymore,” Dillon says.
Adding lighter fare to menus is gaining momentum in chains and independents alike, as more healthful choices are being demanded by consumers of all ages.
“The trend is definitely that people now are ordering more healthfully, and there are certainly a lot more lighter eaters in the summertime,” says the Greene Turtle’s Barry.
John O’Neill, who is the senior vice president of food and beverage for the Patina Group, says lighter is the order of the day, especially when it comes to salads.
“I think if you ask what the trends in salads are these days, it is that they are lightly dressed, easy to eat with a high flavor profile, and made with local ingredients.”
The Patina Group, which boasts nearly 50 units across the country, is home to such brands as Patina, La Fonda Del Sol, Café Pinot, The Sea Grill, Café Centro, Pinot Brasserie and Nick & Stef’s Steakhouse.
“People look at salads today a little differently than they did years ago. Today they want chopped salad whereas years ago you used to be struggling with the whole leaf and large vegetables.”
O’Neill says that vegetable salads are growing in popularity and that legumes and grains, such as quinoa, are gaining traction.
“As we all know, farm to table is huge, and in the summer lighter and fresher ingredients are more readily available.”
Matthew Harding, who is the corporate chef for the Bravo/Brio Restaurant Group, which operates in several states and owns BRAVO! Cucina Italiana, Brio Tuscan Grille and BON VIE Bistro, says that in America anything goes, even when it comes to salads.
“There really is a cross pollination of cuisines. There are no rules and chefs can go wherever they want,” he says.
“We like to put little signature dishes on the menu that wake up people’s palates. There are so many flavor migrations that come from outside of the cuisine.”
Harding says customers will purchase a salad based on the menu description if they think it is going to satisfy them.
“First they look for the protein they want, whether it’s fish or meat, but I truly believe that guests want healthful indulgence. You also have to have some sweetness and crunch. That is what is going to make the salad appealing.”
He says the restaurants’ most popular salad features marinated and grilled salmon, but he adds that guests are still looking for good value.
“They are looking for a meal and a half out of it. Guests want what they want.”
Don’t think that the rise of the entrée salad has by any means done away with the more traditional approach to salad, the salad bar. Several foodservice operations that offer salad bars are doing brisk business these days.
Joie Schoonover, director of dining and culinary services at the University of Wisconsin, says the school offers a salad bar that is sold by the ounce.
“We have two facilities that are being built that open in the fall of 2012. Both operations will have the ability to do not only the traditional salad bars, but hot salad topping options as well.”
At Boston College, “Blazing Bowls” are all the rage with students.
Pat Bando, who is associate vice president of auxiliary services, says the dishes are custom made. Students choose the salad vegetables that are combined with a choice of protein (chicken, beef or tofu) and mixed with a choice of dressing that is stir fried into the selected protein and then poured on top of the greens.
Grab and go salads include Tuscan Chicken, Chicken Caesar, Chef Salad and Greek Salad.
Bando also says that “salad bars just don’t go away and are still very popular for folks to make entrée or side salads.”
Kerry Kramp, president and chief executive of Sizzler USA, a chain with nearly 200 restaurants in 17 states and Puerto Rico, says the chain is finding that the salad bar is its secret weapon.
“It really is our value accelerator. When I came on board in 2008, we made a series of changes, and one of them was that we began to bundle the salad bar with some of our more popular items,” he says. A hamburger, French fries and the salad bar, for instance, runs guests $10.99.
Kramp says the simple act of bundling afforded Sizzler a broader food offering so that if guests want to eat healthy, they can order chicken and add the salad bar, or if not, they could opt for burgers and fries with the salad bar.
From Kramp’s perspective, one of the advantages of the salad bar is, “People love to eat with their eyes,” but he cautions salad bars are not as easy to pull off as they look. “If you don’t understand the business, salad bars will kill you.”
Kramp says that every three months Sizzler comes out with a new salad. “We create these feature salads which are lower calorie, lower fat and as flavorful as possible. Some of the great salads you would find in the higher end restaurants, we can duplicate,” he says.
Recent creations have included a BLT salad, a Caprese salad, and a Greek Salad.
With the public’s undeniable trend toward healthier menu items, restaurant operators have discovered that salads have become a crucial part of research and development efforts. And that is not likely to change anytime soon.
As Saul Good’s Perez points out, “I just think it (healthier menu items) is the trend of the future. We are evolving into a dining society that is less dependent on proteins. And clearly the next generation has voted on healthy, and that is bound to include salads.”
Tonkatsu Inspired Salad with Panko Breaded Gunthorp Farms Pork Tenderloin, Apples, Asian Cabbages and Yuzu Miso Vinaigrette
- 4 (2-ounce) slices pork tenderloin, pounded to very thin
- ¼ cup flour
- 1egg, mixed with 1 tablespoon water to form an egg wash
- ½ cup panko breadcrumbs
- peanut oil for frying
- 4 heads baby bok choy, cut into ¾-inch pieces
- 3 cups Napa cabbage leaves, cut into ¾-inch pieces
- ½ cup julienned carrots
- ½ cup granny smith apples, chopped
- 6–8 basil leaves, roughly chopped
- ¼ cup sesame seeds
- ½ cup julienned small red onion
- Yuzu Miso Vinaigrette (recipe follows)
Method: Bread pork tenderloin with panko breadcrumbs using standard breading procedure. (First dip pork in the flour. Then the egg wash and finally the breadcrumbs.) Heat peanut oil in large skillet to medium hot. Carefully slip breaded pork tenderloin into oil and avoid overcrowding the pan. Fry pork until breadcrumbs are golden brown, about 2 minutes. Turn over and continue cooking for another 2 minutes or until the other side is crisp and golden. Keep pork tenderloin warm while assembling the rest of the salad.
Toss remaining ingredients with just enough vinaigrette to lightly coat. Place warm pork tenderloins on 4 salad plates. Place salad on top of pork, just off center so pork is not completely covered. Serve immediately.
Yuzu Miso Vinaigrette:
- 2 tablespoons yuzu juice (substitute lime juice)
- 2 tablespoons white miso paste (shiro miso)
- ¼ cup dashi
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon peanut oil
Method: Place all ingredients in blender cup and blend. Keeps for several days in the refrigerator.
Truffle Asparagus Egg Salad with Shaved Jamon Serrano and Spicy Greens
- 1 pound asparagus, blanched, cut into ½-inch lengths
- Egg Salad (recipe below)
- 12 paper-thin slices jamon serrano (or any other good-quality salt-cured, aged ham)
- 2 English muffins
- 4 cups spicy, peppery greens (mizuna, arugula, dandelion, watercress)
- 2 tablespoons virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
- salt and pepper to taste
Method: Split English muffins in half and crisp in oven at 350 degrees F until lightly browned on top. Drizzle with virgin olive oil. Set aside.
Just before serving, fold asparagus into egg salad. Divide egg salad among four toasted English muffin halves. Gently drape ham slices over and around muffin. Toss greens with the oil, sherry vinegar, salt and pepper. Garnish each plate with the greens and serve.
- 6–8 hard-boiled eggs, chopped (egg slicer works well for this)
- ¼ cup scallions, sliced
- ¼ cup brunoise-cut carrots
- ¼ cup chopped cornichon
- 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 2–3 tablespoons chopped black truffles, fresh, frozen or canned
- 1 teaspoon truffle oil, optional
- ½ cup mayonnaise (just enough to lightly coat and bind ingredients)
- salt and pepper to taste
Method: Stir all ingredients together in a bowl. Set aside.
Salad of Gunthorp Farms Duck Breast With Radishes, Cucumbers and Lime Herb Vinaigrette
- 2 (6 –ounce) duck breasts, skin removed, roasted to medium rare
- 8-10 large red radishes, sliced thinly
- 4 small Kirby cucumbers, sliced thinly into circles
- ¼ cup thinly sliced scallions
- 6–8 large basil leaves, roughly chopped
- 4–6 large mint leaves, roughly chopped
- lime herb vinaigrette (recipe follows)
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil blend (1 part sesame oil to 4 parts peanut oil)
- 4–5 cups young mixed greens
- ½ cup crushed cashews
Method: Toss duck slices, radishes, cucumbers, scallions, basil and mint with a generous amount of vinaigrette and the sesame oil blend. Very gently toss the greens into the salad. Divide among four large plates. Top each salad with crushed cashews.
Lime Herb Vinaigrette
- ¼ cup cold water
- ½ cup fish sauce (nuoc mam, nam pla)
- ¼ cup lime juice
- ½ cup cilantro leaves, chopped
- 2 tablespoons minced ginger
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 medium carrot, shredded
- 3–4 tablespoons sugar
- 1–2 jalapeno chilies, thinly sliced, optional
Method: Combine all ingredients in a bowl and set aside to develop flavors. This recipe makes more vinaigrette than needed for this salad. Keeps in the refrigerator for several days.