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Greener Pastures

04 July 2006

With the right balance of ingredients, salads are studies in contrast: crisp and soft, sweet and savory, tangy and mild.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website www.foodservice411.com.

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

With healthful dining top of mind for consumers and local, seasonal produce gaining menu prominence, the salad pantry is fertile ground for restaurant operators.

About three-quarters of diners ordered starter or side salads in the past year, and more than 40% ordered entrée salads, according to R&I's 2005 Tastes of America Survey. Such demand reinforces salads' status as a menu standard, and so does the push by major burger chains to add entrée salads to menu boards.

"Salads lend themselves to multiple combinations. People's tastes are so varied, and this is the perfect way to put whatever elements they want into one bowl," says Marc Meisel, chef-partner for three Tossed units in New York City. "All the elements are bite-sized, so guests get a lot of different flavors in one mouthful."

Greens are an ideal base for salads. Iceberg and romaine remain popular standards, but chefs across foodservice segments are sourcing diverse options from mesclun to mizuna from farmers markets, specialty vendors and broadscale suppliers. Even McDonald's has moved beyond iceberg; its success with premium salads has turned the burger giant into one of the five largest foodservice buyers of spring lettuce mix.

Beyond a great leafy base, there are other fundamentals that can lift salads from ordinary to exceptional: sweet splashes of fruit, crunchy garnishes, robust vinaigrettes and perfectly partnered proteins.

Green Market

Mild greens paired with complex flavors and more-aggressive mixes with simple complements are winning formulas. Jim Trainer, executive chef at The Kimberton Inn in Kimberton, Pa., uses red leaf lettuce and baby spinach as a base for tart apples, Gouda cheese, toasted sunflower seeds and sweet sesame-walnut dressing.

"I like to bring color into my base, but I didn't want to use lolla rosa or red Belgian endive, which are on the bitter side. I looked at baby red romaine, but it's not regularly available," says Trainer, who also menus a salad of arugula, baby spinach, baby endive and lolla rosa with Dijon vinaigrette.

For Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexho's corporate services division, ethnic recipe themes were one factor guiding the choice of greens for summer salad promotions. Tatsoi and mizuna reflect the Asian inspiration behind the California Avocado and Thai Noodle salad, which also features mustard greens and red oak lettuce.

Director of Product Development Chuck Hatfield and his team took a different route for the Chicken Tagine Salad. They selected baby spinach to offset the recipe's less-familiar profile, which includes garbanzo beans, oranges and spicy onion chutney as well as chicken marinated with cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, coriander and cumin.

"With higher-end salads, we need to include components that are recognizable so they're not too far out there for our mainstream accounts," Hatfield says.

Dress Rehearsal

Dressings are salads' liquid assets, a defining ingredient that perhaps more than anything else creates the character.

The classic vinaigrette-a simple mix of oil, vinegar, salt and pepper-paves the way for thousands of variations. Different oils, acids, aromatics, herbs and seasonings simply and effectively change dressing's character, allowing it to be tailored to suit the salad.

Many, if not most, kitchens purchase premade products or recruit vendors to prepare proprietary recipes. The advantages in high-volume kitchens include consistency of product and labor savings. But some operations still turn to house-made for some or all applications.

Corporate Chef-owner Peter Boulukos favors specific pairings when developing vinaigrettes for Tarpon Bend, a three-unit, casual seafood chain based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. With citrus, he prefers light champagne vinegar that won't compete too much with the acid in the fruit. Full-bodied red-wine vinegar makes an able match with hearty ingredients such as steak, while lighter recipes often call for robust sherry vinegar tempered with sweet balsamic.

On Tarpon Bend's current menu, Boulukos uses sherry vinegar and olive oil as a base for corn-cumin vinaigrette that dresses Chicken Tortilla Salad with iceberg lettuce, black beans and Cheddar cheese.

Michael Gilligan, chef de cuisine at Atrio restaurant at Miami's Conrad Miami hotel, generally shies away from olive oil in vinaigrettes, saying its distinct taste masks other components. He prefers neutral grapeseed oil for recipes such as vanilla-jalapeÁ±o vinaigrette.

Seeded jalapeÁ±o and serrano chiles, fresh ginger, vanilla beans and garlic are blended with rice-wine vinegar and grapeseed oil to spice up a salad of mixed baby greens wrapped in thin-sliced cucumber with heirloom teardrop tomatoes and fried plantains.

Crunch Factors

Crunchy components break up textural tedium. Garnishes such as toasted nuts and seeds, crusty croutons and fried won tons are common complements to greens, lending varying levels of bite that keep diners' interests keen.

At Barton G. The Restaurant in Miami Beach, Fla., Executive Chef Gerry Gnassi brings new life to the classic blue-cheese-draped iceberg wedge with bite-sized, cheese-flavored crackers. Crisp tortilla strips garnish the upscale eatery's chopped salad, but the recipe also gains a more-toothsome feel from blanched, chopped green beans and roasted golden beets.

"Different types of crunch send a message to the brain that says, 'This is interesting,'" Gnassi says. "It satisfies even if you don't know why."

Similar reasoning inspires Executive Chef Tim Sullivan to tuck toasted pita triangles into a fattoush-inspired side salad with parsley and mint at Café Opaline in the Dahesh Museum of Art in New York City, and spurs Chef-owner Paul Constantine to enliven a warm mushroom-and-baby spinach salad with salty sopressata chips and just-crisp polenta croutons at Café Caprice in Austin, Texas.

Tossed menus nine choices under "nuts, seeds and crunch," from plantain chips to sunflower seeds. Meisel points out that different levels of texture can be drawn from all kinds of ingredients.

"You can have a firm piece of grilled chicken, chewy dried cranberries, hard hazelnuts, even the difference between raw and cooked vegetables and mushrooms," he says.

Fruitful Endeavors

Frequently a fitting ally in savory settings, fruit lends salads cool, sweet contrast. Apples, pears and avocados are dependable standbys, while more-exotic varieties such as papaya and mango introduce a tropical touch.

"Sweet and sour is a classic combination in food, and with the acidity of vinaigrettes and the bitterness of greens, fruit brings great balance," says David LeFevre, executive chef at Water Grill in Los Angeles.

Dual approaches to fruit and other ingredients within one salad further amp up excitement. In a new summer offering, LeFevre showcases the understated sweetness of stone fruit-nectarines, apricots, plums or peaches, depending on availability-atop red oak lettuce. He includes the fruit in its dried form as well as in slices, which are vacuum-sealed with olive oil, salt and pepper, and warmed just enough to incorporate the light seasoning.

Brian Moyers, executive chef at Whiteface Lodge Resort & Spa in Lake Placid, N.Y., also gets inventive with fruit-and-greens pairings.

"We always do something with citrus, either as juice or in a 'confit' of oranges, limes and lemons," he says.

For the confit, fruit is sliced thin, seeded and layered with salt, sugar and shallots in airtight containers. The slices are cured for a week, drained and covered with extra-virgin olive oil for long-term storage. Moyers matches the intensely flavored finished product in small doses with hearty greens such as escarole, warmed through and topped with crushed walnuts.

Beefed Up

With salads such hot sellers as lunchtime meals, operators are incorporating protein options that add value to offerings.

Grilled chicken breast, roast beef and turkey are the top choices for customers at seven-unit Salad Creations of Margate, Fla., but the company is exploring premium choices such as lobster, crab and salmon to stay ahead of the curve in the growing segment.

CEO Jeff Levine says maintaining such an extensive protein inventory is an operational challenge-the menu already offers eight-but a tight forecasting system based on sales data limits waste and keeps costs under control.

At Sevilla in Santa Barbara, Calif., Executive Chef-partner Michael Reidt draws on the menu's Latin flair to jazz up Caesar salad with grilled romaine, manchego cheese and vaca frita, Cuban-style shredded beef.

The savory topping starts with seared skirt steak that is braised, chilled and shredded; the pieces are lightly coated with cornstarch and deep-fried. "You get the flavor and benefit of a protein, but also amazing texture," he says.

Mark Lepine, director of menu innovation and development at Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's Corp., says including orange-glazed chicken in the chain's new Asian Salad furthers the company's goal of stepping up its Premium Salad program with best-in-class products.

The glaze, added to grilled or fried chicken when orders are placed, complements the meat and creates flavor harmony with the salad's Mandarin oranges and sesame-soy vinaigrette, Lepine explains.

Best-in-Class Chain Salads

Salads are big and important business for chains at all price levels. Here are a few of the innovative offerings chains are menuing:

  • Pan Pacific Chicken Salad: Marinated chicken with mixed greens, crispy won ton strips, red onions, carrots, red peppers, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, Mandarin oranges and spicy peanuts with choice of Thai peanut or orange-ginger dressing. Champps Restaurant & Bar

  • Santa Fe Salad: Lime-marinated chicken, fresh corn, black beans, cheese, tortilla strips, tomato and mixed lettuces with spicy peanut-cilantro vinaigrette. The Cheesecake Factory

  • Grilled Caribbean Salad: Marinated Caribbean chicken, pico de gallo, pineapple, Mandarin oranges and crispy tortilla strips with honey-lime dressing. Chili's Grill & Bar

  • Grilled Hickory Salmon Salad: Bourbon-and-brown sugar-glazed salmon, mixed greens, Roma tomatoes, Cheddar & Jack cheeses, toasted almonds and house dressing. Flat Rock Grille

  • Ahi Tuna Salad: Seared rare tuna, napa cabbage, cilantro, bananas and cashews tossed in house-made banana-ginger vinaigrette, topped with crispy won ton strips and drizzled with sweet soy sauce. Houlihan's

  • Tri-Tip Bistro Salad: Spring and romaine lettuce with roasted vegetables and toasted walnuts tossed in balsamic vinaigrette and topped with crumbled blue cheese and tri-tip steak strips. Pat & Oscar's

  • Oregon Pear and Spinach Salad: Fresh leaf spinach, grilled pears, seedless grapes and Mandarin oranges with roasted pecans, crumbled blue cheese, red onion and tomatoes in a light berry vinaigrette. Smokey Bones Barbeque & Grill

  • Spinach Chicken Salad: Romaine lettuce and baby spinach topped with marinated chicken, chopped egg, grape tomatoes and garlic croutons with sweet-and-sour-bacon dressing. Wendy's

Components That Make Salads Sizzle

  • Greens favorites: baby spinach, iceberg, romaine, green leaf, arugula/rocket, radicchio
    up-and-coming: mizuna, tatsoi, mustard greens, lolla rosa, red oak

  • Proteins
    favorites: grilled or fried chicken (plain, Buffalo, barbecue, teriyaki), shrimp, seared tuna, turkey
    up-and-coming: orange-glazed or Moroccan-spiced chicken, flank or tri-tip steak, chorizo, barbecue brisket, pulled pork

  • Vinaigrettes
    favorites: balsamic, Italian, red wine, raspberry
    up-and-coming: guava, passion fruit, pomegranate, tamarind, ginger, blood orange

  • Crunch
    favorites: nuts, tortilla strips, won tons, croutons
    up-and-coming: plantain chips, crackers, pita

  • Fruit
    favorites: apples, pears, Mandarin oranges, strawberries, dried cranberries, raisins
    up-and-coming: mango, papaya, plums, apricots, nectarines, pineapple, grapes

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