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Hearty Salads Provide Cold Comfort – US Food Trends

21 November 2008

Hearty ingredients help restaurant customers warm up to salads in cooler-weather months.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2008 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. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.

By Fred Minnick, Special to R&I

Recipe: Warm Venison Salad with Chicories, Mushrooms, Currants and Bacon Vinaigrette
Salads are a given for summer, when the widest array of fresh ingredients is ripe for the picking. Yet many diners crave a bed of greens even when the weather turns cold and tastes turn toward comfort foods. A creative combination of specialty greens, flavorful proteins and seasonal fruit or vegetables can provide the satisfaction they seek. Even better for restaurants, consumers may be willing to spend more for these substantial salads. According to a June 2008 American Express MarketBrief survey conducted by Chicago-based research firm Technomic, diners cited larger portions, more protein, and the use of premium cheeses and vegetables as reasons they would pay more for a salad in a restaurant. Seeing this potential, many chefs make salads as much a priority on their winter menus as they do in summer, tossing together a range of greens (arugula, endive, frisée, mizuna and more) plus unique ingredients that are fresh and fitting for the time of year.

"I usually use chicories and radicchios, plus heavy but ‘safe' cheeses," says Robbie Lewis, former executive chef at Bacar in San Francisco and owner of the consulting firm Riviera Restaurant Group. Lewis also favors using Tuscan duck, New Zealand venison, warm mushrooms, grapes and bacon. "The point is to cover all the umami bases and get savory, sweet, crunchy and other textural aspects in there," he says. While at Bacar, Lewis paired fried egg and frisée with duck confit, haricots verts and whole-grain-mustard vinaigrette. His Blossom Bluff Nectarine Salad combined prosciutto di Parma, endive and toasted almonds.

Indeed, according to R&I's 2007 Menu Census, salads in general are rising in popularity, particularly in schools as well as at casual-dining restaurants.

A Complex Approach

Chef Jeremy Lieb of Trois restaurant in Atlanta steps up his winter salads by injecting either sweet-and-sour or bitter-and-salty contrasts. "I try to have a great balance-I will grill baby vegetables, poach scallions, use artichokes and quail egg," says Lieb, who chooses mixed greens as the base for many of the salads. "I don't want to take away from the vegetables because they are beautiful. If you get great products and respect them, you don't have to do much to make it taste great."

Inspired winter-salad offerings include beet-cured salmon carpaccio with shaved fennel, celery and leafed-herb salad and Belgian endive with baked goat cheese.

Fresh is Still Best

Of course, salads are all about fresh ingredients, and that mandate is no different late in the year. In his salads, Chef Sam Hayward of Fore Street in Portland, Maine, loves to make use of local shrimp-in season from December through April-which he says are sweeter than Gulf varieties. Explains Hayward: "The tender meats are very sensitive to acidity, so we might add just a few drops of a vinegar at the last moment and give it a quick toss. This really seizes up the proteins on the outside of the shrimp nicely."

Hayward also uses venison and other game meats with winter greens, opting to buy animals whole to allow for more options. "When we buy a whole deer, we'll break down the shoulder or leg and cure, smoke and serve the thinly sliced or shredded meat cold with wild mushrooms and a mix of chicories," he says.

Something for All Seasons

For some operators, what works in summer proves just fine for winter, too. Trois' Tuna Nicoise, for example, with green beans, golden potatoes, peppers, eggs and olives, has proved to be a multi-season hit.

At Jake's Restaurant in Manayunk, Pa., Chef Bruce Cooper finds that the Cornmeal Encrusted Calamari Salad with arugula, radicchio, scallion and spicy red-pepper vinaigrette resonates with customers year-round. So does his Roquefort Salad, featuring Boston lettuce, Belgian endive, watercress, croutons, bacon and Roquefort dressing. If Cooper does add a special winter salad to the menu, it also will feature meat or cheese. "I always prefer salads that have something in them," says Cooper. "My mother couldn't get me to eat salads unless they had meat or cheese." As with so much in cooking, it seems mother knows best.

Great Greens

Salads are like snowflakes: Every one is different. Here's a sampling of how chefs are giving the basic bowl of greens their own creative spin for winter.

  • Duo, Denver: Winter Salad (shaved fennel, oranges, olives and toasted almonds; drizzled with olive oil)
  • Five Fifty-Five, Portland, Maine: Winter Citrus Salad (seasonal citrus, frizzled leeks, fresh Vermont goat cheese and Champagne-tarragon vinaigrette)
  • Coastal Kitchen & Raw Bar, St. Simons Island, Ga.: Mixed Baby Green Winter Salad with sliced pears, Brie croutons and lemon vinaigrette
  • Veranda on Highland, Birmingham, Ala.: Veranda Harvest Salad (roasted butternut squash, dried cranberries, toasted pumpkin seeds, sweet onions and baby greens in apple-cider-roasted-shallot vinaigrette)
  • Zucca Ristorante, San Francisco: Winter Salad (frisée, mizuna, Gorgonzola, radicchio, grapes, candied walnuts and raspberry dressing)
  • Eleven, Pittsburgh: Lomo and Apple Panzanella with roasted shallot, radicchio, rustic croutons and anchovy-apple vinaigrette
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