Grain and bean salads have a rare set of advantages: They're healthy, in demand and easy to serve.
This article first appeared in the 1 March 2009 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 Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor
A recent employee health fair at disk-drive maker Seagate Technologies' headquarters in Scotts Valley, Calif., gave Chef Tim Noll the perfect opportunity to test-drive wholesome dishes on a health-conscious audience.
Out of 18 daily changing salad-bar items, there are always two or three options made with beans or grains. Lentil, barley and quinoa salads are consistently strong performers. "The buzz is about grains and beans and introducing [diners] to something healthier," says Noll.
As Americans strive to incorporate more healthful foods into their diets, dishes containing beans and grains are moving onto consumers' radar.
This is especially evident with grains. In a 2007 food and health survey conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based International Food Information Council, 71% of Americans said they were trying to eat more whole grains. Food companies have been quick to react to the rising demand. In the same year, manufacturers launched 15 times as many new whole-grain products as they did in 2000, according to Chicago-based market-research firm Mintel.
For chefs, salads in particular are wonderful vehicles for whole grains and beans because they offer countless ways to brighten and enliven the ingredients' earthy flavors with vinaigrettes, fresh herbs and vegetables. Incorporating such items into menus satisfies consumer demand for healthful options without a lot of extra effort in the kitchen.
The mild taste of most beans and grains is ideal for showcasing bold global flavors. For James Barrett, spelt berries are a favorite ingredient. "It's the kind of [grain] that lends itself to many ethnic applications," says the co-owner of six-unit Metropolitan Bakery in Philadelphia. "It's nutty in flavor with a toasted-nut quality, so it melds well with Mediterranean, Peruvian, Indian or even Hispanic flavor profiles."
Barrett uses chewy spelt berries in a Mediterranean salad with sun-dried tomatoes, kalamata olives, capers and a tart vinaigrette that is made by puréeing whole organic lemons with olive oil. "It's delicious and so healthful, and that was our intention as our customer demand increased for healthy alternatives," he says.
Executive Chef Craig Mombert also takes a global approach at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., serving a quinoa salad that features mango, cucumbers, green onions, curry powder and chutney tossed with an oil-and-vinegar dressing. His bulgur salad features an orange-accented herb pesto. Bean salads join the menu in warmer seasons but are kept purposefully simple, which is how the students seem to prefer them; black beans with pico de gallo is a popular selection.
Mombert is anticipating student demand as well as delivering healthful dishes. "We want to be ahead of the game," he explains. "So when they're asking for it, we've already beat them to the punch."
Bean salads have been a surprise hit at Jackson's Roasting & Carving Co. in Arlington, Va., where the focus is on sandwiches composed of carved-to-order corned beef, turkey and more, and where many customers request double the meat.
"This is man food," says owner Stefanie Reiser. Even so, "today's guys have a more sophisticated palate than their older brothers-they know what quinoa is," she says.
- To complement the sandwiches, Reiser offers an ever-expanding lineup of side salads, including Southwestern corn and black-bean salad and Moroccan-style chickpea salad with raisins and carrots.
Response has been promising at the restaurant as well as at catered events-a trend Reiser predicts will continue. "Hopefully, by giving new options and promoting the salads as [freshly prepared], people will be more experimental," Reiser says.
At the Shriver Center at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, Chef Tim Horgan is betting on the popularity of salmon to persuade customers to take a chance on quinoa.
"With money tighter than ever, we're looking at lighter, smaller plates, dressing them up and using higher-quality products," Horgan says. His quinoa salad, tossed to order with julienned red and yellow bell peppers, red onions and lemon-chive vinaigrette, is molded over a bed of greens and served alongside a 4-ounce portion of seared salmon.
Guests at Tilth in Seattle, meanwhile, expect fresh, organic dishes. To keep things interesting, Chef-owner Maria Hines uses a red Incan quinoa, which has a deep, earthy flavor, and tosses it to order with julienned apples, toasted hazelnuts, parsley and a yogurt vinaigrette for an unexpected side salad. Says Hines, "Preparing it with more-seductive ingredients plays it up and makes [guests] think, ‘Oh, cool.'"
Aside from their healthful properties, bean and grain salads are lauded by chefs for being foodservice-friendly-both in how quick and simple they are to prepare and in how well they hold up through service.
"It's much easier than people think," says Barrett. He cooks spelt berries in a ratio of three parts water to one part grains for about 20 minutes. Alternately, he will boil them for 10 minutes and then turn off the heat and let the grains soften as the water gradually cools.
Both Barrett and Bon Appétit's Tim Noll make their salads in advance to allow the flavors to become fully integrated. Some of the heartier salads-particularly those made with spelt berries or wheat berries-keep well for three to four days.
Before serving, it's important to taste the salads for seasoning, especially when they've been made in advance. "[These ingredients] tend to be a little bit bland," Noll says. "They need an acid." He often uses lime juice with quinoa, red-wine vinaigrette with wheat berries, and orange and lemon juices with barley.
To enrich her lean red-quinoa salad, Hines mixes a vinaigrette of whole-milk plain yogurt, olive oil and white-wine vinegar. "A lot of times grains are lean in the mouth," she says. "Sometimes it's nice to add fatty unctuousness."
Leftover salad also can have additional applications. Reiser recalls a wild-rice and mushroom salad that he transformed into a hearty soup. At Davidson College, Mombert turns yesterday's grain salads into stuffing for chicken or chiles. Cooking grains "is no different than having to cook rice," Davidson's Mombert says. "It doesn't take much longer. And they're a great crossover ingredient."
Sourcing grains has become much easier in recent years, giving chefs plenty of reasons to experiment. Here, preparation notes for three buzz-worthy varieties:
Quinoa: This ancient Peruvian ingredient is something quite unique: a vegetarian complete protein (containing all eight essential amino acids). To cook: Rinse to remove bitterness; cook in a ratio of two parts liquid to one part grains.
Spelt berries: A cousin of the wheat berry (see below), spelt berries bring a chewy nuttiness to dishes. To cook: Rinse berries; boil in plenty of salted water for 10 minutes; cool until soft.
Wheat berries: Essentially unpolished wheat kernels, these berries are packed with protein and folic acid. When polished, they become grano. To cook: Rinse grains; soak in water overnight. Drain berries; simmer in salted water for one hour or until soft.