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Salad trends and buying tips

Knowing what sells can help you figure out what to buy. Here are the top salad trends showing up on the menu. Blends of greens. Suppliers are packaging salad-ready mixes of three or more types of lettuce and/or other greens, making it convenient to add value and variety to the salad bowl.

Knowing what sells can help you figure out what to buy. Here are the top salad trends showing up on the menu. Blends of greens. Suppliers are packaging salad-ready mixes of three or more types of lettuce and/or other greens, making it convenient to add value and variety to the salad bowl.

Upscale ingredients. Baby greens and microgreens, fresh herbs and unusual fruits and vegetables are making their way into salads on all types of menus.

Global flavors. Greens and vegetables with more exotic, complex flavors and origins are finding their way into American restaurant salads. Many are grown from indigenous Asian and Latin seeds now planted in California and Arizona.

Seasonal produce year round. Agriculturally advanced, top quality salad ingredients from Mexico follow strictly monitored field-to-table practices and are more widely available to the foodservice industry.

New seeds and new forms. Lettuces with improved shelf life, better color and more flavor are being developed.

Center-of-the-plate applications. Entrée salads continue to grow in popularity. Chicken is still the most prevalent protein in the mix, but turkey, seafood, pork, beef and other meats are also making their mark.

More organics. The entry of a major broadline organic distributor and a greater number of farmers converting crops to organic are fueling growth. Earthbound Farm claims that 40 percent of its sales are now in foodservice.

Specialty cheeses. While blue and Parmesan have long been paired with salads, other cheeses are now making a statement. Shaved asiago, creamy goat cheese and smoked mozzarella or provolone are now gracing mainstream salads, while white-tablecloth spots tout rare artisan and farmstead cheeses.

Garnishes. Salads are now topped with crunchy nuts, seeds, dried fruits and bits of house-cured fish and meat.


Green Design

Leafy greens are the base for most salads, but where chefs go from there is up for grabs. Some are even leaving out the lettuce completely, opting for artfully arranged vegetables, fruits and other raw and cooked ingredients. While Caesars and cobbs are still going strong, restaurants are trying to add a bit of excitement to the salad bowl to set their menus apart and appeal to salad eaters’ more discriminating palates. Each of these chefs composes salads with an eye on its visual effect as well as its taste.

Iceberg Babies Larb Gai
Mini heads of iceberg lettuce make the perfect size salad bowls for a flavorful Thai chicken mixture. Corporate chef Beat Giger of the Pebble Beach Resorts in California likes the contrast of the crunchy lettuce with the savory filling, which is spiked with fish sauce, lime juice, shallots, mint, chili peppers and scallions. “The crisp lettuce leaves cut off the top to form the bowls are served on the side. Guests then roll up the chicken mixture like tacos to eat in the Thai tradition,” says Giger.

Rainbow Tower Salad
Chef Randy Chou builds a vertical salad sans greens at Café Le Jadeite, an upscale Houston restaurant with a French-Asian fusion theme. Typical southwest ingredients—Mexican Hass avocados, mangos and tomatoes—are chopped, pressed into rings and layered, then dressed with a blend of apricot preserves, hot mustard, rice vinegar, lemon juice, honey and sugar. “This idea came to me when I was creating a party menu and now our regulars ask for it all the time,” Chou says.

Spicy Thai Venison Salad
At his hip New York City restaurant, Public, Chef Brad Farmiere focuses on foods and wines from down under. A favorite protein is farm-raised venison from New Zealand, a red meat usually associated with hearty winter fare. But here, Farmiere fashions a summery salad by grilling the venison and combining it with field greens, roasted garlic and a drizzle of lime-chili dressing. Grilled venison is a lean alternative to chicken and beef, the chef feels. “It provides lots of flavor without much fat.”

Deconstructed Salad
Johnny Vinczencz, executive chef/co-owner of Johnny V Restaurant & Lounge in Fort Lauderdale is known for his bold innovation, dramatic presentation and robust flavors, and this salad exemplifies them all. The elements—baby greens, red and yellow teardrop tomatoes, candied “red hot” walnuts, cabrales blue cheese and poached pears—are deliberately arranged on the plate in distinct sections, tied together with a 25-year-old sherry vinaigrette.


How to Sell Health

The mission of Fresh City, a 16-unit concept based in Needham, Massachusetts, is to provide fresh, wholesome alternatives to fast foods. So the salads, wraps, stir-fries and other menu options are nutritionally balanced—but they’re not marketed that way.

“Taste is our number one consideration,” says Bruce Reinstein, COO and co-founder of Fresh City. “We buy 12 tons of fresh produce a week, chopping and prepping it daily at each location to maximize the taste, quality and look of our salads.” Choices include Mandarin Sesame Chicken, Tuscany (baby lettuce, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and roasted red peppers) and the brand-new Laguna Beach, a combo of fresh fruit, vegetables and candied walnuts. Dressings are made from scratch and range from fat-free white balsamic vinaigrette pumped up with fresh herbs to a low-fat roasted red pepper ranch and a creamy blue cheese.

Kiosks in each restaurant allow patrons to access the calorie count and other nutritional figures on all of Fresh City’s menu items. This information makes it easy for guests to customize their salads. “When a customer orders a Chicken Caesar, for example, he can switch the dressing to fat-free vinaigrette and eliminate the croutons to lower the calories and fat,” Reinstein notes.

Downsizing greens 

Head lettuces like romaine and iceberg as well as many leafy greens—from ordinary spinach to exotic popcorn plants—are being grown in miniature sizes or harvested at an immature stage. Small is big news on restaurant menus, with chefs embracing these diminutive salad ingredients to ratchet up presentation and flavor.

Microgreens are a broad term for salad greens that are picked when they are only 14 to 20 days old. There are about 80 different varieties, ranging in flavor from buttery and mild to spicy and peppery. Melissa’s typically supplies about 20 types of microgreens, with the white tablecloth restaurants their biggest customers. In greatest demand are arugula, bull’s blood, mizuna, popcorn, pea leaves and shoots, tatsoi, watercress, mustard greens, red beet, golden chard and rainbow (a mix of several). Fresh herbs such as basil, chives and cilantro can be picked in tiny form, too, and are often included in microgreen blends.

Whole-leaf baby greens are a premium product with little waste. These are picked at around 35 days old—not cut—so the whole leaf remains intact. Available in both organic and conventional styles, there are about a dozen different baby greens on the market, including spinach, arugula and assorted lettuces.

Iceberg Babies resemble their bigger namesakes in appearance and texture, but they’re slightly sweeter in flavor and closer in size to a softball. They’re the ideal size for an individual serving and make a dramatic statement when hollowed out and filled with salad ingredients, dips and hot mixtures.

Radicchio, a small redhead with a slightly bitter edge, was all the rage a few years back. While the round grapefruit-sized radicchio is still going strong, a couple of new varieties are expanding the niche. All are members of the chicory family (which also includes endive).

One of those, treviso, grows in an elongated head like endive. It’s dark red in color with white ribs and is milder than the original. It’s used both raw and grilled in salads.

The rarer tardivo is cultivated from the treviso variety. Like its creamy-colored Belgian endive cousin, it’s forced to form new leaves in the absence of light, creating a paler end product. Castelfranco is another pale member of the radicchio family—it has yellowish-cream leaves speckled with red. The lettuce-like ball unfolds like a rose and is delicate in flavor and texture. 


Keeping It Fresh

Greg Longstreet, VP of foodservice sales for Dole, says cold-chain management is the key factor in getting the freshest, tastiest greens to restaurant customers. The distributor is also essential. “The temperature of a salad product must be consistently controlled at the field, warehouse, refrigerated truck and restaurant kitchen,” Longstreet says. “Otherwise it breaks down at different points and loses quality.” He advises operators ask about a distributor’s cold-chain management techniques and equipment. Most important is finding out the checkpoints they have in place for monitoring consistent temperature and arranging a delivery schedule that guarantees freshness.

Packaging technology has also advanced to the point where it’s practically foolproof. Bags are made of a special plastic film that improves airflow and lowers the oxygen transmission rate. This controls the sweating and excess moisture buildup that speeds up wilting and leaf discoloration. With these modified atmosphere bags, most cut salad greens have a life span of 16 days from the shipping point to operator.

Proper packaging and handling of pre-cut salad greens is key to maintaining freshness and quality. “Bagged mixes are not more perishable if they’re kept at an optimal temperature,” says Robert Schueller of Melissa’s World Variety Produce in Los Angeles. “In fact, they don’t go through as many hands at the field and they’re double cleaned before packing, eliminating further handling and possible deterioration in the restaurant kitchen.  ”Once the package is open, keep greens loosely packed, dry and chilled at 33 to 38°F.


It's in the bag 

Today, pre-cut or fresh-cut salad greens are the dominant force in foodservice, produce suppliers agree. Pre-cut greens range from chopped romaine hearts to custom salad mixes with global influences. Robert Schueller of Melissa's World Variety Produce, says there are at least 16 different packaged salad mixes available to foodservice, with spring mix the most-requested blend.

Spring mix, also known as mesclun, is a combo of eight to 16 young salad greens and usually includes several lettuces (such as red leaf and lollo rossa), frisee, arugula and mustard greens. The product can also contain red romaine, radicchio, mizuna, tatsoi, oak leaf lettuce, rainbow chard and baby spinach. "Spring Mix is defined seasonally and can be customized to an operator's specifications," Schueller explains.

Asian mix has made significant gains in foodservice, he claims. Standards in the blend include baby spinach, mizuna, red mustard, tatsoi and pak choi (aka bok choy). These are slightly more exotic greens with a bolder flavor profile.

Neapolitan mix has a Mediterranean slant, combining at least five varieties of greens and a maximum of 11. Included are kale, red cabbage, rainbow chard, spinach, arugula, bull's blood beet tops and baby pea shoots. The more common Italian Salad is a simple duet of romaine lettuce and radicchio.

Mache is a tender salad green with narrow, dark green leaves and a tangy taste. It also goes by the names "corn salad," "field salad" and "lamb's lettuce." Mache is one of the newest darlings of fine-dining chefs; it's often combined with crisper greens like frisee, red romaine, radicchio and baby lettuces for textural contrast.

Design-your-own mix: Earthbound Farm, growers and packagers of organic and conventional salad mixes, reports that a number of its restaurant customers combine several products to create a signature salad blend. "Spring mix has almost become a commodity," says Tonya Antle, VP of organic sales. "But you can blend it with herb salad, mache, arugula or other baby greens and make your own creation. Or you can add spring mix to chopped romaine or iceberg."

 

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