The word salad, derived from the Latin word for salt, probably originated to describe a mixture of vegetables preserved through pickling, and enjoyed as part of the meal or to stimulate the appetite, much like today’s antipasto. In modern kitchens, chefs and operators favor salads for their low food and labor cost, ease of execution and broad acceptance among diners.
In today’s global market, there are a myriad of greens to choose from, each with a unique flavor and texture. To simplify the choices, greens can be categorized by flavor and varieties: mild, bitter and spicy, prepared mixes, micro greens and edible flowers.
Mild greens are delicate in flavor, have a variety of textures and fall into several types: butterhead, leaf and crisphead. Butterhead lettuce, which includes Boston and bibb, are round in shape with loose leaves that are tender, soft and mild in flavor. Leaf lettuce, including red and green leaf, has long open heads with mild flavor and crisp texture. Crisphead varieties include both romaine and iceberg and have very crisp texture and high water content. Iceberg is thought to have derived its name from the crushed ice used to keep it cold during shipping. Although its unique qualities and possible overuse caused it to fall out of favor, recently there has been a resurgence in its popularity.
Bitter & spicy greens
Unlike Italy, America is slow to accept the aggressive flavor of certain greens. Many bitter varieties are too tough to eat raw and must be braised. However, escarole, frisee, watercress, radicchio, arugula and Belgian endive are great additions to balance an overall flavor profile, adding depth when contrasted correctly with the sweet, sour and salty elements of the dressing.
These are actually the seedlings of vegetables and herbs that are grown hydroponically in greenhouses. Their flavors are mild renditions of their larger counterparts and are used as accompaniments and garnishes to salads and other cold preparations. Arugula, bull’s blood (beet tops), radish, pea shoots, mustard and red cabbage are available at various times of the year. Their high price governs their use; very delicate, they should be handled with great care.
Edible flowers are best used with a light hand. Large buds are hard to chew and are sometimes overly aggressive in flavor. Just add a few petals, or the more delicate herb flowers, for a hint of flavor. Avoid using any flowers from unknown sources since they could be contaminated with pesticides and chemicals.
Preparing the salad greens
Chefs have strong opinions over whether to cut or pull apart heads of lettuce. In the past, the majority avoided cutting because of the flavor transfer of carbon steel knives; pulling the lettuce apart became the norm. With today’s knives, this is no longer a concern and many operators freely chop lettuce for consistency and speed. Regardless of your choice, proper size is determined by whether the salad is eaten with a knife and fork, or just a fork. Since all salad greens grow in the dirt or in hydroponic solutions, they must be properly washed, dried and refrigerated before serving. Fill a clean sink or tub with very cold water and submerge and agitate the greens repeatedly to remove dirt and grit, thus chilling the leaves and allowing them to crisp up. Since they are considered ready-to-eat foods, wear gloves when handling greens. Once properly cleaned, they should be placed in a clean and sanitized salad spinner until dried—a critical step as moisture will diminish shelf life, cause dressing to run off leaves and inhibit a crisp texture. Once properly washed and dried, greens should be placed in a shallow container covered with a damp towel, kept cold and used in a day or two.
Typically composed salads are a well-balanced selection of greens, vegetables and protein items such as grilled meat, cheeses or hardboiled eggs—a Greek or chef salad, for example. One important aspect of a composed salad is that each individual item should be seasoned properly to stand alone but still be harmonious with the theme or flavor of the salad as a whole. The composed salad meets the needs of those customers focused on healthy eating.
Dressing the greens
The proper way to serve a salad is to dress it prior to serving. Many operations still send out naked delicate greens that get crushed with the wrong heavy dressing and expect the customer to mix it on the plate. Place some dressing into the bottom of a cold bowl and cover it with cold greens. Tossing gently but thoroughly with a pair of tongs will help to enrobe each leaf with no residue of dressing evident on the cold plate. Tasting the final combination is often overlooked, and you will find that there is often a need for some cracked black pepper or sea salt.
The popularity of prepared boxed salad mixes is due to many factors, including high labor cost, perceived value, ease of preparation and just plain laziness on the part of chefs and operators. Prepared mixes come in many varieties, including spring mix, baby mix (bmx), oriental mix (omx) and mesclun. There is little standard of identity for these pre-mixed varieties, but they generally contain an assortment of mild, bitter and spicy greens. Oriental mixes rely heavily on items such as lola rosa, red shiso, bok choy, beet greens, Swiss chard and tat-soi. Baby mix contains young leaves of varying colors and textures including red oak, romaine and lola rosa. Mesclun comprises similar assortments, as well as delicate herbs such as chervil and dill. Unfortunately, too often the lettuce comes out of the box and into the salad bowl without a final washing, which all lettuce requires, regardless of claims to prior washing.
Preparing vinaigrette is a balancing act that is a true test of a good chef. The difficulty lies in the simple ingredients and their opposite characteristics and flavors. The classic ratio is three parts oil to one part vinegar, with the addition of herbs, garlic, shallots and mustard. This standard ratio should be a starting point. For a reduced-fat option, part of the oil can be replaced with purees of fruits and vegetables. Olive oil, high in monounsaturated fat, is a great choice; when combined with balsamic vinegar, it has great emulsification properties. For the best flavor, use fresh herbs, onions and garlic rather than dried, and limit your par stock to what will be consumed within one or two days.