First-course affairs compete with a won't-wilt identity all their own.
Aspiring to be an exemplary salad on a highly competitive menu can be a challenge, one that could wither the efforts of the most determined.
A salad of lettuce, tomato and cucumber joined by dressing does not draw the applause that it once garnered. Even fancy greens, which made a big impact under the moniker of mesclun, seem ordinary.
What's a salad to do?
Think beyond lettuce, composed or lightly tossed. Consider contrasting texture and flavor, celebrate the time of year with seasonal ingredients and create excitement with the addition of protein, chefs advise.
"It's a battle I have fought myself," Chef Michael Sabin says of lackluster salads. "But I got over it and what comes out from garde manger now is limitless."
In fact, the cold station for salad at Mark's City Place in West Palm Beach, Fla., is not the spot for the beginner or the dumping ground for lesser-aptitude cooks. "You are composing something. You are actually painting a picture, putting together a beautiful salad," says Sabin, whose experience was honed at the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va.
Known as first-course salads or composed salads, this prelude to an entrée can have enough panache to command attention often taken by glitzier appetizers. No longer an afterthought, the first-course salad has gained stature of its own.
SIMPLE TO COMPLEX
Felix Acosta, chef at Yarrow Bay Grill outside of Seattle, takes a multiprong approach to salads. He menus a simple offering for guests who only want greens, but stirs up interest in other ways. For example, field greens are tossed with the house dressing (mustard-herb vinaigrette) and arrive with a garnish of biscotti with almonds, caraway seeds and cardamom. "It provides a nice, spicy counterpoint," he says.
Acosta also offers a specialty salad, such as pears with blue cheese and caramelized pecans (note that contrasting flavors and textures come into play here, too) and another with a bit of protein, like smoked pheasant with port-poached figs, watercress, chvre and fig vinaigrette. "These are for people looking for a little bit more, who are more adventuresome," Acosta says. "It enhances their experience in the restaurant."
Acosta stretched his notion of salad from simple to complex after he saw the practice in California. When he worked at Restaurant Lulu in San Francisco, he was intrigued by the multifarious mix of salads. Watercress was paired with endive, apples, blue cheese and crispy pine nut polenta. Suckling pig became salad with baby arugula, roasted onions and fig-balsamic vinaigrette; trout accompanied fingerling potatoes, watercress and horseradish vinaigrette.
On menus that change with the seasons, salads provide a creative outlet for a wide range of opportunities. "We are fortunate to have a long growing season so there are always interesting choices," says Scooter Kanfer, executive chef of The House in Los Angeles. "We buy everything from the farmers' markets. We want to know exactly where the product came from."
In fact, Kanfer and other chefs say that local growers supplying fine-dining restaurants have been a major force in increasing the type of greens that make up a salad, from a large variety of baby lettuces to heirloom vegetables.
"People seem to be buying more at farmers markets and farmers are producing more so you have supply-demand," says Kanfer. "With the advent of organic and local markets, people are much more aware of what's out there and the quality."
Michael Merlo, chef of The Ebbitt Room restaurant at The Virginia Hotel in Cape May, N.J., also follows the seasons for his menu. But a shorter growing season in the Northeast doesn't mean he has limited access. "Anything local is something that can get to your back door in 24 hours," he says. "I do take advantage of the farms in the area but when that is over, you can still get really good products from other places in the country."
MORE THAN GREENS
Indeed, the popularity of cooking with the seasons has greatly broadened the definition of salad. Menus prove that salad "doesn't have to have just greens," says Kafner. "It can pretty much mean anything. We are no longer bound by restrictions."
Her salad choices include grilled endive, frisée and grapes with aged artisan goat cheese, roasted walnuts and pomegranate vinaigrette, as well as currant vodka-cured salmon with fennel, watercress and grapefruit. "I like the little bit of bitterness you get from the endive with the richness of the cheese and sweetness from the grapes," she says. "All the flavors work."
At Alan Wong's in Honolulu, locally grown Waimea red and yellow stacked tomato salad with ume (plum) and li hing mui (sweet-sour marinated plums) vinaigrette is offered as a salad as well as eggplant salad with goat cheese, oranges, tomato and basil macadamia nut pesto.
In New York at Alfredo of Rome, artichokes are thinly sliced, marinated, arranged with baby greens and drizzled with oil-lemon dressing, while goat cheese, beets and arugula come together with grilled flatbread at Icarus in Boston.
"There's definitely a notion that salads are associated with healthy eating-after all, we're talking about vegetables-and that helps fuel their popularity," says Matt Kramer, executive chef-owner of McCrady's in Charleston, S.C.
Menus may always have a spot for the unencumbered first course, but it will likely share space with a salad highlighted with protein. Portions will stay small, says Kramer, but the impact large. Consider his jumbo lump crab salad with avocado and microgreens, as well as a composed salad (seasonal greens gathered around a cucumber slice) with seared sea scallops accented with chive oil and balsamic vinegar.
The protein, says Kramer, can be the central focus or play a supporting role.
At the Delaware North Inc.-operated Banners Restaurant in Boston's Fleet Center, lobster is the main focus for a salad with Asian flavors. Merlo of the Ebbitt Room grills asparagus with crispy prosciutto and truffle vinaigrette as well as Moroccan shrimp with couscous salad and saffron vinaigrette.
"When you bring a protein into a salad, it's a way to create some excitement about what's to come," says Merlo.
Most chefs cook with balance in mind, bringing together contrasting flavors and textures for full sensory impact. Salads are no exception, considering that vegetables often provide crunch and the dressing includes an acidic component. Varieties of vinegar have been the most popular, from red wine and champagne to balsamic and sherry. Fruits with an acidic edge are also in demand.
"We reduce an ingredient to bring out the flavor if it is a fruit, like pomegranates, and then we use grapeseed oil for a clean taste," says Kanfer. "The acid is especially important if you're talking about the need to cut and complement the richness of a component. The goal overall, though, is to make sure the dish makes sense. It's no good if it just looks pretty."
Fava Bean and Pecorino Salad with Prosciutto