How do your guests talk about your salads? “Oh...I just had a salad for lunch.” Or, “I had the most amazing strawberry-goat cheese salad with these insanely good candied pecans on top!”

Adding some simple upgrades to fresh, crisp greens is the way to go if you want to shift customers’ perception from “ho-hum” to “hubba hubba.”

And it doesn’t have to mean tracking down the fanciest ingredients in the world, either.

“Little things can make a big difference,” says David Schneider, CEC, executive chef, Sodexo, University of Mary Washington. He grills asparagus instead of blanching for a composed salad with roasted bell peppers, baby greens and lemon-tarragon vinaigrette. Another trick he employs is oven-drying tomatoes for two hours, which adds a sweet, caramelized counterpoint to a salad with endive, goat cheese, Bibb lettuce, artichokes and oranges, which are supremed, a cut that looks special and isn’t especially difficult to do.

When dreaming up salad recipes, many chefs consider the texture of the components.

Adding Crunch

“We’re adding a lot of candied nuts to salads,” says Gabriel Lagunas, newly appointed executive chef at Beacon Hill, a senior living community in Lombard, IL. He’s been adding pine nuts and walnuts to salads with a lot of dried fruits, as well. “Those sweeter tastes combined with bitter greens, like frisee, and a salty cheese means you’re getting all the right flavors in one salad, a satisfying experience.”

Other ways to add crunch include one of the bedrocks of salad toppings: the crouton. But today’s croutons are far from dusty little dried-out squares.

At Iowa State University in Ames, Executive Chef Scott Bruhn has been making croutons out of pretzel buns or toasted brioche.
“You’ve always got to have a crunchy element in a great salad,” Bruhn says, adding other ways to accomplish that include roasted pumpkin seeds (hello, fabulous fall salad!), fried wontons and sunflower seeds, for a “hippie salad” feel.

Bruhn also likes to add whole grains like farro to salads for another element: chewiness and a nutty flavor. His farro and arugula salad with roasted beets is dressed simply, with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. The flavors and textures shine through.

Don’t Forget the Cheese

While there’s nothing wrong with some good old shredded cheddar in a salad bar, it’s not that exciting. Goat, blue or gorgonzola are better places to start. It’s a sign of luxury, a signal that the salad is special.

“Gorgonzola always reaches the top of my list, because its flavor is a great complement to a variety of greens and fruits,” says Eric Cartwright, CCC, executive chef, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO. “I’m also a fan of a really good sharp white Cheddar, so long as it’s finely grated. The sharp notes do really well with roasted vegetables.”

Bruhn of ISU spent some time in Wisconsin, where he got a huge appreciation for local cheeses. He likes to make a very small dice of good white Cheddar.

Lettuce Try New Greens

Senior diners, like all generational eaters today, are getting more sophisticated. That’s why Lagunas is taking the opportunity to go beyond iceberg and Romaine when it comes to the basis for a green salad.

“They’re getting more interested in different greens,” he says, listing a few: raddichio, baby kale, frisee.

“We’re definitely getting away from plain old lettuce,” agrees Bruhn. “Now it’s shaved Brussels sprouts with a pork belly on top.”

Pickled Perfection

Another way to upgrade salads: the pickling trend. Out of grandma’s root cellar into the hippest restaurants in the country, pickling seems to have strong staying power.

Adding a topping like kimchi (pickled Korean vegetables) can add a whole new dimension to an Asian salad.

Bruhn makes a “quick pickle” with fresh green beans and cuts them on a bias; the variation in color (dark green outside, bright green inside) is a striking visual on the plate.

“It doesn’t take too much effort to get great results,” he says. Upgraded!

Recipes

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• Gorgonzola Panzanella Salad

• Asian Brussels Sprouts Salad with Duck Confit

• Caprese Tower

• Garden Salad with Field Greens, Feta, Pistachios and Herb Vinaigrette

• Strawberry Salad with Honeyed Balsamic Vinegar Reduction

• Chinois Strawberry and Goat Cheese Salad

• Red Chile Adobo Grilled Chicken Salad

• Blood Orange and Roasted Butternut Squash Kale Salad

• Edamame Nut Salad

• Salad of Butter Lettuce & Endive with "2 Hour" Tomatoes