As vegetables gained star status on menus, something curious happened to salads: They became un-boring. No longer a perfunctory prelude to an entrée, leafy salads are standing tall, sturdy and unapologetically assertive.
Fueled by diners wanting to eat healthier, greens in salads have expanded beyond romaine, kale and mesclun. Hardier versions with more flavor – from endive and Swiss chard to several members of the radicchio family – are the base or a part of the mix. Supporting ingredients, including vegetables, fruit, protein and cheese, add heft and contrast, while sweet, acidic and salty accents provide a balance of creamy and crunchy elements, so each bite packs a powerful punch.
Leafy greens thrive in cooler weather, so they are more flavorful this time of year. “Late fall radicchio, especially the Castelfranco, are the most delicious,” says Jay Kumar, chef at Lore in Brooklyn, New York.
Because hardier greens aren't staid, they provide more of a creative outlet, resulting in salads just as compelling as any starter. Here are some ways it's all coming together.
Fall for bittersweet
Bitter greens are nutrient-dense and excellent sources of fiber, but it's important to lighten the assertive flavor with sweetness and fat. SPQR in San Francisco serves a brilliant purple insalata rossa of radicchio with several sweet accents; cherries, roasted beets and crunchy spiced pecans with a tangy goat cheese and mulled red wine vinaigrette. “It started with the idea to do something monochromatic,” says Chef Matthew Accarrino. “The sweetness of the cherries, earthiness of the beets, richness of the cheese and bitterness of the radicchio play so well together. We plated it in a playful way to mimic a bird's nest, which I think is perfect for fall.”
At RT Lodge in Tennessee, Chef Trevor Stockton looks to soft white wine-poached pears for sweetness to complement red leaf lettuce. Blue cheese dressing provides contrast, while toasted walnuts with rosemary, salt and pepper enhance the nuttiness and tone down the bitterness of the greens. He also has a version with Castelfranco, squash, pistachios and figs, accompanied by a drizzle of honey.
Sometimes it takes a bit of education, even with the savviest diners who say they don't like flavorful greens because of their sharpness. For example, on Che Fico's lnstagram page, the San Francisco restaurant explains that Castelfranco, part of the radicchio family, has an exquisite bitter flavor with sweet undertones, much milder than radicchio di Chioggia, the better-known-purple and white variety. The restaurant offers a similar explanation to diners asking about the perceived bitterness of a dish featuring Castelfranco layered with pickled Hachiya persimmons and Tomales teleeka (a blend of goat, sheep and cow's milk cheese) garnished with toasted hazelnuts and mint.
Say it with citrus
Citrus is another popular sweet and sour foil during colder months, whether it's a citrusy dressing or colorful fresh pomelo, mandarin, grapefruit, kumquat and blood orange segments strewn across a salad. At St. Cecilia in Atlanta, Executive Chef Nate Boer drizzles red endive leaves with honey, lemon juice and olive oil with a garnish of orange zest. “The sweet, rich honey and the contrasting bright natural acidity of lemon are perfect ingredients to both complement and balance the bitterness and subtle sweetness of the endive,” he says.
Play hide and seek
Not all salads are green up front. A robust foundation of leafy greens can be creatively camouflaged to add an element of unexpected intrigue. Isla in Santa Monica, California, specializes in wood-fired coastal Californian cuisine, so its mountain of chicories is dusted with burnt onion ash, turning half the plate pitch black. “The ash uses remaining onion and onion stems from other dishes on the menu, lending a hint of bitterness and sweetness to the dish,” says Chef Brian Bornemann. “The visual appeal is rather stark, making it more of a dramatic salad aesthetically.”
A flurry of cheese can do the trick, too. The garlicky chrysanthemum salad at Michelinstarred Don Angie in New York City is hidden under a pile of grated Parmesan. At Rolf and Daughters in Nashville, Swiss chard is tossed with breadcrumbs and aged balsamic, then covered with a giant fluff of finely-grated ricotta salata. Diners don't even see the Swiss chard until the salad is mixed tableside. If you're feeling especially fancy, three-star Michelin Le Cinq at the Four Seasons Hotel George Vin Paris has even served salads completely covered in large slices of Perigord black truffle.
Dressing it up
Dressing is a crucial element that ties everything together. Bornemann makes a port shallot vinaigrette and walnut anchoiade for his chicory salad, which offset the bitterness of the greens and add a sweet and salty crescendo. “It's quite a crowd pleaser due to the balance,” he says. “Even for those who may typically shy away from bitter greens and the ingredients in general.”
At Lore, Kumar leans on chickpeas for his dressing, a staple ingredient in Indian cuisine and an important part of his heritage. The vegan dressing incorporates nutritional yeast, garlic and white balsamic. “Our creamy chickpea dressing contrasts with the bitter lettuces,” Kumar says. He sticks to younger, petite radicchios, so the whole leaves are still tender. Finished with fried chickpea croutons, the salad is so popular that Kumar keeps it on the menu year-round, adjusting the greens for seasonality. “Dressing ratios vary by taste, but we use just enough to coat the greens.”
Rather than mixing up a dressing, Boer drizzles honey, lemon juice and olive oil separately over his salad.
“There's a beautiful simplicity to effortlessly slicing a lemon and giving it a squeeze over some greens from the garden, adding a drizzle of honey from the cupboard, then liberally pouring some of your favorite extra virgin olive oil to finish the dish,” he says. “This technique adds variety as the flavors of sweet and tart sway back and forth with each bite.”