With the increasing focus on healthy menu offerings and produce-based options, you may want to take a look at your salad selection to make sure you have an array of tempting entrée salads that your customers can order for lunch or a light, wholesome dinner.
And that doesn’t mean adding a chef salad to the menu and calling it a day. The salad section can and should get as much attention as the appetizer and entrée listings, particularly in an establishment that serves lunch. In fact, according to Technomic’s Salad Consumer Trend Report, 70 percent of consumers surveyed would like to see more variety from the salad section of the menu.
The Importance of Kale
Kale has become a culinary hot topic over the past few years, but it wasn’t until I recently tried a kale salad that I became obsessed. The greens were dressed with a vinaigrette spiked with grainy mustard and sprinkled with paper-thin radishes. I asked for seconds. Turns out, I have been seriously missing out. Since then, I’ve started playing with the addition of other ingredients, such as apple for some sweetness and hazelnuts for crunch. And unlike other salads, dressing it in advance actually improves the salad, as the vinaigrette helps soften the otherwise tough leaves. A nutritional powerhouse, full of beta carotene and calcium as well as vitamins K and C, kale should transcend trends.
But, of course, as with anything that becomes a widespread hit, there is bound to be a point in time when people begin tiring of it and want to move on to the next hot trend.
But the trend of health-conscious diners continues to grow. To satisfy your customers’ desire to eat healthy foods, create an entrée salad that lets them have their salad—and eat it too! When prepared as an entrée, salads are anything but an ordinary starter. They may include a number of greens, vegetables, fruit, nuts, cheese, or meat, and with so many varieties of flavored dressings available, the salad can be reinvented in limitless combinations.
The entrée salad may be offered meatless or with a variety of protein options. Using upscale ingredients can also give salad its star power, and exotic or unexpected ingredients can position your entrée salad as particularly memorable. Dressings can balance the flavors of the salad ingredients, or may infuse the ingredients to give added dimension to the overall flavor of the salad.
Put these salads on the menu to give your customers variety and a break from the traditional entrée plate.
Entrée salads tend to be lighter, more colorful and textural, and they provide an opportunity to feature seasonal fruits and vegetables. With the advice we’re getting from nutritionists about increasing fruit and vegetable intake and lowering meat consumption, entrée salads such as these are becoming more popular.
1. Kick Up the Protein
Turn any salad into a quick, healthy meal by incorporating some kind of lean protein. Top salads of all kinds with grilled fish, steak, tofu, tempeh, chicken, or beans (we like white beans or chickpeas). The protein combined with the vegetables will make for a satisfying yet light meal perfect for at-work lunches and busy weekday dinners.
Today’s proteins go beyond the mainstream beef, chicken, and seafood as operators add less traditional protein options such as fava beans, bulgur, quinoa, kidney or garbanzo beans, cottage cheese, and hard-boiled eggs to entrée salads.
2. Add a Healthy Crunch
There’s something about crunchy foods that keeps us coming back for more, and one of the easiest ways to keep salads interesting is to kick up the crunch factor. Skip croutons in favor of more nutritious additions. Raw or toasted walnuts, chopped pecans, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, and extra-crispy vegetables like radishes, fennel, and jicama are great additions for a crunchier salad.
3. Add Seafood
Seafood also helps to turn simple salads into exotic entrées. Scallops are another stunning salad ingredient when sprinkled with curry powder, seared in hot oil and placed atop a mix of green beans and Belgian endive dressed with vinaigrette and truffle oil. Or, make a simple smoked salmon salad by mixing baby greens with red onion and cherry tomatoes tossed in balsamic vinaigrette and drizzled with capers.
Try a wild Alaskan salmon salad, which features ginger-glazed salmon served on a bed of spinach with feta cheese, sunflower seeds, mixed greens, edamame, wonton strips, cilantro, and red onions.
4. Experiment with Different Greens
If you’ve been relying on one type of lettuce for every salad, it’s time to experiment with other greens. If you always use romaine lettuce, try butter lettuce, baby kale, arugula, spinach, finely chopped Swiss chard, watercress, or a combination of a few. Rotate through different salad greens each week.
Or switch up the base. Rather than using lettuce as the base of your salad, you can create a hearty, meal-worthy salad by using rice, quinoa, couscous, barley, or whole wheat pasta as your base. Start with your cooked grain or pasta and add chopped vegetables of your choice. Cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, celery, carrots, peas, and sautéed greens like kale or Swiss chard go well in grain or pasta salads.
5. Top with a Cooked Element
Salads get infinitely more interesting when you add a cooked element to them. In addition to raw vegetables, think about cooking some to keep what’s in your salad bowl from getting boring. Pan-fried mushrooms, grilled zucchini and eggplant, or roasted cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus, or Brussels sprouts work particularly well in salads.
6. Use Ethnic Flavors
Ethnic flavors continue their popularity with entrée salads. Focus on Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and other international fare. Try a mujadara salad that consists of lentils, cracked wheat, and onions, or a Mediterranean chicken plate,
featuring grilled, spiced chicken breast, tabbouleh, and hummus on a bed of baby spinach, garnished with Kalamata olives and ripe tomatoes dressed lightly with a toasted spice yogurt. Or spice it up with a grilled falafel patty served over greens. Olive oil will offer a flavorful base for grilled shrimp, garlic, hummus, and roasted veggies.
7. Add fruit
Sweeten up your salads by adding fruit. Not only will you be getting a nutrition boost, fruit is a simple way to incorporate new flavors and textures into your salads. Berries, grapes, orange segments, thinly sliced pear, peaches, and nectarines add subtle sweetness and lots of healthy textures.
Serve a strawberry chicken salad over spinach. Or a grilled chicken salad that includes walnuts and Craisins. Add grilled chicken to field greens and top with feta cheese, walnuts, and mandarin oranges. Dress with a fat-free raspberry dressing. Another popular option is a salad made with salsa, pineapple, and chicken marinated in teriyaki sauce, served with mixed greens, tortilla chips, and a Dijon mustard and lime juice dressing.
In addition to satisfying your customers’ desire for healthy menu options, revitalizing the entrée salad options in your restaurant can increase your bottom line profitability. Adding protein to salads not only allows you to beef up the nutrition factor of entrées already perceived as healthy, but you can also beef up the selling price.
Who’d have guessed it? Perched right up there with the reliable money makers–fries, burgers, pizza–sit entrée salads, having muscled their profitable way onto a growing number of menus by offering customers just about everything they could ask for in a meal. After all, entrée salads reward their consumers with plenty of perceived value, lots of flavor and texture combinations, a protein element, and the feeling that they’ve just done something healthy for themselves in a very delicious way that involved sacrificing neither taste nor satisfaction. What’s not to like?
The University of Iowa has offered entrée salads in its operations for about three years now. But just this past January, the school rolled out a new batch of “restaurantstyle” meal salads in response to customer requests. The plan worked. Since unveiling the new and improved salads, operators there have noted a 30% increase in sales, while still keeping food costs in line.
By Chef Eamon Lee, CEC