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Main dish salads tap consumer demand for healthful alternatives

SHAPE June 2016

Entrée salads provide a blank canvas for chefs, operators looking to menu creative, healthful items.











As a growing number of consumers find themselves scrutinizing restaurant menus in search of flavorful selections that also fulfill their nutritional needs, more chefs and operators are adding innovative main dish or entrée salads to help meet those demands.

Once a novel presence, main dish salads can be found today on virtually all menus across the restaurant spectrum.

Main dish salads are “important for menu balance and for broader appeal,” says Branden J. Lewis, chef and assistant professor at Johnson & Wales University College of Culinary Arts in Providence, R.I. “Diners have come to expect entrée salads on menus, and everyone has them now, even steak houses and barbecue joints. At these places there are diners at almost every table who would delight in a wood-grilled sirloin steak salad or a salad topped with mesquite-smoked trout.”

Entrée salads in particular tap into the growing demand for more healthful alternatives. Rachael Derr, a culinary dietitian with Healthy Dining in San Diego, Calif., observes, “Offering entrée salads can give guests who are looking for a healthier option or following a specific diet — such as vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, diabetic friendly — a delicious way to dine out and stick to their diet plan.”

And when constructed properly, they can present profit opportunities as well. Main dish salads can provide “a great way to menu dishes that  have a better profit margin due to the fact that you can decrease the size of the more expensive protein and utilize ingredients that are more cost friendly,” says Dale Miller, president of the Master Chef Consulting Group in Clifton Park, N.Y.

These days salads in general can be found everywhere. According to Datassential MenuTrends 2015, 88 percent of all restaurants in the U.S. feature a salad of some sort, marking an increase of 4 percent over the past 10 years.

Nor are they just for adults only. Sixty percent of professional chefs polled for the National Restaurant Association's What’s Hot 2016 Culinary Forecast predict entrée salads for kids will be a hot trend in 2016.

In terms of protein ingredients in salads, chicken ranks the highest, according to Datassential, appearing on almost  70 percent of all salads in 2015.  Bacon,  and  egg follow:

-    chicken  69.4%
-    bacon 36.3%
-    egg 33.7%
-    shrimp 20.9%
-    tuna 20.6%
-    turkey 20.0%
-    ham 19.9%
-    beef 16.2%
-    steak 14.8%
-    salmon 12.9%
-    salami 9.9%

Derr agrees that “while the No. 1 protein choice is typically chicken breast,  there are so many other options. I like grilled shrimp on top of my salads. More and more restaurants are also offering fish now, like salmon, as a tasty addition to salads.  -   For vegetarians, a hardboiled egg or beans are a great source of protein that pairs perfectly with a salad.”

However, she recommends that restaurateurs steer away from deep fried proteins, which contribute saturated fats and even trans fats to the meal.

Lewis recommends that main proteins should be fast and easy to prepare. Coordination in the back of the house is often required, he explains, since salad station cooks must time their salad with a seared, grilled or fried piece of meat. “For this reason, you should avoid most baked items or oversized cuts of proteins,” he says. “If you have the option, select tail pieces of fish for main salads as they cook faster, thin cuts of meat, marinated tempeh or tofu, and avoid wet and soggy preparations like stews and braises.”

On the other hand, Miller observes, a main dish salad does not have to contain a protein. “But it should contain ingredients that are intriguing and unique.”

Some trendy ingredients chefs might consider adding to their entrée salads include:   kale; fresh, dried or grilled seasonal fruits; whole grains such as quinoa, barley or farro; grilled lettuce; and fresh herbs, Derr says.

Lewis notes that seasonal salads currently are popular “as customers are experiencing spring fever. But one of the hottest trends in main dish salads right now are exotic grain salads, known as grain bowls. Who hasn’t seen a quinoa bowl on the cover of their favorite food magazine — though quinoa is technically not a grain. They’re like the hipsters of salad. They’re popular, and they’re delicious.”

Miller points to other trendy ingredients, citing seared and sliced duck breast, caramelized cauliflower steak and barbecued pulled green jackfruit. “When you braise green jackfruit, the flesh emulates braised pulled pork,” he says. “Add a delicious barbecue sauce or other flavor enhancements, and you'll have a healthy, veg-centric item for main dish salad.”

When it comes to greens, Derr says a mixture is the best bet for a salad. “Each lettuce really brings something different to a dish,” she says. “Arugula is a little peppery, which is a wonderful flavor boost. Romaine can add a crunch. Darker leafy greens provide higher levels of vitamins A and K, calcium, iron and folate.”

While many entrée salads indeed wear a health halo, menu makers should be careful not to overload them with ingredients that can turn them into calorie bombs. Utilizing legumes, lentils, tofu, seeds and other natural ingredients can help minimize that, along with creating healthy and unique salad dressings, using yogurts in place of mayonnaise for creamy dressings, and using honey in vinaigrettes, Miller says.

However, Lewis adds, it isn’t the calories that are so much the enemy any more as compared to empty calories. Toasted walnuts, sunflower seeds and healthier or leaner proteins, such as a lightly seared salmon filet or a grilled pheasant breast are welcome, nutrition-dense additions to a salad plate.

For the most part, though, main dish salads provide a blank slate that can accommodate virtually any type of ingredient. “This is where chefs can get really creative,” Derr says. “Anything can go into a salad — vegetables, fruits, beans, herbs, a sprinkle of cheese, nuts, a protein source and a delicious dressing made with unsaturated,  heart-healthy fats.”

At the same time, Lewis says, “I would venture to say good main dish salads should also contain spirit and creativity, while taking into account seasonality and location as well.”



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