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5 Ways to craft comforting salads

Entrée salads give operators the opportunity to diversify, experiment.

As the temperatures drop, comfort foods are on the rise at restaurant menus. According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2024 What’s Hot Culinary Forecast, comfort dishes—think thick soups, meat-laden stews, and hearty entrées—will dominate menus. But “comfort” is starting to mean salads too.

Éntrée salads are among the rare dishes that can be both healthful and comforting. They can be healthful because of their leafy greens and nutrient-rich ingredients, and comforting because of any number of additional ingredients like hearty roasted beets, warm grains, and house-pickled vegetables. At the same time, comforting salads give operators the chance to test new ingredients and diversify menus.

Here are five ways to craft comforting salads for your operation:

  1. Let your roots show. Root vegetables, such as beets, sweet potatoes, and onions, and less-familiar rutabaga and celeriac, are incredibly versatile and can pack powerful flavor—from hearty and earthy to sweet and spicy—into a bowl of greens. The National Restaurant Association forecasts root vegetables as one of the top three ingredients in 2024, alongside Wagyu beef and Birria, the spicy, sweet, and smoky stew.

That prediction is already coming to pass. For example, the menu at Salad and Go, a new drive-thru, quick-service concept, offers a root-veggie-packed Roasted Autumn salad. Made with sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, candied pecans, dried cherries, grated Parmesan, and romaine lettuce, the dish is topped with a choice of tofu or chicken, and tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette.

  1. Board the grain train. Nearly one in every two American consumers eat more plant-based meals than meat, according to research commissioned by Sprout Farmers Market and conducted by One Poll. With so many consumers leaning into plant-based meals, hearty grains are increasingly finding their place at the center of the plate—and in the salad bowl.

Among the most prolific grains on menus today is quinoa. Chefs amping up their salads with this nutty, earthy grain include Jenn Crovato, chef of 1310 Kitchen and Bar in Washington, D.C., whose lunch menu includes a kale, quinoa, and Brussels sprout salad with apple, almonds, pomegranate, and citrus vinaigrette. Also appearing on more menus over the last few years is farro, a wholesome, nutrient-dense ancient grain, according to recent data from Datassential.

  1. Get pickled. People have been pickling vegetables since ancient times, but it’s only recently that these fermented foods have started showing up in earnest on restaurant menus. Including pickled ingredients in salads can add brightness and color, and deliver more of the health and well-being benefits consumers are craving. Plus these versatile ingredients can be used beyond salads and across the entire menu.

Pickled red onions are finding their way on to more menus, including the new winter menu at Just Salad. The Mediterranean Bowl is made with black lentils, shredded kale and arugula, Greek medley (onion, cucumber, and chickpeas), overnight pickled onions, sliced pepperoncini, spicy harissa pita, crumbled feta, oven-roasted chicken, homemade yogurt-cucumber dressing, and fresh lemon.

  1. Pack on the protein. An October 2023 Forbes Health/OnePoll survey found that nearly half (48%) of adult respondents said improving fitness was their top priority in the new year. Other priorities include losing weight (34%) and improving one’s diet (32%). Menuing salads that include a hefty dose of protein—whether animal- or plant-based—offers an option for those consumers looking for feel-good food to fuel their fitness, weight-loss or dietary goals.

Among the operators hoping to play a larger role in consumers’ wellness efforts is Chipotle. Last year, the Mexican fast-casual chain debuted a line of Lifestyle Bowls, including the aptly named High Protein Bowl. This item is made with white rice, black beans, chicken, tomatillo-red chili salsa, cheese, and romaine lettuce.

“We created seven new Lifestyle Bowls that embrace Gen Z and millennials’ modern interpretation of wellbeing,” CMO Chris Brandt said in a statement.

  1. Hail Caesar (sans romaine). What could be more comforting than a classic Caesar salad made with crisp romaine lettuce and garlicky croutons, tossed in a creamy dressing made with eggs, olive oil, lemon, Parmesan, Worcestershire sauce, and anchovies? According to Datassential’s 2024 Food and Flavor Trend report, it just might be a “Caesar everything: kale, asparagus—anything but romaine.”

Among the restaurants saluting Caesar is Sally, a brick-oven pizza place in Philadelphia with a funky vibe and a selection of hearty small plates that are fit for a meal. Sally’s version of the Caesar is earthy and crunchy, made with kale and garlic breadcrumbs, and topped with an unexpected sprinkling of savory granola.

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