In the bag
Today, pre-cut or fresh-cut salad greens are the dominant force in foodservice, produce suppliers agree. Pre-cut greens range from chopped romaine hearts to custom salad mixes with global influences. Robert Schueller, a spokesperson for Melissa’s World Variety Produce in Los Angeles, says there are at least 16 different packaged salad mixes available to foodservice, with spring mix the most-requested blend.
Spring mix, also known as mesclun. is a combo of eight to 16 young salad greens and usually includes several lettuces (such as red leaf and lollo rossa), frisee, arugula and mustard greens. The product can also contain red romaine, radicchio, mizuna, tatsoi, oak leaf lettuce, rainbow chard and baby spinach. “Spring Mix is defined seasonally and can be customized to an operator’s specifications,” Schueller explains.
Asian mix has made significant gains in foodservice, Schueller claims. Standards in the blend include baby spinach, mizuna, red mustard, tatsoi and pak choi (aka bok choy). These are slightly more exotic greens with a bolder flavor profile.
Neapolitan mix has a Mediterranean slant, combining at least five varieties of greens and a maximum of 11. Included are kale, red cabbage, rainbow chard, spinach, arugula, bull’s blood beet tops and baby pea shoots. The more common Italian Salad is a simple duet of romaine lettuce and radicchio.
Mache is a tender salad green with narrow, dark green leaves and a tangy taste. It also goes by the names “corn salad,” “field salad” and “lamb’s lettuce.” Mache is one of the newest darlings of fine-dining chefs; it’s often combined with crisper greens like frisee, red romaine, radicchio and baby lettuces for textural contrast.
Design-your-own mix: Earthbound Farm, growers and packagers of organic and conventional salad mixes, reports that a number of their restaurant customers combine several products to create a signature salad blend. “Spring mix has almost become a commodity,” say Tonya Antle and Teri Trost, executives with the company. “But you can blend it with herb salad, mache, arugula or other baby greens and make your own creation. Or you can add spring mix to chopped romaine or iceberg.”
Greens grow smaller Head lettuces like romaine and iceberg as well as many leafy greens—from ordinary spinach to exotic popcorn plants—are being grown in miniature sizes or harvested at an immature stage. Small is big news on restaurant menus, with chefs embracing these diminutive salad ingredients to ratchet up presentation and flavor.
Microgreens are a broad term for salad greens that are picked when they are only 14 to 20 days old. There are about 80 different varieties, ranging in flavor from buttery and mild to spicy and peppery. Melissa’s typically supplies about 20 types of microgreens, with the white tablecloth restaurants their biggest customers. In greatest demand are arugula, bull’s blood, mizuna, popcorn, pea leaves and shoots, tatsoi, watercress, mustard greens, red beet, golden chard and rainbow (a mix of several). Fresh herbs such as basil, chives and cilantro can be picked in tiny form too and are often included in microgreen blends.
Whole-leaf baby greens are a premium product with little waste. These are picked at around 35 days old—not cut—so the whole leaf remains intact. Available in both organic and conventional styles, there are about a dozen different baby greens on the market, including spinach, arugula and assorted lettuces. Chefs are using microgreens to add value to a dish, arranging them under, around or on top of appetizers and entrees for a mini-salad or colorful garnish. They’re also tossing them with baby greens in salads and stir-fries. Different varieties of microgreens are available seasonally, most commonly packed in 1-pound clamshells. The baby greens come in pillow packs or zipper-lock bags ranging from 1 to 4 pounds.
Iceberg Babies resemble their bigger namesakes in appearance and texture, but they’re slightly sweeter in flavor and closer in size to a softball. They’re the ideal size for an individual serving and make a dramatic statement when hollowed out and filled with salad ingredients, dips and hot mixtures.
Radicchio , a small redhead with a slightly bitter edge, was all the rage a few years back. While the round grapefruit-sized radicchio is still going strong, a couple of new varieties are expanding the niche. All are members of the chicory family (which also includes endive). Treviso grows in an elongated head like endive.
It’s dark red in color with white ribs and has a milder flavor than the original. It’s used both raw and grilled in salads. The rarer tardivo is cultivated from the treviso variety. Like its creamy-colored Belgian endive cousin, it’s forced to form new leaves in the absence of light, creating a paler end product. Castelfranco is another pale member of the radicchio family—it has yellowish-cream leaves speckled with red freckles. A tender, lettuce-like ball that unfolds like a rose, it is delicate in flavor and texture. Both tardivo and castelfranco are available from November to March.
Red hot greens Baby lettuces, microgreens and global mixes are still on the cutting edge of the salad bowl. But according to Schueller of Melissa’s, the specialty produce industry has recently seen the greatest gains in these six items:
- Kale: red and black joins the traditional green
- Dandelion greens: add for a tangy component in salads
- Endive: the smooth Belgian variety in pale green and red, has a slightly bitter note
- Fennel: crunchy texture with a sweet, slightly anise flavor, comes in full and baby sizes
- Savoy cabbage: green or purplish ruffled leaves, has a milder flavor profile than regular cabbage
- Watercress: pungent and slightly peppery bright green leaves
Keeping it fresh Proper packaging and handling of pre-cut salad greens is key to maintaining freshness and quality. “Bagged mixes are not more perishable if they’re kept at an optimal temperature,” says Schueller. “In fact, they don’t go through as many hands at the field (which causes leaf damage) and they’re double cleaned before packing, eliminating further handling and possible deterioration in the restaurant kitchen.” In the view of Greg Longstreet, vice president of foodservice sales for Dole, cold-chain management is the key factor in getting the freshest, tastiest salad greens to restaurant customers. And the distributor is an essential link in this chain, impacting both Dole’s success and the operator’s success.
“The temperature of a salad product must be consistently controlled at the field, warehouse, refrigerated truck and restaurant kitchen,” Longstreet explains. “Otherwise it breaks down at different points and loses quality.” He advises operators to seek distributors with expertise in salad sourcing and ask questions about their cold-chain management techniques and equipment. Most important is finding out the checkpoints they have in place for monitoring consistent temperature and arranging a delivery schedule that guarantees freshness—whether it be daily or weekly.
Packaging technology has also advanced to the point where it’s practically foolproof. Bags are made of a special plastic film material that improves airflow and lowers the oxygen transmission rate. This controls the sweating and excess moisture buildup that speeds up wilting and discoloration of leaves. With these modified atmosphere bags, most cut salad greens have a life span of 16 days from the shipping point to operator.
Once the package is open, it’s important to keep greens loosely packed, dry and chilled at 33 to 38°F. Take out just the amount you’ll need for service and return the remainder to the walk-in immediately to maintain temperature.
Choosing the best size package for your operation also can affect freshness. Smaller fine-dining operations tend to buy 1-pound plastic clamshells or 2- to 5-pound pillow packs or zipper-lock bags. Larger plastic bags and containers for higher-volume restaurants come in 20-, 40- and 60-pound sizes. It depends on how fast your restaurant uses up salad greens.