Grain-based salads

Operators are swapping greens for grains to create exciting salad options.

pennswood black bean quinoa salad

Four years ago, Executive Chef Ryan Conklin served quinoa for the first time at Rex Healthcare, a Raleigh, N.C. hospital. Customers were mystified by the superfood at first, but it wasn’t long before they became hooked on the protein- and fiber-packed grain, plus other exotic offerings like black barley, farro and freekeh.

Now, whole grains have become a mainstay at Rex, especially in the form of hearty salads. Conklin’s secret? Using unusual whole grains as a base for salads packed with other, more familiar ingredients. “My philosophy is, if you’re going to introduce something new, do it in a way that’s approachable by taking something that’s already popular and using it as your vessel,” Conklin says. “Whole grains are already intimidating, so it’s not the time to be adding arugula. Instead, I’ll use something more familiar, like spinach.”

On any given day, Rex’s cafeteria salad bar features up to three composed whole-grain salads. Many highlight fresh, seasonal produce. In the spring, Conklin pairs fresh roasted asparagus with grano, an ancient Italian strain of wheat that tastes similar to barley. And while summer fruits are at their peak, he serves up toasty freekeh salads with watermelon or grilled peaches and feta.  

Around the same time that Conklin introduced his customers to whole grains, Executive Chef Steve Plescha started a healthy eating program at Pennswood Village Senior Living Community, in Newtown, Pa., in response to his own recent diabetes diagnosis. Now, whole grains, as well as reduced fat and reduced sodium dishes, are part of the menu for residents who were used to a very different type of fare. “We came from Jell-O salads, aspics and coleslaw, so the [healthier food] was not well received in the beginning,” he says.

Once Plescha started playing up the grains’ natural sweetness—and touting their health benefits—his customers’ taste buds began to change. Quinoa date salad, a Pennswood favorite, is augmented with dried apricots, dried cherries, raisins and a honey vinaigrette. A quinoa and garbanzo bean salad gets a touch of sugar from dried cranberries, plus nuttiness and crunch from toasted almonds. 

And with the help of bold flavors, whole-grain salads on the savory side are a hit with Pennswood residents, too. One, made with black beans and quinoa, is punched up with diced red and green peppers, diced tomato, red onion and a fresh cilantro lime dressing. Of course, adding a generous dose of healthy fat helps, too. “We use extra-virgin olive oil to make moisture happen,” Plescha adds.

Even kids are coming around to the taste of whole grains. Chandler Unified School District, in Arizona, recently began piloting a recipe for Greek ‘Bouleh—that’s kid-friendly slang for tabbouleh. “We made some changes [to traditional tabbouleh] to make the flavor profile more kid friendly and will be serving it this coming year,” says Food and Nutrition Director Wesley Delbridge, R.D.

Chandler’s version of the cool, bulgur wheat-based salad uses less lemon for a milder taste, while the addition of feta cheese adds creaminess that’s appealing to younger palates.   “Adding fresh herbs, like parsley, basil and cilantro, adds color and dynamic flavor to the salad. And a rich, fruity olive oil provides the finishing touch that pulls together a quick grain salad,” he says. 

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