Deli Salads Find Their Flavors

There’s a new approach to deli salads, where even standards are getting fresh treatments.

Bistro Potato Salad with Caramelized Onions, from the
National Onion Association.

Deli salads are getting a makeover in non-commercial foodservice operations. The deli staples—chicken, tuna and potato—are being given new flavor profiles, and operators are expanding their definition of what constitutes a deli salad.

Dining Services at Colorado State University in Fort Collins has updated all of its salads. Most popular is chicken salad in many incarnations: traditional; Asian; with walnuts and grapes; with almonds and grapes; lemon basil; pesto; and even tarragon chicken salad.

“It’s the same standards but updated with new ingredients and new flavor profiles,” says Peter Testory, senior executive chef. “The old chicken salad doesn’t really cut it now.” Tuna salad, on the other hand is something Testory won’t touch. “That’s one salad that everyone likes the way it is.”

CSU students are also keen on noodle salads, Testory adds. He serves up cold Thai noodles with vegetables and peanut sauce, a Vietnamese rice noodle salad, spicy sesame noodle salad and pad Thai noodle salad.

All Asian-influenced dishes do well, he notes, and students often like to pair them. “Students are looking for the salads that complement whatever dish they might be eating—Korean tacos with an Asian slaw, for example.”

Young foodies: Eli Huff, executive chef, culinary operations coordinator at Union Public Schools, in Tulsa, Okla., attributes customers’ love of a wider range of deli salads to their exposure to more cooking shows.

“I think food TV has made foodies of all ages and the role of the chef as a celebrity has helped make deli salads more approachable and interesting,” Huff says.

One popular choice at the district is a pasta salad that’s tossed with basic Italian vinaigrette, pesto, turkey bacon, black olives, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh parsley, lemon and roasted garlic oil. It’s sometimes topped with grilled, shredded chicken breast.

Chicken salad is also well liked, he notes. Union makes its version with pulled chicken, pickles, sesame oil, sambal (raw chili paste), mayonnaise, rice wine vinegar, raw red onion and either celery, apple or grapes.

The district even tried a quinoa salad a couple of times, although Huff admits it wasn’t a huge hit. Union’s version married quinoa with a chimichurri dressing made from parsley, lemon, red pepper, olive oil, garlic and salt.

Students are always aware of the deli salads being served because Huff advertises them on Facebook and Twitter and draws students in visually with Instagram.

“Kids these days are mobile and we try to reach them through those outlets and educate them about what they are eating,” he explains.

Chicken salad two ways: Carilion Health System in Roanoke, Va., serves two types of chicken salad in its café and for catering, says Becky Ellis, senior director, dining and nutrition services.

The more popular of the two is curried pecan chicken salad with Craisins, pecans, onion, celery, honey, mayonnaise, curry powder, salt and pepper. The other is a harvest chicken salad, which includes grapes, cashews, Craisins, spring onions, celery, mayonnaise, salt and pepper.

The tuna salad at Carilion also is a little unusual, featuring fresh dill, lemon zest, diced cucumber, Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, salt and pepper.

“People want something a little more exciting, and folks are looking for the nuts or the cranberries—things with antioxidants,” Ellis says. “That’s one part of it. Another is that we have a lot of traditional Southern dishes here, but the whole world has opened up to us. So if we offered the same thing that’s been offered in Roanoke for the past 50 years, we wouldn’t be meeting our customers’ needs.”

Whole grains: Wake Medical Center in Raleigh, N.C., is having similar success with unusual deli salads in its Café 3000 and is seeing their popularity rise, thanks to consumers’ growing interest in whole grains.

Wheat berry salad with cranberries, scallions, diced bell peppers, chives—and sometimes cherry tomatoes—and a traditional vinaigrette is popular because it’s healthy and tasty, says Jessica Marchand, R.D., director of food and nutrition service. The medical center also serves a barley, dried cranberry and scallion salad.

“I think if people get a couple of spoonfuls of these salads, it’s a quick and easy way to get that fresh meal without going overboard,” Marchand says. “It tastes good and you feel that you’ve made a healthy choice.”

And customers are open to trying new things, she adds. They were initially scared of the wheat berries, not knowing what they were, “but then they realized they’re just a vehicle for new flavors.”

Wake Medical Center also sometimes serves couscous (regular and Israeli) salads and pasta salads, which generally have a Mediterranean flavor with plenty of fresh herbs and olive oil.

Even its so-called traditional chicken salad is more than it sounds, livened up with pickle relish and egg. The medical center’s gourmet chicken salad contains grapes, walnuts and fresh dill, while its gourmet tuna includes yellow mustard, Worcestershire sauce and red onions “so it’s got a bit more of a spicy flavor to it,” Marchand points out.

The medical center’s salads almost sell themselves. “We market all new products in our newsletter,” says Marchand, “but if we see something dipping [in sales], we’ll remarket it through a news blast.” The foodservice department also highlights deli salads when their ingredients are in season.

With a variety of uses—not only as salads but in wraps, paninis and other sandwiches—and an almost infinite selection of flavors and ingredients, deli salads are likely to continue to evolve. 

Hummus is Hummin’

The Mediterranean staple has become a regular item on many deli bars.

Many of today’s deli salads may be modern interpretations of classic dishes, but there’s one non-salad that’s definitely becoming a deli favorite: hummus.

“Hummus is a staple in [many] households these days,” says Peter Testory, senior executive chef at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. “There’s a perception that it’s healthy. It’s a great snack with pita chips and has almost taken the place of chips and dips.”

CSU serves hummus on its salad and deli bars in several varieties—regular, jalapeño, roasted red pepper, orange and edamame (which is green since it uses soybeans instead of chickpeas).

“Kids are putting it in sandwiches, or using it as a spread or instead of meat,” Testory adds. From the salad bar it’s mostly eaten as a dip with pita chips.

The university recently started packaging its own hummus and pita chips for retail operations “and it’s flying off the shelves,” at $2.95 a package, he says. It’s served in a two-cup container with a lid—the chips are on the bottom and the hummus is on top in an insert.

Hummus is also popular as a dip at Union Public Schools in Tulsa, Okla., where it’s usually served twice a week with carrots and celery. The hummus at Union is made with sesame oil, sambal, fresh parsley, lemon and salt—and sometimes Maggi seasoning.

“The kids are loving it and put it on salads, on crackers, on the side,” says Eli Huff, executive chef, culinary operations coordinator for the district. “We portion it up into four-ounce containers with carrots and celery so it counts as a legume.”

Lora Gilbert, R.D., director of food and nutrition services at Orange County Public Schools, in Orlando, Fla., says students knew what hummus was before the foodservice managers did. At lunch, kids help themselves to the hummus and like to eat it as a dip with crackers, sweet red or yellow peppers, carrots or celery.

“It’s a great way to get students to take the required amount of fruits and vegetables with their meal,” says Gilbert. 


Curry Chicken Salad

Yield: 48 servings

At most accounts serviced by Corporate Image Dining Services in Connecticut, deli salads are a big hit in all their various forms. Corporate Chef Sal Cantalupo says he has created between 30 and 40 varieties of potato salads, among them a Three Potato Salad, a Purple Potato Salad and even a Sweet Potato Salad. He is similarly adventurous with tuna and chicken. Among them are a Tuna Niçoise Salad; a Grilled Chicken Salad made with chipotle ranch dressing, roasted corn, shredded mozzarella and roasted red peppers; and a dish he calls Rappin With A Chick Salad, composed of roasted chicken, toasted walnuts, crumbled blue cheese and dried cranberries. But the biggest seller is his take on a Curry Chicken Salad.

12 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs
3 lb. blanched, diced celery
4 cups light mayonnaise
2 oz. curry powder
3 tbsp. lemon juice
2 lb. peeled, diced apples
1 lb. seedless raisins 

  1. Place chicken thighs in hotel pan, and add 2 cups water.
  2. Cover with foil and cook in 300°F oven for 1 hour. Remove from oven and cool down.
  3. Pull chicken apart by hand, leaving some nice size chunks. Combine with remaining ingredients and hold at 40°F for service.