Grains and Greens

Mixing the two components creates salads with diverse textures and added nutrition.

Published in FSD Update

Kale and Quinoa Salad from Ohio State University’s Wexner
Medical Center.

What if there were a cost-effective way to offer healthy, protein-laden salads that were vegetarian, nutritious and trendy? Enter ancient grains, the perfect addition to greens. By incorporating grains like quinoa, couscous, farro and wheat berries into salads, operators are able to offer more substance and variety, while also expanding their clientele’s palate, says Julianne Aiello, director of marketing and sustainability for Gourmet Dining. Aiello offers Israeli couscous with arugula, dried cranberries and pecans and a Waldorf salad with kale and quinoa. “We’ve found that people who might shy away from a salad because it’s too light are more inclined to buy one with grains.”

Pairing grains with greens

When it comes to pairing grains with greens, there are no hard-and-fast rules.

“Grains are so versatile and interchangeable, you can really mix and match,” says Anthony Lauri, executive chef with Chartwells at the University of Miami. With that said, keep these pointers in mind:

Texture: Complementary pairings like hearty kale with chewy farro work really well, Aiello says. Contrasting sizes do, as well. “Kale takes in smaller grains like couscous with its grooves, whereas something lighter like spinach wouldn’t stick together as well.”

Flavor: “Farro brings out the earthy spice and bitterness of greens like arugula or spinach,” says Aatul Jain, retail operations manager at Saint Clare’s Health System, in Denville, N.J. “Quinoa has more of an herbaceous, minty flavor profile, which goes best with other herbs like parsley and cilantro.”

Balance: As with any dish, balance is paramount. “Bitter greens like kale can have a strong taste, so you need a strong grain like quinoa to balance it out,” says Mike Folino, assistant director of food and nutrition services at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, in Columbus. “Combining grains and greens lets people see that you can put nutritious ingredients into your dishes without feeling like you’re eating ‘health food.’”

Protein: With so many customers wanting vegetarian dishes, salads with grains are a great option. “I call quinoa the vegetarian caviar,” Jain says. “Quinoa is so nutritionally powerful [and full of protein], and it’s a great way to add more volume and bulk without meat or a lot of cost.”

Creating a complete dish

Learning how to cook and cool grains properly is half the battle when it comes to creating great grains and greens salads. “Grains take over an hour to cook, and there’s a fine line between done and overdone,” says Lauri, who cooks nearly 15 pounds of grains every day. Trial and error is key. Lauri recommends boiling grains in a flavorful broth, draining off the liquid and letting them cool on a sheet pan.

Then combine the grains with a compound vegetable, bean or nut and greens. Salads with varying textures, colors and flavors sell best, says Rob DeLuise, chef manager with Flik Independent School Dining at Rocky Hill School in Rhode Island, who offers an Israeli couscous salad with spinach, feta, black olives and red onions.
Grains are highly absorptive, so these salads require a light, non-creamy dressing, like oil with lemon juice or vinegar. Heavy dressings will weigh the salad down, resulting in a soggy lump and wilted greens. Aiello often leaves the dressing out all together, opting for a light balsamic drizzle over the entire dish instead.

Consider toasting grains to bring out their nuttiness. “Quinoa almost explodes, like popcorn, but doesn’t open completely, so it just becomes lighter and crunchier, which can make for a great salad topping—almost like a candied walnut—or for an earthier salad when lightly toasted prior to cooking,” Jain says.

Sales and marketing

Samples are integral to a successful grains and greens program. “If I see a person walking around aimlessly, I’m taking them a spoon,” Jain says. Folino offers his as a side dish, pairing it with a best-selling sandwich, removing the choice and forcing the customer to try something new. Education is also a powerful tool. “Spending the time to talk about the ingredients and their benefits is critical,” says DeLuise, who touts the health benefits of his grain salads through literature, signage and discussions at the salad bar.

Most operators don’t charge more for these salads. Lauri charges by weight, while Folino actually charges less for healthier items. “If the price point is too high, you’ll scare [customers] away and people won’t try it,” Folino explains. “We lower the price on the salads and use it as an opportunity to enlighten guests about what’s new, exciting and healthy.” 

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