Meet the Salad Challenge

Salads are often thought of as the default healthy choice. However, some salads can be high in carbohydrates and saturated fats when drenched with high-calorie dressings. Whether it's served from a salad bar or a made-to-order concept, operators have to please the customers who want a health-conscious salad that still feels like a meal in order to walk the salad tightrope.

Naturally high in fiber and vitamins, salads can either be a savior or a calorie-laden danger. Masquerading as fresh and light, some salads can be a landmine of saturated fats, carbohydrates and all things dietarily undesirable. It’s often the case where the salad itself isn’t the problem—it’s what customers heap onto it that’s troublesome.

It is a challenge to offer salad items that are tasty, seasonal, cost-effective, almost labor-free and healthful. It takes lots of skill and creativity to design a salad menu that pleases the low-fat vegan, the no-carb carnivore, the gluten-free/only-comes-in-on-Wednesday diner, and the “I’d like a salad I can really sink my teeth into” traditionalist.

Whether you offer salads on a bar or composed on a plate, there are many techniques you can use to please the salad minions.

Salad bars: Let’s assume that traditional salad bars have the following components: greens (fresh or cold); hearty, crunchy vegetables (cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, etc.); cooked vegetables; toppings (such as sliced mushrooms, sunflower seeds, bacon bits, etc.); seasonal or canned fruit; several fruit, vegetable and/or pastra salads; proteins (chopped eggs, julienned ham, shredded cheeses, etc.); croutons and/or crackers, and dressings.

What else can you do to make your salad bars more healthful? Part of it is in the set-up. For example, furnish one-ounce ladles for salad dressing. Put out #16 scoops (about 2 ounces) or #32 scoops (about 1 ounce) for mayo-based protein salads, such as tuna or chicken. If not too labor-intensive, offer chopped hard-cooked egg white and egg yolks in separate pans.

Arrange salad bar items so low-calorie and low-fat ingredients are the first items on the line; people tend to heap their plates right at the beginning, slowing down as they go along.

Served salads: For served salads, offer salad dressing on the side. Offer options to higher-fat salad dressings such as flavored vinegar, several types of salsa, or minced fruit and vegetable combinations tossed with fresh or dried herbs and a minuscule amount of vegetable oil. Control portions of higher-fat items such as whole-fat cheeses and cold cuts. Offer baked, rather than fried, croutons or other crispy toppings. Offer half portions of higher-calorie salads.

Play up the colors, using seasonal or dried fruit and vegetables, and the crunch. Think of a crisp combination of jicama, hearts of palm, cauliflower florets and fresh (uncooked) sweet green peas.

Shred and mince salad ingredients for salad dressings. For example, shred and mince arugula, cilantro and basil and toss with white pepper, lime juice and a dash of olive oil for an exotic, low-calorie dressing.

Mayonnaise is convenient to use as a dressing, but has little going for it. High in salt and fat, egg-based mayonnaise is not the only dressing on the block. There are “diet” and vegetarian mayonnaises on the market.

Have a taste-test to compare taste, texture and price. For customers who think they are saving calories by choosing egg-less mayonnaise, point out that many vegetarian mayonnaises are soy- or safflower-oil based, so they are not lower in calories, just saturated fat.

Soy products are popular and readily available. Low-fat silken tofu is close in price to commercial mayonnaise.

Prepare a tofu mayonnaise by blending silken tofu in a blender or food processor with a small amount of prepared mustard, white pepper and white vinegar. Extra tofu mayonnaise can be used to dress salads and as a sandwich spread.

Low-fat yogurt is another option, mixed with a small amount of prepared mustard and white pepper. The texture is similar to mayonnaise and the flavor gives a pleasant “tang” to slaws.

Mining new cole: Cole slaw walks the line between healthy and not-so-healthy salads. Pale green cabbage slathered in trans-fat-full mayonnaise is a hard sell for health.

Several years ago, a frozen food manufacturer got tired of throwing out all the broccoli stalks left over from freezing the more popular broccoli florets. He peeled and shredded the broccoli stalks, and broccoli slaw was born. Many school districts are opting for broccoli slaw over the traditional cabbage slaw, as it stays crunchy for a longer time than traditional slaw, is easy to get on your fork and is higher in some nutrients than green cabbage.

Other types of cabbage and greens can be used alone or in combinations. This includes shredded red cabbage, Napa cabbage, Savoy cabbage, kale and Swiss chard. Shredded carrots are cole-slaw tradition. Start a tradition of your own by adding dried cranberries, minced pineapple, minced red or yellow bell pepper, chopped fresh parsley, chopped fresh orange segments or thawed, chopped blueberries.

Slaws were not meant to be just a bowl of high-fat greens. Here are some more combinations to liven up the slaw:

  • Canned fruit (packed in juice): drained and chopped peaches, apricots, pears and pineapple.
  • Dried fruit: raisins, apricots, peaches, apples and figs.
  • Fresh fruit: chopped apples, pears, peaches, apricots, grapes and berries.
  • Nuts: walnuts, almonds, pecans, pistachios.
  • Fresh veggies: chopped fresh chilies, shredded beets, diced celery or onions, chopped broccoli or cauliflower florets.

Sweet Carrot, Cabbage, and Portobello Salad 

YIELD: 20 2-oz. servings

5 oz. chopped carrots
3 Tbs. teriyaki sauce vegetable oil spray
3 cloves minced garlic
2 lbs. medium-diced portobello caps
2 Tbs. cracked black pepper
6 oz. minced fresh red bell pepper
1 lb. shredded Napa cabbage
1 lb. cooked angel hair pasta or rice vermicelli

1. Place carrots and teriyaki sauce into a blender or food processor canister and process until blended.

2. Spray a wok with oil and allow to heat. Add garlic and the portobello and toss until sweated, about three to four minutes.

3. Toss with cracked pepper. Add bell pepper and stir. Add shredded cabbage and stir to combine. Lower heat and simmer for two minutes.

4. Make a well in the center of the wok and add the carrot mixture. Heat gently for one minute and add pasta. Toss mixture to combine. Serve warm or chilled.