When Brian West, executive chef for Bon Appetit at Adobe in San Jose, Calif., curates a custom mix of lettuce for his salad bars, he has four factors in mind: flavor, color, texture and nutrition. Most varieties of greens check more than one of these boxes, so it’s all about mixing and matching as seasonal availability changes to keep an overall balance.
“In the winter, you’re going to see a lot of mixed chicories going in: endive, radicchio, Castelfranco,” West says. “They’re all a little bit bitter—not crazy bitter—so we blend that with a little sweeter, more supple lettuce in there.” Examples might be lolla rossa or baby head, he says. In the summertime, baby oak leaf, arugula and baby kale make an appearance, as well as tops from beets, radishes and carrots. “It not only adds another layer of texture and flavor, but it helps [reduce] our food waste,” West says.
An appealing blend has bright greens, dark greens and a dash of red or violet for visual interest, says Derrick Purcell, director of dining for Aramark at Delaware State University in Dover, Del. “The more color, the better,” he says. One of Purcell’s favorite combinations is red leaf romaine, light green arugula and dark green spinach or kale. West likes red vein sorrel for its eye-catching bright green leaves with burgundy accents, and it has the added bonus of lending a contrasting sour flavor.
Aim for a balance between crunchy and leafy. West likes to use red frill lettuce, grown in Adobe’s on-site garden, for texture. Radicchio is also a no-brainer to add both crunch and a punch of purple color; however, it’s not always a realistic choice, Purcell says. “I like radicchio, but it’s a little bit more expensive,” he says.
“A lot of people go to a mixed green or a romaine lettuce that doesn’t really have a ton of nutrient value,” West said. Enter vitamin-packed spinach and kale. “If you chiffonade the kale, a lot of people don’t really notice that it might be kale, but they’ll still be getting a lot of it in their bowl.” In addition to a custom mix, West says Adobe’s salad bars are stocked with separate wells of single-variety lettuces so diners can supplement as they see fit.