Chicago Tribune Good Eating: Salad Secrets
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Chicago Tribune Good Eating: Salad Secrets

By Elaine Glusac

In this era of pre-washed, pre-chopped greens, anyone can make a salad. Open the bag, dump contents into a bowl and add bottled dressing. Ho-hum.

So why do salads still taste better coming from a restaurant kitchen? Hint: it isn’t just because someone else did the cooking. There’s a whole lot of flavor pairing, seasoning and ingredient manipulation that goes into a deceptively simple salad. To brush up on the basics we asked the pros to divulge their secrets for superior salads.

Q: How do you design a salad?

A: Keep it simple. “Don’t put 10 things in a salad or it will get muddled and lose focus,” says chef Randy Zweiban of Nacional 27. “Use two to three things and let the ingredients shine with simple clean flavors.”

Q: What are the best greens for flavor?

A: “There are greens that have more pronounced flavor such as arugula, frissee, endive, sorrel and mustard greens,” says chef Shawn McClain, partner in the veggie-focused Green Zebra as well as Spring and Custom House. “The trick is to complement the flavor and combine them with the right foods.” Though this is where cooking becomes culinary art, McClain will admit he likes hardier greens such as arugula, watercress and mustard greens in winter, saving the more delicate mache, butter lettuce and sorrel for summer.

Q: How do you thinly slice or “shave” ingredients into salads such as fennel, onion or parmesan?

A: To shave fennel or onion use a mandoline, a hand-operated, tabletop slicer with blades that adjust to different thicknesses. For home cooks chef Heather Terhune of Atwood Cafe suggests the easy to use and inexpensive Benriner mandoline from Japan . For a hard cheese such parmesan allow it to reach room temperature then shave either using a mandoline or a vegetable peeler.

Q: How do you add raisins or dried fruit without getting sticky clumps in the salad?

A: “The fresher the raisins the more sticky they are,” says Terhune. “They’re moist and chewy and you want them that way. What you can do [to separate them while preserving moisture] is reconstitute them by soaking them in a bowl of hot water. Or you could heat a bowl of orange juice or rum in the microwave and use those liquids to add more flavor.” Soak for five to 10 minutes and drain before using. Dried cherries and cranberries separate easily with your fingers.

Q: How do you add soft cheese like goat cheese without creating messy clumps?

A: “There’s no getting around it,” admits David Connolly, chef di cucina at A Milano in Northfield . “The drier the variety, such as aged goat cheese, the better it crumbles.” Adds McClain, “What you can do is spoon out some soft goat cheese and roll it in some fine ground ingredients to shape and mold. Try bread crumbs, ground nuts or chopped herbs. This covers up imperfections.” To get around the issue entirely think of a dry blue cheese such as Maytag, suggests Terhune.

Q: How do I toast nuts to add to a salad?

A: “It is best to toast nuts in the oven on a sheet pan or pie tin at 350 degrees until golden brown, or until you can smell them.  That is a good test to see if they are toasted enough or not,” says Terhune. Other chefs use the stovetop method which requires your full attention. “For pine nuts place a sauté pan over low heat, add a single layer of nuts to the pan, stir frequently and toss, about two to three minutes,” says Connolly. Done the same way, “sesame seeds can burn in a heartbeat. You have to watch them closely,” says Priscilla Satkoff, chef at Salpicon.

Q: What is the appropriate oil to acid ratio in salad dressing?

A: “The general rule is three parts oil to one part acid, such as three cups of oil to one cup of vinegar, lemon juice, orange juice, pomegranate juice or others,” says Terhune. “To keep the dressing emulsified add one teaspoon of Dijon or dried mustard. If you keep the dressing in a small jar it will last for weeks in the frig. Just shake it up when you want to use it.” Combine all ingredients except oil, then slowly add in oil with a hand whisk. “You can also use a blender or food processor for this,” says Randy Zweiban. “The dressing will stay blended longer before it separates.”

Q: What else can I add to the dressing?

A: “To really underscore the flavor in your salad, take one ingredient in the salad and add it to the dressing,” says Zweiban. “For example if you have avocado in the salad, add avocado into your lime juice or sherry vinegar and oil dressing. It will be the emulsifier and it will accentuate the taste of the avocado.” Try this technique with sun-dried tomato, diced tomato or jalapeno too.

Q: How do you toss a salad?

A: “Always toss with your hands,” says Zweiban. “Tongs and implements don’t do a great job and can bruise or break the greens. You can be gentle with your fingers and lightly coat the salad.” Dry leaves take dressing best. “Get a salad spinner and make sure the leaves are clean and dry,” says Terhune. “If they’re wet the dressing will fly off.” And don’t drench the greens. “Salads stack better when they’re not overdressed,” says McClain.

Q: How do you season a salad?

A: “When it comes to salads, everybody thinks of pepper but not salt,” says McClain. “Salt is essential. And the kind of salt is important. Kosher salt tends not to melt as much and you don’t want to crunch into salt. The flakier the sea salt the better.” Season salads with salt and pepper while tossing. How much salt to add? About a pinch per salad. But, says Connolly, “It’s all about taste, taste, taste. I have guys tasting salads all day long.”

Q: How come your salads taste better than mine?

A: “You could drive yourself crazy trying to make the perfect salad every time,” says McClain. “But if you hit a few of these points you should be alright.”

Grilled Salmon with Mango-Jicama Salad

By Heather Terhune, executive chef, Atwood Café

Serves 4


4 8-ounce fresh salmon filets
4T canola oil
1 jicama
1 ripe mango
1 red pepper
2 fresh limes
1 ripe read pear
1 bunch cilantro
1 bunch green onions
salt and pepper
1 t honey


  1. Peel the jicama and cut into matchsticks.
  2. Peel mango and cut into strips.
  3. Core the pear and julienne, leaving the skin on.
  4. Finely chop on bunch of cilantro.
  5. Seed the pepper and julienne.
  6. Cut the green onion on a bias.
  7. Put all the fruit and vegetables in a bowl and squeeze lime juice over these ingredients.
  8. Add honey and mix.
  9. Add salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate until use (can be make one day ahead).
  10. Pre-heat your grill to medium high heat. Rub the four salmon filets with canola oil and seasons with salt and pepper.
  11. Grill the salmon to desired doneness. Medium takes about four minutes per side.
  12. Serve by mounding some of the salad on top of each piece of salmon.

Arugula Salad

By David Connolly, chef di cucina, A Milano

Ingredients per salad
1C baby arugula
1/4C shaved fennel
2T fresh goat cheese crumbled
1T toasted pine nuts
2T lemon vinaigrette
kosher salt and ground black pepper to taste

Lemon Vinaigrette (will dress about 4 salad servings)
1 lemon, juiced
1/2 shallot minced
1/2c extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt and ground black pepper to taste
Wash and dry the baby arugula. To make vinaigrette combine lemon and shallot in a bowl, whisking in oil. Season with salt and pepper. Toss greens with fennel and pine nuts. Add vinaigrette and season to taste with salt and pepper. Top with goat cheese.

Grilled Red Onion, Tomato and Avocado Salad
with Avocado Vinaigrette

By Randy Zweiban, chef, Nacional 27

Serves 4

For the Salad:

2 Each Large Ripe Vine Ripe Tomatoes
1 Each Red Onion
2 Each Ripe Haas Avocados
1/8 Cup Sherry Vinegar
¼ Cup Canola Oil
Fresh Ground Black Pepper and Kosher Salt

1- Core tomatoes and cut each into 4 slices.

2- Cut the onion into 8 slices and marinate in oil, vinegar and season with some of the salt and pepper.

3- On a hot grill or in a hot sauté pan, cook the onions for about 2 minutes per side and reserve.

4- Peel, seed and cut the avocados in half. Slice each half into 4 slices.

For the Vinaigrette:

1 Each Ripe Hass Avocado
2/3 Cup Canola Oil
½ ounce Sherry Vinegar
1/3 Cup Fresh Squeezed Lime Juice
1 teaspoon Kosher Salt
1 teaspoon Fresh Ground Black Pepper

1- Peel, seed and rough chop the avocado.

2- Place in a blender with the vinegar, lime juice, salt and pepper.

3- Turn the blender on and slowly pour the oil into the blender.  You can add more oil to get to the consistency you like.

To assemble:

1- On four plates, place 2 slices of tomatoes side by side. Season with salt and pepper.

2- Top with 4 slices of avocado.

3- Top with 2 slices of onion.

4- Drizzle the vinaigrette on the salad and around the plate.

5- Crack fresh black pepper over the salad.

6-  Sprinkle chopped herbs over the salad such as parsley, chives or cilantro.

Spring Radish Salad
with savory French toast and mustard dressing

By Shawn McClain, executive chef/partner, Green Zebra, Spring, Custom House

Serves: six

French Toast
12 French bread slices (1” thick)
2 eggs
1C half & half
2T chives-minced
2T parmesan-finely grated
Salt and pepper to taste
2T whole butter

Mustard Dressing
1T Dijon mustard
1 egg yolk
1t red wine vinegar
½C Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and Pepper to taste

½ lb. Mixed baby radishes, cleaned and sliced
½ lb. Mixed baby greens
Sea salt to taste
Freshly grated parmesan


1. Combine eggs, half & half, chives and parmesan and whisk well until smooth.  Season with salt and pepper.

2. In a non-reactive bowl, combine egg yolk with Dijon and vinegar.  While whisking, slowly drizzle in olive oil to form dressing.  Season with salt and pepper.

3. Place French bread into custard and let stand 2 minutes.  Remove and shake off excess.  Place into a non-stick pan over medium heat with whole butter and brown on both sides. Reserve warm.

4. Place radishes into a bowl with greens and dress with mustard dressing.  Season with salt and pepper.

To Plate: Place two pieces of French toast onto six serving plates and garnish with dressed radishes. Grate fresh parmesan on top of greens/radishes and serve immediately.