Long before we stood on line to watch our salad bits tossed by assembly-line hands and stuffed into biodegradable bowls, we ordered chopped salads in restaurants.
Chefs in those kitchens took care to balance crunch with creamy, tangy and savory. The reds of radishes and tomatoes, the burnish of crisped bacon and bright greens of beans and hardy lettuces showed through milky dressings that coated each piece. Precise knifework guaranteed a democratically diverse representation of vegetables in every forkful, bestowing an ironically elevated status on the whole genre.
And we ordered chopped salads in great numbers, expecting to see them on menus as an All-American option.
The nation's Salad Coast, aka West, laid claim to the chopped salad's invention more than a half-century ago, and since then the variations and tweaks have moved the goal line from what a good chopped salad ought to be to anything-goes, kitchen-sink mode. Unless, of course, a particular establishment has produced such an instant classic that its patrons threaten to defect if that salad changes or is retired.
"Chopped salad was the go-to dish in the restaurant you grew up with -- the one that brings you back to another era," says chef Michael Schlow, head of a restaurant group that delivers a satisfying rendition at the Riggsby in Washington's Carlyle Hotel. "It was really one of the first that made it onto this menu: crisp and clean, a little decadent. It will never come off."
The Riggsby serves its Jimmy's Special Chopped House Salad as a first course. It echoes saltiness in bacon morsels, small cheddar cubes and Parmesan crisps, and packs in mandoline-thin slices of zucchini and radish, quartered cherry tomatoes, lettuce and green beans reduced to 1-inch pieces, separately shredded egg whites and yolks and finely chopped chives.
What makes a good chopped salad? It need not have specific ingredients, the way, say, a Cobb salad ought to include blue cheese and hard-cooked egg, tomato and avocado. And, in light of the CDC's recent romaine lettuce warning, there's good reason to explore a variety of leafy greens. Texture is key; no solid components should be significantly larger than others. The raw and the cooked are often side by side. Bite to bite, it can vary, with the overall effect of jumbled treasure.
The dressing does need to bring it all together with harmonic sweetness and acidity. Schlow says his Riggsby kitchen constantly tinkers with the Thousand Island dressing it makes. Sriracha sets it apart in an unexpected yet winning way.
The chopped salad made famous at Freds, the restaurant located in Barneys department stores, skews a little sweet with ripe pear and a creamy balsamic dressing. It is topped with "pulled chicken" and costs $30 at its downtown New York location. But the recipe is included in a new "Freds" cookbook, and we can report that you can, indeed, make it at home for less.
A chopped salad can go Tex-Mex, as proved by Melissa Coleman in the "The Minimalist Kitchen" (Oxmoor House, 2018): chipotle, black beans and garlic, of course. Sweet potato tortilla chips add extra flavor, and although the dressing isn't exactly creamy, it has enough clingy ingredients to make it work.
Now, this type of salad's very name connotes a certain amount of work and prowess at the cutting board. Chopping offers a Zen experience for some home cooks, but not all. A trip to your supermarket salad bar can eliminate most of the work, as the elements have been cooked and/or cut down already. The best pickings happen in the morning, when the ingredients are at their freshest; keep in mind that a late-night trip may end with you, staring at empty stainless-steel surfaces after the salad bar's been put away.
The salad bar route also offers the opportunity to make chopped salad for one. A well-stocked selection allows for further direction of cuisine -- in this case, Asian-inspired elements proved to complement one another: edamame, pea shoots, red bell pepper, cucumber, scallions and a quick, DIY peanut-sesame dressing.
What you can do with all chopped salads you make at home is to prep the ingredients a day or two in advance and stash them separately. Radish slices stored in cool water will stay crisp. Cut lettuce wrapped in barely damp paper towel won't dry out. Wait to break down hard-cooked eggs, as needed. Make a boatload of dressing so you can assemble another chopped salad a few days later. You will want to, and the dressing will keep.
Toss the components with more dressing than you might use for a regular salad, and do so just before serving. Save the especially crispy bits for scattering on top.
You may never want to stand in line for assembly-line salad again.