Salads can be a delightful composition of fresh ingredients: a tangle of baby greens, a melting round of creamy cheese, a toss of vegetables and crunchy nuts.
Salads also are the perfect way to showcase the arrival of spring and Jersey Fresh produce, which returns to places such as Collingswood Farmers' Market May 1 and Westmont Farmers' Market on May 5.
From local fields then, comes asparagus and, in a few weeks, expect all manner of lettuce. Maybe that's why area chefs are lavishing salads with careful attention.
At Collingswood's LoBianco New American Cuisine, the line between the salad course, appetizers and entrees is deliberately hazy.
As an example, chef-owner Nick LoBianco adorns an appetizer of raw Ahi tuna slices with baby tatsoi and mache greens, shaved radish and red grapefruit segments. He uses a citrus ginger vinaigrette to highlight the clean taste of the fish with notes of lime and lemon.
"We like the textural qualities of things," says LoBianco. "It's a pretty dish. It's fairly easy. It's just really letting the ingredients shine."
His roasted beet salad is a popular dish of red and golden beets, baby spinach and toasted almonds. Each element is placed on the plate just so.
"It's not a "thrown in a bowl and dumped on a plate' kind of thing," LoBianco explains.
Building a salad may seem deceptively easy for the home cook. After all, there is little to no "cooking" involved. But mistakes can be made. Chefs, for example, consider it sacrilege to drench a salad with bottled dressings.
"They're horrible and they're expensive," LoBianco insists. And a homemade alternative is so easy to make.
At Dream Cuisine Cafe in Cherry Hill, Chef Vincent Fanari likes to use a house-made champagne vinaigrette for his salads. To make a vinaigrette, he suggests putting the vinegar in a bowl first and slowly adding extra virgin olive oil while whisking the mixture together.
Add a little salt and pepper or fresh herbs, shallots or garlic, and you have a low-calorie dressing that will enhance the fresh ingredients of your salad instead of covering them up.
A vinaigrette is appropriate for delicate spring greens, Fanari says.
"It just goes so well. If you have one good dressing, it works."
Change the acidic ingredients depending on your tastes and the salad you are making. Switch to balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, white vinegar or tarragon vinegar, or use a citrus-based dressing.
Recently, Fanari used a lemon, basil and olive oil dressing to top a salad of sliced avocados, mangoes and roasted red peppers, spiced with diced jalapenos.
lettuce and baby spring greens. Quickly grill hearts of romaine for a different take on Caesar salad. Fan slices of apples or pears over top crisp greens and crumbles of Gorgonzola.
Fanari's almond-crusted Brie salad is a menu staple at Dream Cuisine. After crusting the Brie with almonds, he sears it slowly in a pan until the Brie is melting on the inside. The Brie accompanies slices of Red Delicious apples and almonds over spring greens, dressed with his champagne vinaigrette.
"Apples and Brie are always together, so it goes well with the cheese," says Fanari, who was born in Normandy, France.
"You don't have to use Brie. You can use another kind of cheese, too, any kind you like."
Salads lend themselves to personalization.
At Saladworks, a fast-growing chain born in Cherry Hill 23 years ago, the most popular salad is the one customers can create themselves. Founder and CEO John Scardapane says customers can choose from 50 ingredients.
"People love to make their own and pick what they want," he says.
Instead of introducing a seasonal salad for spring, Saladworks ran a contest on Facebook and Twitter offering $500 to three winners for their personal favorite salad. Thousands of people entered.
"It took days to read all the recipes," says Scardapane. "It was just amazing how many people entered and the variety of salads they entered."
Coming to a Saladworks near you then is Dana's Salad, designed by Dana Schafer of Langhorne, Pa., a mix of iceberg and Romaine lettuce, artichokes, mozzarella cheese, Nicoise olives and grape tomatoes tossed with radiatore pasta and shrimp.
The dressing, by the way, is a lemon Dijon vinaigrette.