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, a.k.a. 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," said 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 said 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.
Freds Chopped Chicken Salad
Four to six servings
Order this classic East Coast chopped salad at the famed Barneys department store restaurant in New York and it'll cost you $30. This recipe re-creates it with a creamy balsamic dressing and a well-balanced mix of green beans, chicken, ripe pear, onion and avocado.
In light of the recent CDC warning not to eat romaine lettuce, we recommend checking the ingredient list on any salad blend you buy.
Make ahead: You'll have dressing left over, which can be refrigerated for up to one week. Shake to re-emulsify before using. Or you can cut the dressing ingredients in half.
Adapted from "The Freds at Barneys New York Cookbook," by Mark Strausman and Susan Littlefield (Grand Central Life & Style, 2018).
For the dressing
• 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
• 1/4 cup Dijon mustard
• Low-sodium soy sauce 1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
• 1 teaspoon kosher salt
• 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar
For the salad
• 1 ripe pear, cored and cut into 1-inch chunks
• 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
• 4 ounces salad blend (that does not include romaine lettuce; see headnote)
• 1 cup string beans, blanched and cut into 1-inch pieces (see NOTE)
• 1 cup cherry tomatoes, each cut in half
• 1/2 cup minced onion
• Flesh of 2 ripe avocados, cut into 1-inch chunks
• 3 1/2 cups cooked chicken, from one roast chicken
For the dressing: Combine the vinegar, mustard, soy sauce, kosher salt and pepper in a blender; puree for about 30 seconds. On low speed, slowly drizzle in the oil to form an emulsified dressing. Taste and add the sugar, as needed. The yield is 1 1/2 cups.
For the salad: Sprinkle the pear with lemon juice in a mixing bowl; this will keep the fruit from turning brown. Add greens, the green beans, tomatoes, onion, avocado and half of the chicken. Add 3/4 cup of the dressing and toss to make sure everything is lightly coated, adding more dressing, as needed.
Divide the mixture among individual plates, distributing it equally. Top each portion with the rest of the chicken and serve right away, passing the remaining dressing at the table.
Note: To blanch the green beans, boil a pot of water over high heat. Add a pinch of salt and then the beans; cook for 30 seconds, then drain and immediately transfer them to a bowl of water and ice cubes. When cool, drain and pat dry.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 6, using 1 cup dressing): 490 calories, 27 g protein, 15 g carbohydrates, 37 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 70 mg cholesterol, 590 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar.
Chipotle-Garlic Chopped Salad
This recipe pays homage to Tex-Mex cuisine, with components that can be prepped and held in the refrigerator for a few days so you can assemble the salad for weekday lunches or a quick dinner.
The original recipe called for charring the corn in a separate step; these days, the convenience of good-quality charred corn on the frozen aisle makes this prep even simpler.
In light of the recent CDC warning not to eat romaine lettuce, we offer the substitution of green leaf lettuce or green cabbage instead.
Make ahead: The dressing can be refrigerated for up to 1 month. Before serving, run its container under warm water to loosen up the contents, then shake to re-emulsify.
Adapted from "Minimalist Kitchen: 100 Wholesome Recipes, Essential Tools and Efficient Techniques," by Melissa Coleman (Oxmoor House, 2018).
For the dressing
• 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 tablespoon pureed chipotles in adobo
• 2 teaspoons ketchup
• 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
• 1 tablespoon good-quality mayonnaise
• 1 clove garlic, smashed
• 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
• Squeeze of honey (optional)
For the salad
• 1 1/2 pounds green leaf lettuce or green cabbage, thinly sliced (see headnote)
• 20 sweet potato tortilla chips, such as Food Should Taste Good brand
• 1/2 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
• One 15-ounce can no-salt-added black beans, drained and rinsed
• 1 1/2 cups frozen charred or roasted corn kernels, warmed through (see headnote)
• 1/2 cup sliced grape tomatoes
• Flesh of 1 avocado, diced
• 3 radishes, thinly sliced
• 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
For the dressing: Combine the oil, pureed chipotles, ketchup, vinegar, mayo, garlic, salt and the honey, if using, in a high-powered blender or food processor; puree on HIGH for about 30 seconds, until smooth. The yield is 1 cup.
For the salad: Combine the lettuce or cabbage, tortilla chips, cheese, black beans, corn, tomatoes, avocado, radishes and cilantro in a mixing bowl and toss to incorporate. Just before serving, add the salad dressing (shake it first to re-emulsify, as needed) and toss gently to coat evenly.
Divide the salad among individual plates. Serve right away.
Nutrition | Per serving: 490 calories, 14 g protein, 44 g carbohydrates, 31 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 310 mg sodium, 13 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar.
Jimmy's Special Chopped House Salad
Four to six servings
This is served as a first course at the Riggsby in Washington's Carlyle Hotel, but it's certainly filling enough for brunch or lunch as well. The salad is named in honor of an alleged character named Jimmy who used to "run numbers outside the hotel" long ago, says restaurateur Michael Schlow.
Its dressing is a modern Thousand Island, spiked with a bit of Sriracha. The recipe makes more than you'll use here, but we think it's so good you'll be happy to have it on hand to use as a sandwich spread and as an accompaniment with shrimp and avocado, for starters.
In light of the recent CDC warning not to eat romaine lettuce, we offer the substitution of green leaf or butter lettuce instead.
Make ahead: The cheese crisps can be done up to one day in advance and stored in an airtight container. Or you can buy them at the salad bar of some Whole Foods Markets. The dressing can be refrigerated for up to one month; re-stir before using.
From the Michael Schlow Restaurant Group.
For the dressing
• 1 1/2 cups regular or low-fat mayonnaise
• 3/4 cup Heinz ketchup
• 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
• 1 tablespoon Sriracha
• 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, or more as needed
• 1 tablespoon plus 2 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
• 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
• 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or more as needed
• 2/3 cup minced cornichons (from 4 ounces; may substitute sweet gherkins)
• 2 tablespoons minced white onion
• 3 large eggs, hard-cooked and grated
For the cheese crisps
• 2 ounces freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (see headnote)
For the salad
• 1 pint cherry tomatoes, cut into halves or quarters
• 2 cups green beans, blanched and cut into 1-inch pieces (see NOTE)
• 1/2 medium zucchini, cut lengthwise in half and then crosswise into very thin slices (preferably with a mandoline)
• 4 or 5 red round radishes, cut into thin slices
• 2 ounces mild cheddar cheese, cut into small dice
• 2 heads green leaf or butter lettuce, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (see headnote)
• 2 strips cooked bacon, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
• 2 large eggs, hard-cooked and separated into whites and yolks, then grated
• 20 chives, minced
For the dressing: Whisk together the mayonnaise, ketchup, vinegar, Sriracha, lemon juice, mustard, Worcestershire sauce and salt in a mixing bowl until well blended. Stir in the cornichons, onion and eggs. Taste, and add more salt and/or lemon juice, as needed. The yield is about 4 cups.
For the cheese crisps: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone liner. Line a plate with paper towels.
Portion the cheese into 2-teaspoon piles, spacing them about 1 inch apart and pressing them down slightly. Bake (middle rack) for about six minutes, or until golden and melted. Let cool on the baking sheet, then transfer to the paper towel-lined plate to drain before using.
For the salad: Combine the tomatoes, green beans, zucchini, radishes (to taste), cheddar cheese and lettuce in a mixing bowl. Add 1 1/2 cups of the dressing and toss to coat. Taste, and add more of the dressing; you want the salad components to be evenly and well coated.
Divide among individual bowls or plates, then top each serving with some of the bacon, the cheese crisps (breaking them up as you go), grated egg whites and yolks. Sprinkle with the chives and serve right away.
Note: To blanch the green beans, bring a pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add a pinch of salt and the trimmed beans; cook for 30 seconds or so, until just bright green, then drain and immediately transfer to a bowl of water and ice cubes. Cool completely and pat dry before using.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 6, using low-fat mayonnaise): 270 calories, 14 g protein, 19 g carbohydrates, 16 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 125 mg cholesterol, 800 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 9 g sugar.
A La Carte Chopped Salad
One to two servings
Don't worry about the length of the ingredient list for this crunchy salad: You're picking up almost everything at the grocery store salad bar (in this case, Whole Foods Market), and the dressing takes three minutes to assemble. Much of the basic prep is done and this makes just enough for one large dinner salad, or two smaller salads.
For measuring purposes, a "tongs' worth" is about the amount you can reasonably pick up using those black plastic salad bar tongs.
Crunchy rice rolls are made of puffed white and/or brown rice, or a combination. They are available on the international aisle (Asian section) at Whole Foods Markets and via online purveyors.
Make ahead: The dressing can be refrigerated for up to three days.
From deputy Food editor and recipe editor Bonnie S. Benwick.
For the dressing
• 2 tablespoons creamy peanut butter, preferably natural style
• 1 small clove garlic, minced
• 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon low-sodium soy sauce or tamari
• 1 tablespoon plain rice vinegar
• 1 tablespoon water
• 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
• 2 tablespoons sunflower or canola oil
• Pinch sugar, or more as needed
• 2 teaspoons sesame seeds, preferably roasted
For the salad
• 2 tongs' worth pea shoots, coarsely chopped
• 6 spears roasted asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces
• 1 tongs' worth sliced red bell pepper cut into smaller pieces, if desired
• 2 or 3 spoonfuls thickly sliced cucumber, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
• 1 tongs' worth thinly sliced red or white onion
• 3 spoonfuls shelled, cooked edamame
• 2 spoonfuls chopped scallions
• 2 or 3 tongs' worth grilled, shredded salmon (optional)
• 1 crunchy rice roll, such as J1 brand, coarsely chopped (see headnote)
• 3 tablespoons roasted, unsalted peanuts, coarsely chopped
For the dressing: Whisk together the peanut butter, garlic, soy sauce or tamari, rice vinegar, water, toasted sesame oil, sunflower or canola oil in a liquid measuring cup, until smooth. Taste and add the sugar as needed, stirring to blend well. Sprinkle in the sesame seeds. The yield is about 1/3 cup.
For the salad: Combine the pea shoots, asparagus, red bell pepper, cucumber, onion, edamame, scallions and the salmon, if using, in a mixing bowl. Add half the dressing and toss to coat evenly. Taste, then add some or all the remaining dressing. Top with the bits of crunchy rice roll and the peanuts. Eat straight out of the bowl.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 2, using half the dressing): 460 calories, 32 g protein, 26 g carbohydrates, 29 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 45 mg cholesterol, 230 mg sodium, 8 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar.
Bonnie S. Benwick is The Washington Post's deputy food editor and recipe editor. Cook with her each week at Dinner in Minutes: voraciously.com.