Out in the world, salad bars are a rarity these days — and they tend to conjure memories of sneeze guards, dessicated baby corn, gloppy dressings, and a vague promise of health that went out the window with the bacon bits. But the salad bar at home, the one you can design and closely monitor, the one that will only be mounted for an hour or less, deserves a closer look. It has become a weekly tradition in my household in the warmer months, with a changing theme for each episode: Niçoise, Chef’s, Cobb, Asian, Tex-Mex, Italian, Mediterranean, and so on. What I’ve discovered is that this dinner is a magically kvetch-proof way to feed a crowd: With so many options left to each individual, no one ever complains.
The at-home salad bar is allergy and diet friendly in a way few meals are. Faced with a spread of vegetables, fruits, proteins, and grains, the vegan teenager, gluten-free adult, and low-carbing guest can find what they want without having to be high-maintenance and ask for special accommodations.
Everyone loves choice and customization. For kids, the freedom of being able to build a plate and say no to offending items without recrimination is a beautiful novelty. Letting children participate in the process, washing, peeling, and cutting vegetables, can also drum up enthusiasm. The kid who rejects sliced carrots may well suddenly profess a love for carrot ribbons if he has done the prepping.
The choose-your-own adventure aspect also guarantees interaction and a more active meal experience for everyone. “I love the idea of food that gets people talking and laughing, and this is a great way to do that,” says Clark Gilbert of White Dog Cafe.
Whether you use only fresh ingredients you cut and cook yourself or you rely on some supermarket shortcuts like prewashed greens, cooked beets, or marinated beans (and there are countless others to minimize the work involved), the salad-bar concept puts you ahead of the nutritional game in which half the battle is preparation.
Everyone gets a healthy dose of vegetables, both for this meal and for the coming ones. The leftover elements get packed up either individually or remixed in combinations for lunch boxes and take-to-work Tupperware. If it sounds obvious, remember that having a supply of already-cut cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers is the invaluable luxury that supermarkets know most of us would overpay for.
Proteins can be a mix of one or more of the following: hard-boiled egg, grilled chicken or turkey, cold cuts, canned anchovies, oil-packed tuna, marinated tofu, or grilled seitan. Depending on the crowd, they can hew to traditional salad combinations or add a new spin.
For instance, Clark Gilbert of White Dog Cafe suggests a home-salted cod that can be used in place of the Niçoise’s tuna. He also swaps in grilled octopus or calamari on occasion.
A seared flank steak marinated in sriracha and lime juice, like the one Kelley Terlip serves at Pure Fare, can serve as the foundation for an Asian-flavored salad bar. She serves it over spiralized vegetable noodles made from carrots and kohlrabi, or ribbons of carrot and asparagus, which at home can add the novelty element that kids enjoy (see above).
With any culinary endeavor, texture and color are important principles, and perhaps especially so with the salad bar. The more vegetables on offer, the better. Offer a single kind or a mix of greens—some bitter, some sweet, some lighter, some heavier. Grill a head of romaine or baby gem lettuce or offer already-cut wedges of iceberg when the plastic bags of spring mix start to seem played out. Consider using a mix of cooked — grilled, steamed, or roasted — and raw or even pickled veggies. Roasted tomatoes, pickled red onion, and marinated artichokes deliver intense flavor that enlivens each bite.
“Vegetables are naturally beautiful so very little is needed to make them appealing as long as you have a nice assortment,” Front Street Cafe chef Andrew Petruzelli says. “I do recommend blanching or roasting certain vegetables to take away some of the rawness and bite that they can have, such as broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, or beets. Also, shredding them very finely can help with that issue — think carrots, tougher lettuces like cabbage, and Brussels sprouts.”
Using seasonal vegetables from the produce stand or farmers’ market also ensures variety and an attractive presentation, particularly if that means unusual colored carrots, cauliflower, or the like. Grains and beans can add heft to a salad and stretch out the pricier goodies. Some obvious selections are brown rice, quinoa, couscous, bulgur, chickpeas, black beans, and white beans. Chunks of avocado or cheese (anything from feta or goat cheese to blues to Parmesan shavings) lend the fatty richness necessary for keeping salad-bar night an event the household eagerly anticipates and not some puritan rite of austerity.
For most eaters, the fun of the salad bar is actually the final quadrant, the one with the crispy noodles, nuts, sunflower seeds, and other whatsits. These decisive bits are just as important at home. Nuts, plain or candied, or even crumbled chunks of brittle or granola are the crunchy salad elements that give a plate of greens new life. Gilbert has a fond place in his heart for butter-toasted ramen noodles. Petruzelli suggests swapping in a picada (toasted bread crumbs, walnuts) in place of traditional croutons. Dried fruits (cherries, raisins, apricots, and such) add pleasant chewiness. Olives and capers are another way to accessorize.
Dressings are what hold the whole thing together. Whether it’s a basic olive-oil-and-vinegar affair, a homemade mayonnaise, or an avocado-based “creamy” dressing, it needs to be appealing and versatile enough to match the array of ingredients. A spoon of berry puree, a splash of saba, or a sprinkling of flaky salt, in addition to a vinaigrette, can be a final dimension of deliciousness. Or, as Terlip prefers, a handful of torn fresh herbs for a fresh and more contemporary flavor. “I think people are more willing to innovate, and they want more than shredded cheese and Ranch dressing these days,” she says. “They’re always excited for the opportunity to make the meal their own.”