Now that spring has finally arrived, local greens are coming into season. Their debut may tempt you to order salad at a restaurant, but for now, reconsider because there's a good a chance you'll be disappointed.
Here in Pittsburgh, salads are treated as an afterthought, the most lowly dish on the menu.
Just walk through restaurants in Market Square during lunch and you'll see many examples of salads with greens that look like they've been suffocating in a bag shipped from California. Others have been hit with an oil slick and garnished with a dumping of out-of-season ingredients.
No wonder salads are unpopular. Where is the love?
Too often, whole leaves are splayed on a plate, so if a diner doesn't cut them like a strip steak, she has to graze on them like a barn animal.
Sometimes they're served with stems. If you're lucky, they won't get stuck in your teeth.
Chad Townsend, executive chef at Salt of the Earth in Garfield, agreed that salads in restaurants can fall short of expectations.
He began to appreciate them more after meeting Darrell Frey, owner and manager of Mercer County's Three Sisters Farm, a five-acre permaculture farm that grows tender greens in super-rich soil, which bolsters flavor.
Mr. Frey also cultivates dandelion greens and chickweed for local restaurants.
"Now, I happen to love salads," he said.
Although Mr. Townsend also buys greens for mesclun salad from nearby Garfield Community Farm, he said it's not just local greens that make for a fine salad. "A proper iceberg lettuce can be delicious, too."
But a cook needs to adjust according to the greens and the ingredients he's using. He must taste as he assembles the dish.
At Legume in Oakland, sous chef Jessica George said that the restaurant has moved on from winter kohlrabi salads to spring mixes from Penn's Corner Farm Alliance and Who Cooks for You Farm in New Bethlehem.
"You'll never find a tomato on our salads in January," she said.
This week, the restaurant is using spring onions and pungent ramps.
Some restaurants err on the side of adding too many ingredients in a salad, along the lines of sugared nuts, shaved Parmesan or crumbles of blue cheese. I ordered one for takeout recently that featured blueberries, candied walnuts and avocado in its "classic" Provencal mix.
An overstocked salad can be as unhealthy as a Big Mac, packed with calories, saturated fats and sugar.
A salad at Chipotle, for example, with salsa, black beans, cheese and vinaigrette weighs in at a whopping 720 calories and 25 grams of fat. And at Toss't in Market Square, the Borderline salad is 664 calories, the Bovine Blue is 603 calories and the King Cobb is 673 calories.
Mr. Townsend said many restaurant salads are an easy fix if they're well-seasoned.
By seasoning, he means salt.
This makes sense, considering the word "salad" is based on Latin sal, "salt."
When he makes a vinaigrette, he adds a hint of salt. Yet he always salts the greens directly as he's dressing a salad.
He is offering a mixed radish salad with sheep's milk feta, fennel, lemon, olive oil, Minus 8 Vinegar and a half of a small clove of raw garlic that he microplanes into the salad, "so it's not a big, raw garlic bomb."
And, of course, he uses finishing salt before serving.
And then there are dressing debacles.
Mr. Townsend said that no matter what dressing is used, how a salad is dressed is a detail that requires a cook's attention.
"Restaurant salads are either wildly overdressed or terribly underdressed," he said.
After salting greens, only enough oil should be added to leave a "surface gloss," wrote Marcella Hazan in "The Classic Italian Cook Book" (Knopf, 1976).
It should be followed by "wine vinegar, preferably red," drizzled with a "stingy hand," because "a few drops too many will ruin a salad."
Note that she does not advocate the use of flavored or balsamic vinegar, the latter being the terrible syrup that tastes like an ice cream topping.
What about creamy dressings?
Mr. Townsend said he doesn't use them on greens.
"In my opinion, lettuce can't handle anything mayonnaise-based."
I could not agree more.
He summed it up this way. "Ranch and blue cheese dressings: These are condiments for wings."
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.