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I don’t know about you but the last thing I think of when I hear the word “bar” is roughage, except maybe for the olives in my martini. But for legions of Americans, “salad” is the word reflexively linked with the word “bar.” Indeed, salad bars have become an indelible fixture in our country’s culinary landscape. First and foremost this is a function of America’s obsession with “healthy” food and losing weight. Second, salad bars are also amenable to the fast paced, on-the-go lifestyle that defines our society. They make for a quick lunch or dinner since there is no time wasted waiting for the food to arrive. Expediency can be enhanced even further by quickly filling a to-go container and getting on your way.
But on a deeper level, I think salad bars are widely popular because of the freedom of choice they proffer. It is inherently satisfying to human nature to be able to choose whatever we want, and have many options over which to exercise that liberty. Holding all other factors constant, the larger and more diverse the salad bar, the more it appeals to those inner strivings. So there you have it: Salubriousness, efficiency, and freedom. What could be better?.........................How about another martini? This time with a cherry so I can get a serving of fruit as well as vegetables. I know. I’m incorrigible.
Like countless other food and culinary creations the origins of the salad bar are mired in controversy. Multiple people and institutions take credit for its invention. Supposedly, a 1951 restaurant called “The Cliffs” from Illinois advertised a salad bar. The New York Times asserts that the first salad bars appeared in 1960’s steakhouses in the Big Apple. Rax Restaurants, a Midwest chain, claims it introduced the first salad bar, also in the 1960’s. In the same decade, the genesis of the salad bar is declared by a Hawaiian Steakhouse. A final contender for the salad bar’s debut is Richard Melman’s Chicago restaurant RJ Grunts in 1971. Of course it’s always possible that more than one source conceived of the idea independently, albeit at different times. Regardless of its provenance, the idea caught on like wildfire and now salad bars appear to be a timeless classic.
Salad bars certainly vary in their scope from eatery to eatery but let’s discuss a template for a model salad bar. A comprehensive salad bar should have comestibles from each of the following categories: salad greens, vegetables, meats and cheeses, carbohydrates, fruits, miscellaneous garnishes, and of course dressings.
There are numerous types of salad greens and hopefully your salad bar provides more alternatives than a solitary bowl of iceberg lettuce. At the very least there should be a container of mixed greens, but offering a variety of individual greens is even better, such as a smattering of iceberg, romaine, bitter greens like radicchio or endive, and spinach. Vegetable prospects are endless: tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, peppers, olives, onions, peas, garbanzo beans, corn, the list goes on and on. In the interest of heterogeneity and freedom of choice, the more the better. Meats such as turkey, ham, and possibly roast beef allow for the construction of a chef salad. Cheese always takes a salad to a new level. Blue and goat cheeses are salad classics but provolone or mozzarella are always a welcome addition. Cottage cheese is a nice supplement, especially for dieters. Carbohydrate possibilities include potato salad, pasta, and sometimes rice. Some salad bars even sport a mini bread bar with loaves of different kinds of bread. Fruits can also run the gamut and a decent array of them offers patrons the possibility of composing a fruit salad. Miscellaneous garnishes can also be as divergent as the chef’s imagination but the traditional mainstays are croutons, bacon bits, and chopped hard boiled eggs. However, the sky’s the limit as evidenced by alfalfa sprouts, nuts and seeds, chopped herbs, fried noodles, dried fruits, etc. At least a few novel garnishes should be included to incite more interest and overall appeal. Last but certainly not least, a panoply of dressings is indispensable, including multiple types of oils and vinegars.
Salad bars are a delightful venue for entertaining at home, especially summer outdoor parties. Naturally the home cook can’t achieve the multiplicity of the professional salad bar. Nevertheless, for the sake of diversity, at least endeavor to have one selection from all of the above mentioned categories. This will imbibe your personal salad bar with at least breadth, if not depth. Remember to chill the salad plates before service.
Food safety is a paramount concern with salad bars. There are a number of issues to be wary of when evaluating one. First and foremost, does all the food appear fresh? Are all the greens and vegetables thoroughly washed and then dried? Items languishing in a pool of water will wilt and can be a breeding ground for bacteria. Any sign of aging, wilted, or otherwise spoiled food is indeed a portent of an unconscientious establishment and should be avoided. Is the overall bar clean and organized? A diligent establishment will have ample staff available to clean spills and errant food particles as well as restock the items, utensils, and plates. Older, half empty containers of food should be replaced, not topped off with fresh offerings. Does the salad bar have “sneeze guards” 14-18 inches above the food and directly athwart from the patrons’ noses and mouths? Is everything at the right temperature? Cold foods should be held at 40 degrees or below and hot foods at 140 degrees or above, and absolutely no longer than 4 hours, according to the Food & Drug Association. Some would argue even less. Forty to 140 degrees is the danger zone within which bacteria can multiply the fastest. If all this is good, then happy grazing!