Even in these glorious days of organic-local-heirloom everything, salad can still carry a stigma. If a man's date opts for the pork chops, he's highly unlikely to order a salad as his entrée. If he does, she'll feel fat, and he'll feel less masculine. Isn't it time to shed that misguided line of thinking?
Across Charleston, restaurants are finding innovative and satisfyingly belly-filling ways of presenting salads. Take the burger joint Sesame (Park Circle, Citadel Mall), for example. First among a dozen burgers (accompanied by a list of 40 toppings) is the option to have your burger "in a bowl." They'll dollop your beef, black bean, chicken, or turkey patty in bacon and cheddar, then serve it to you over greens. From the toppings list, add grilled zucchini, shiitake mushrooms, a fried egg, or even banana and homemade peanut butter.
For those willing to forgo the patty altogether at a burger joint, Sesame takes its regular salads a notch further. The crispy tentacles of the fried calamari salad (marinated in buttermilk and hot sauce) work wonders with the sweet acidity of grilled pineapple slices. A healthier option, the brie and apple salad, seems elementary at first, with large slices of creamy brie and apple placed on a bed of baby greens. But accompanied by dried cranberries, pecans, and a house-made cucumber dill vinaigrette, the combination comes together with incredible cohesiveness.
"It's a good way to not feel weighted down," says chef and owner Casey Glowacki of the small difference that skipping a bun and adding greens can make on a meal. "When I eat a burger, I'm usually ready for a nap."
At restaurants like Husk and the Glass Onion, the daily menus are literally written around what's being harvested that week. With Johns Island's Rosebank Farm's beets popping in June, the Glass Onion combined Bibb lettuce from Kurios Farms in Moncks Corner and goat cheese from Split Creek Farm in Anderson, S.C. The beets are cut thick and marinated in a honey and balsamic vinaigrette, creating an explosive, tart sensation that's akin to candy — until the richness of the cheese takes hold. Sprinkled intermittently between the folds of Bibb lettuce are sweet roasted pecans, which perfectly counter the cheese's savoriness with a crunch of melted butter and brown sugar.
At Husk, the daily salad choices evoke equally laudable flavors, memorable enough to recall precisely weeks after eating. Their early summer offerings included crispy pig ear lettuce wraps with green tomato chow chow. Thin strips of pig ear are marinated in a bourbon-barrel-aged teriyaki sauce, then smoked and fried before finding a worthy serving vessel in a generous leaf of Bibb lettuce.
Fried pig ear might not qualify for the health-conscious salad consumer, but then again, everything at Husk seems to carry a whiff of decadence. The smoky Sunburst Farms trout is served as a small plank of fish, accompanied by sweet corn and an heirloom bean salad. As would only be proper at Husk, a glittering pool of pork fat (in the form of "bacon vinaigrette") puddles next to the trout and bed of greens, begging for the first bite to break its congealed oval. The crispy smoke flavor that ensues from the trout feels like fine jerky — the kind of food you could stick in your pocket and take fishing, savoring the nibbles.
Although Husk's salads are all unconventional, some are at least more familiar in their presentation. With heirloom tomatoes making their first farmers market appearances in early summer, Husk took a selection of Edisto Island's Geechie Boy Market's finest, from Black Cherokees to Green Zebras, peeled and doused in olive oil and lemon. Smooth and decadent Peeler's Milk ricotta worked itself into the folds of a generous bed of arugula and golden beets, all over a rich puree of strawberry vinaigrette. It's enough to give those pork chops a double take.
Ordering a salad is not always an easy decision, especially for Southerners raised on pork and mac-and-cheese. When we eat out, we often tend to splurge, choosing the meatiest, most filling items, the most bang-for-our-buck. But considering what local or organic mixed greens can cost at the grocery store, steering toward these options at restaurants can actually make sense to both our bellies and our pockets, with portions that often leave enough to take home leftovers.
At Caviar and Bananas, salads are made to order almost as quickly as a fast food burger, and they'll even deliver on the peninsula. A small salad starts at $5.50, with a choice of four greens combinations and four toppings from a list of over two dozen options, ranging from edamame to prosciutto crisps — a far cry from ham chunks, kidney beans, and stale croutons.
Chef Todd Mazurek's salad menu includes a scallop salad, featuring pan-seared scallops over arugula with green beans, roasted walnuts, orange slices, and truffled champagne vinaigrette. On a 100-degree summer Wednesday, it's hard to imagine a more satisfying meal.
On a recent Saturday morning at the farmers market in Marion Square, Maria Baldwin gently squeezed each Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato at Joseph Field's stand. A farmer herself (Our Local Foods at Thornhill Farm in McClellanville), Baldwin carefully lifted the tomatoes to her nose, checking their odor. Picking three perfect ones, she reminded us not to refrigerate them because it would lessen their flavor.
With whatever we could find at the market that day, Baldwin designed a DIY summer salad. At Freeman Farm's stand, she found the perfect watermelon and a bundle of sweet white onions. We purchased local honey from Kennerty Farms and a mint plant from Sea Island Savory Herbs.
In the end, we settled on a layered salad, with thinly sliced cucumbers and sweet onions, lightly salted watermelon, and heirloom tomatoes. Back at home, the vegetables were layered in a pedestal bowl with organic yogurt, honey, and mint leaves smoothed in between them.
"We know we can get great food at restaurants," says Baldwin. "What's really important is to embrace the same type of eating at home."
Squeezing a lime over a perfectly textured slice of tomato, threads of fine onion hanging from the fork, one could literally taste the difference in how this plant was grown, as opposed to a field of over-sprayed, flavorless tomatoes from the grocery store bin.
In a head-to-head challenge, a perfect bite of heirloom tomato probably wouldn't hold up in a popularity contest with a forkful of smoked pork BBQ. But maybe that's all in our heads. Produce is the new pork. And chances are, there's a BBQ Salad somewhere on a menu already.