As the winter farmers markets are shuttering for the season, local farmers are gearing up to ready their crops for the spring and summer, and local restaurants are ready to start using the fruits of their labor (pun intended) to create their leafy menu offerings.
“We look for fresh ingredients, local ingredients that are different, not run of the mill,” said Gretchen Hutton, manager at Rustic Leaf Bistro (15 Elm St., Milford, 672-1556, therusticleaf.com). Many salads at the Rustic Leaf are made with both vegetables and fruit.
“Just about anything goes on a salad; you’d be surprised,” Hutton said. “We have customers here that question some of the ingredients we blend together and are very pleasantly surprised.”
Hutton noted some of the most popular salads at the Bistro are Apple (baby spinach, roasted local apples, cranberries, candied walnuts, goat cheese), Avocado (baby spinach, fresh avocado, roasted corn, grape tomatoes, free range eggs, gorgonzola cheese) and Butternut (baby spinach, roasted butternut, roasted apples, cranberries, candied walnuts, pumpkin seeds, goat cheese). Roasted beets have also been a growing salad trend and take center stage in a Bistro offering made with romaine hearts, fresh peas, broccoli, garbanzo beans, sun-dried tomatoes and feta cheese.
The decision of whether to use mixed greens, romaine hearts or baby spinach as your salad base may be the most important part of the process.
“Different kinds of lettuce is really important … there is nutritional value involved,” said Julie Marshall, who owns Purple Finch Café (124 S. River Road, Bedford, 232-1953, purplefinchcafe.com) with her husband, Jeff. “Iceberg [lettuce] is just like eating water, essentially,” she said, adding that the flavor of the greens can only really be detected when basil or cilantro is in the mix.
Popular salads at Purple Finch are the Strawberry Salad (strawberries, blueberries, feta cheese, mixed greens and walnuts, topped poppy seed dressing) and the Calypso (a special, made with mixed greens, fresh mozzarella, cilantro, mango salad — which Marshall said is both sweet and spicy — and grilled chicken, topped with avocado ranch dressing). The kitchen staff at the Purple Finch also tops the restaurant’s Southwest Salad with salsa, but one that is more ranch style.
“[Salsa] is really good for you,” Marshall noted. “When you do Weight Watchers you’re told to use it instead of salad dressing … there is a lot of flavor and it’s a little more substantial than the oil and vinegar route.”
The owners of Purple Finch Café found a new way to present salads by allowing customers the option to order any of them as a wrap.
“Sometimes it’s hard to eat [a salad] in the car or on the go … this way you can get a salad but you can get a grip on it,” Marshall said. They also added a wedge salad to their menu. The café serves Wedge Sliders (three baby romaine lettuce chunks topped with sliced vine ripe tomatoes, bacon & bleu cheese crumbles, scallions & bleu cheese dressing).
“Sometimes putting a new spin on a classic makes it new again,” Marshall said.
While some restaurants offer only chicken, steak and occasionally a seafood option for customers to top their salads with, Rustic Leaf Bistro and Purple Finch Café allow for their clienteles to opt for a few different protein choices.
Marshall was surprised at first when her customers began requesting one of the café’s two veggie burgers (they offer both a spicy black bean and traditional garden burger) to top their salads with. The meat-free option, she added, was a popular choice during Lent. “You’re still getting that protein,” she said.
Hutton noted grilled salmon is one of the most popular salad additions at Rustic Leaf Bistro, as is a scoop of chicken salad (made with roasted glazed apple chicken, walnuts, cranberries and apple aioli). Tuna salad, organic beans, roasted mushrooms, hard boiled eggs, seared salmon or shrimp and lump crab meat are other options and, though not ordered very frequently, another unique salad topping at the Bistro is locally sourced balsamic vegetables, which change regularly and often include broccoli, chickpeas or squashes.
“We really try to push the local foods here,” Hutton said. Most customers at Rustic Leaf Bistro, she added, typically pair their salads with a fresh brewed iced tea.
“This time of year, when it’s starting to get nice out again, people are ordering more salads — it’s getting close to bathing suit season,” Marshall said.