Salad Days: Five salads to eat this summer

Anthony Dominic, Crave
Mediterranean Heirloom Tomato Panzanella at Little Eater

Who says salads can't be entrees? Columbus chefs are devoted to the science of salad-building, to the nuances of artisan greens, dynamic dressings and layers of texture that make every bite an experience. This summer, belly up, fasten a bib and fork and knife your way through one of these salads good enough to call a meal.

Mediterranean Heirloom Tomato Panzanella // Little Eater

Come July, Little Eater's Cara Mangini will embrace Ohio's tomato season with a Mediterranean Heirloom Tomato Panzanella ($10). "My key is letting the produce inspire the dish," the chef-owner of the North Market stand says. "If you can choose something, like tomatoes, that look beautiful at the farmers market, you can't go wrong letting that ingredient inspire the whole dish."

For her panzanella, Mangini starts by shaving red onion into a little red wine vinegar to mellow its bite. While the shavings marinate, she slices her brightest heirloom tomatoes-yellows, reds, purples and greens-into bite-size pieces, along with a handful of cherry and sweet sun-gold tomatoes. Then she seeds and thinly slices a cucumber and tosses all the ingredients with an herb mix (basil, parsley and a little mint are her favorites) and a drizzle of red wine vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. Mangini then throws croutons, made from torn Italian bread, with the salad and lets the bread soak up tomato liquid and dressing (it's the best part, she says).

Pro tip: Don't mince herbs for salad. Leave them whole or coarsely chopped for texture and the best flavor.

Roasted Carrot // Sassafras Bakery

"No filler." This was Matthew Heaggans' mantra while crafting salad recipes as a consultant for the new lunch menu at Sassafras Bakery in Worthington. Translation: Every ingredient must serve a purpose, must take the salad to the next level. "Salads aren't a way to get dressing into your mouth anymore," the Flatiron Bar & Diner chef says. "Every component should taste good all on its own; nothing's a gimme."

Point and case: Heaggans' Roasted Carrot salad ($8) at Sassafras hits nearly every texture, satisfies almost every flavor craving. Its namesake carrots are shaved and gently roasted in harissa (hot chili paste) and served warm atop a bed of arugula and quinoa. The honey-and-harissa-spiked vinaigrette pulls and pushes your taste buds with each bite-cooling then warming, sweet then spicy. Fresh celery, lightly salted peanuts and creamy seasoned ricotta are tossed in for depth. "Harissa has a really solid flavor profile that hits all the highs, but it's pretty aggressively spicy so I work to try and mute that," Heaggans says. "It being on a salad with a lot of grains gets us headed in that direction. The honey mellows it further. You get a different experience in all of your bites."

Dissecting a Salad:

-"Peanuts add crunch into [salads] without adding something that's fried," Heaggans says. "Peanuts were integral during our menu tastings. We kept realizing we needed more."

-Heaggans spikes the vinaigrette with harissa to ensure the spicy chili flavor is not static. "When I think about building a salad, I tend to think about basing it around a pretty focused set of ingredients," he says. "I think about a flavor I want to put forward, and with [this salad] the harissa vinaigrette establishes a common thread the dish keeps playing with."

-Heaggans sprinkles in ricotta, not to counter the kick of the harissa, but to add protein and another layer of texture.

Chopped Salad // Northstar Cafe

The Chopped Salad ($14) has been a favorite on Northstar Cafe's menu since its Short North location opened in summer 2004. Since then, the salad's base-chopped greens, turkey, croutons and almonds-has evolved little by little to maximize flavor and vary texture. "The original version was delicious, but we wanted a real chopped salad," says Aminda Warburton, head of culinary research and development at Northstar, who's been with the company since 2006. "Let's make the greens more vibrant, more refreshing, more healthy, more fun to eat. Let's improve the croutons, too. Croutons can be so blah, but we think the new whisper-thin [croutons] are so much better." Now, kale and napa cabbage from Dangling Carrot Farm and RainFresh Harvests are crisp, refreshing and easier to fork. The turkey is smokier, gently flavored over apple-wood. Bits of bacon add crunch and chew. Blue cheese crumbles impart tang. Crisp apple chunks bring acidity and sweetness, mellowed by creamy slivers of avocado. Almonds and subtler, saltier croutons texturize the mix-all coated in a rich and herby, not sour, vinaigrette.

Crouton magic: "When was the last time you ate a crouton and thought, 'Man, this is delicious?' " Warburton asks. Too often, croutons are a cop out-too big, too hard, too flavorless. So Warburton introduced her flaky "whisper-thin" croutons to the Chopped Salad, and it made a world of difference. They're salty, thinly shaved and carefully baked to be less cumbersome and more harmonious with the salad's other fixings. "They're truly one of my favorite parts now," she says.

Quinoa Salad // Heirloom Cafe

What's the source of the kick in Heirloom Cafe's Quinoa Salad ($9.75)? It may take you a few forkfuls to figure out it's the cumin-spiked lime vinaigrette. The lively dressing was inspired by chef-owner John Skaggs' days of working in kitchens in arid Tucson, Arizona. "Those flavors are really commonplace there," he says. "You see it on chicken and pork, but it works with veggies just the same." To make the dressing, Skaggs mixes sweet Ohio honey with lime juice and lime zest, a little Ohio-made white vinegar and a few dashes of cumin and coriander. It's drizzled atop a bed of organic baby arugula and spinach, locally sourced and in-season throughout summer. Next is a sprinkling of red and white quinoa, adding chew and flavor; it's cooked in a mild veggie broth of carrots, onions, celery and bay leaves. Then comes a handful of crunchy Brazil nuts candied with honey, brown sugar and, again, a little cumin for kick. The salad can be ordered as-is or topped with tofu or grilled, free-range Ohio chicken. Meat eaters: Don't fear the tofu. It gets special treatment. Skaggs brines his in soy, chili and sesame oil before moving it into a skillet and crisping it in the oven. "This is where the flavors really marinate," he says. "Tofu is really like a sponge and absorbs anything. The chili, especially, adds another layer of depth and flavor."

Chef Skaggs' favorite things:

-Heirloom's salad menu changes at least four times a year, if not more. The Quinoa Salad is one of the three unchanging staples, but Skaggs will swap the greens or add tomatoes-heirlooms for flavor, cherries as garnishes-based on what's in season and readily available.

-Cumin may be Skaggs' favorite spice. He throws in a dash wherever he can-brines, dressings and syrups are all fair game. He buys and grinds whole seeds from North Market Spices. "It's always better, fresher that way," he says.

Kale Caesar // Harvest Pizzeria and Harvest Bar + Kitchen

If Harvest executive chef Matt Owens eats a salad during his break, chances are it's his Kale Caesar ($12). The word "Caesar," Owens knows, can conjure images of soggy romaine lettuce and rock-solid croutons. Not at Harvest. Owens sources hydroponically grown lacinato kale (traditionally used in Tuscan cooking) from Fresh Harvest Farm in Richwood. "We wanted to use kale because it's a really healthy green loaded with minerals and fiber," he says. "Lacinato kale is much more tender and flavorful, easier to eat and prettier on the plate." Owens uses lemon juice and lemon zest to make his house dressing more acidic than that of a typical Caesar. This keeps the dressing light and bright, while a little bit of egg yolk adds just a touch of creaminess. In place of croutons, he sprinkles toasted hazelnuts for added crunch and a generous shower of imported Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Ingredient spotlight: At Fresh Harvest, farmers marry aquaculture with hydroponics (growing in a soil-free, circulatory water system). Water flows from a tilapia tank into a media bed where bacteria convert fish waste into plant nutrients. This nutrient-rich water is then filtered and pumped through kale troughs and back into the tilapia tank. Owens is partial to this growing method for its sustainability and its efficiency; kale can grow two to three times faster this way.