For a very long time the simple salad was an afterthought in American restaurant cooking—anyone could make one, and not a lot of technique was required. At home, too, salads can become something more thrown-together than inspired. The current obsession with seasonal produce is changing that. But a great salad is about more than ingredients; it's about finesse, an understanding of flavor and texture, and a little old-fashioned restraint.
"The tendency among chefs much younger than myself is to overthink it," says Chef Chris Hastings, winner of the 2012 James Beard Best Chef: South award, who's been in the business going on three decades now. "Too often there are too many ingredients. You end up losing the textural or flavor integrity of that beautiful produce. Less is generally more." But what you do with that less is the key.
As a Southern cook, Hastings knows a thing or two about veggies. "The South has a long history of agriculture and clean, healthy, vegetable-directed cooking but doesn't get as much credit for it as the West Coast," he says. Hastings is part of a passionate cadre of Southern chefs—like Charleston's Sean Brock and Hugh Acheson in Athens, Georgia—drawing attention to the region's agricultural heritage. "There's no question that we've moved away from focusing on protein to focusing instead on vegetables," Hastings says.
Hastings builds salads with a Southern accent by combining peak-quality ingredients as if they were a little taste and texture puzzle, with interlocking elements. His Apple, Almond, and Endive Salad, a staple at Hot and Hot Fish Club in the fall, is a great example: It gets crunch from nuts, crispness from endive, sugary notes from Southern heirloom apples, a touch of richness from aioli, and bright, bracing acidity from a blend of vinegar and verjus. "You have to have balance—it's what makes a salad great," Hastings says.
One common mistake: over-dressing. "It's where most people go wrong," Hastings warns. Less is more, plain and simple.