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Recipe Friday: Simply Salads

Salads aren't just about lettuce anymore

The salad course can almost be considered a drumroll, an introduction to the main event: the meal.

“Nothing is more important than that first course,” said Jay Varga (The JDK Group) during Art of Catering Food, “that first impression you can make when serving guests.”

Tangy Avocado Three Bean Salad (garbanzo beans, black beans, cannellini beans, avocados, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, mint leaves, and Za'atar). Photo courtesy California Avocado Commission

What comes to mind when you think of a salad? Is your first thought a traditional, greens-based version? There’s nothing wrong with that type of salad, though it can sometimes be a little boring, as just lettuce on a plate is lettuce on a plate. Fortunately, there are a lot of different ways to dress up a salad without the use of lettuce.

“Lettuce has no flavor, and that’s an issue that really needs addressing,” joked Varga during his AOCF session Salads...Who Needs Lettuce?


Burrata is gaining popularity as a salad base due to its versatility and the fact that there’s very little labor needed to produce a beautiful plate.

“We can put just about anything with burrata and change the plate,” Varga said. “It’s a beautiful course, no lettuce needed.” 

From the garden

Another way to approach salads is to embrace the bounty of available fresh produce.

“All the fresh vegetables, fruits, everything that you would traditionally use in the salad can still become components of the plate,” Varga said.

Think caprese salads and fruit salads. Seasonal, colorful, and fresh.

Grape Cucumber Salad (mini cucumbers, green California grapes, sherry vinegar, scallions, garlic, and almonds). Photo courtesy California Table Grape Commission

You may be wondering how these creative takes on salads can translate to a large event in terms of difficulty.

“These are all things we do for large events,” Varga said. “It's not any more time consuming than plating up a regular salad.”

What about cost?

“The cost of that plate isn’t that much more expensive than if you just add some lettuce there,” Varga said, “and you can potentially charge more for it.”

Check out these simple salads (no lettuce needed). Bon Appetit!

Veggie Noodle Salad

Recipe courtesy Jay Varga, The JDK Group


1 oz squash, spiralized
1 oz carrot, spiralized
1 oz zucchini, spiralized
¼ oz purple cabbage
Cilantro for garnish
½ oz pickled watermelon radish (recipe below)
1 oz honey sesame vinaigrette (recipe below)


  1. Lay your spiralized noodles next to each other on the plate in the order of squash, carrots, and then zucchini.
  2. Lay your pickled watermelon radish and red cabbage around the base of the spiralized vegetables and then drizzle with your vinaigrette.
  3. Garnish with cilantro.

Ingredients for Pickled Watermelon Radish

1 lb watermelon radish, cut ⅛ inch thick
⅔ cup rice wine vinegar
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil


  1. Cut watermelon radish into ⅛ inch slices.
  2. Whisk rice vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, and sesame oil together in a bowl until sugar is dissolved.
  3. Pour over radish and toss together. Let sit overnight.

Ingredients for Honey Sesame Vinaigrette

2 cups rice wine vinegar
2 cups olive oil
⅓ cup honey
¼ cup toasted sesame oil
¼ cup tamari soy sauce
 T ginger, minced
1 tsp garlic, minced
1 tsp kosher salt


Combine all ingredients and blend until fully incorporated.

Heirloom Winter Salad

Recipe courtesy Jay Varga, The JDK Group


2 oz burrata
3 ea. cherry heirloom tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise
4 ea. heirloom carrot ribbons
Red beets, roasted and cut into coins the size of a quarter (2 coins per plate)
Chioggia beets, roasted and cut into coins the size of a quarter (2 coins per plate)
Ground cinnamon, for garnish
1 oz orange balsamic glaze (recipe below)


  1. Peel your beets and rub with oil, salt, and pepper. Roast at 375 degrees covered for 30 minutes. Let cool and cut slices ¼ inch thick. From there, cut quarter size pieces.
  2. Use a peeler to shave your heirloom carrots and store in ice water to help them curl.
  3. For plating, place your burrata at the center of the plate and arrange the cherry heirloom tomatoes and roasted beets around the base. Sprinkle the cinnamon on top of the burrata, beets, and tomatoes.
  4. Add the carrot ribbons and drizzle with the orange balsamic glaze.
  5. Garnish with micro greens and flowers.

Ingredients for Orange Balsamic Glaze

24 oz balsamic glaze
8 oz blood orange puree
1 T basil, chopped
1 T rosemary, chopped


Mix all ingredients together.

Roasted Squash and Grape Salad with Pesto

Recipe courtesy California Table Grape Commission


24 oz cubed butternut squash (1½ inch pieces)
1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 T chopped fresh rosemary
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup prepared pesto
1½ cups halved red or green California grapes
4 oz bocconcini, drained and quartered
4 cups arugula


  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Place the squash on a sheet pan and drizzle with the oil, rosemary, salt, and pepper. Mix well and roast until squash is browned and soft, about 25-30 minutes, turning after 15 minutes.
  3. In a large bowl, combine warm squash with pesto; add grapes and cheese and gently toss. Divide the arugula among four serving plates, top with the squash mixture and serve.

Ahi Tuna Salad

Recipe courtesy Jay Varga, The JDK Group


3 oz sesame crusted ahi tuna
1 oz pickled English cucumber (recipe below)
½ oz fresh orange segments
1 oz spicy unagi mayo (recipe below)
¼ oz wasabi pearls (recipe below)
0.125 oz tangerine lace, for garnish


  1. Lightly rub your tuna with olive oil and then crust with sesame seeds. Heat up saute pan and sear on all sides for 30 seconds to 1 minute each and then let rest. Slice once cool.
  2. For plating, lay your cucumbers as the base and top with your sliced tuna. Add in the orange segments and drizzle with the spicy unagi mayo.
  3. Garnish with wasabi pearls and tangerine lace.

Ingredients for Pickled English Cucumber

1 lb English cucumber, cut into matchsticks
⅔ cup rice wine vinegar
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil


  1. Cut cucumbers into thick matchsticks.
  2. Whisk rice vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, and sesame oil together in a bowl until sugar is dissolved.
  3. Pour over cucumbers and toss together.

Ingredients for Spicy Unagi Mayo

2 cups mayo
2 T unagi sauce
2 T sambal sauce
2 T siracha
Juice from half a lemon


Combine all ingredients into a mixing bowl and whisk until fully incorporated.

Ingredients for Wasabi Pearls

1¼ cups water, plus an additional
2½ cups
40 grams wasabi powder
1.3 grams sodium alginate
500 grams calcium chloride


  1.  Mix the 1¼ cup of water with the wasabi powder and blend until fully incorporated. Once that is fully incorporated, add in the sodium alginate and blend again.
  2. Next combine your 2½ cups of water with the calcium chloride and set aside.
  3. Add your wasabi mixture to the Spherificator and drop into the calcium water. Caviar pearls will start to form. Strain out the pearls and put in an quart container for transport.

Cucumber Melon Salad

Recipe courtesy Jay Varga, The JDK Group


1 oz English cucumber, sliced
2 oz honeydew, cubed
2 oz cantaloupe, cubed
½ oz ricotta salata, sliced
0.125 oz jalapeno, about 3 slices
0.125 oz pistachio, crushed
1 oz honey chili vinaigrette (recipe below)


  1. For plating, arrange your cucumber, melons, ricotta, and jalapeno scattered on the plate but cohesive in design.
  2. Sprinkle your crushed pistachio over everything and then drizzle with your vinaigrette.

Ingredients for Honey Chili Vinaigrette

½ cup pistachios, crushed
2 ea. jalapenos, thinly sliced
½ cup white wine vinegar
2 T honey
¾ cup olive oil
1 tsp salt and pepper blend


Combine all ingredients and incorporate completely together.

Green Goddess Pasta Salad with Chile Roasted Acorn Squash

Recipe courtesy Iztayub Valenzuela for Barilla


3 oz vegetable oil
14 oz pumpkin seeds
3 lb Barilla chickpea rotini
Pasta water as needed, reserved
3 tsp salt
1½ lbs acorn squash
3 ea. avocados
5 oz yellow onions
3 oz garlic cloves
4 oz cilantro
12 oz lime juice
6 oz white vinegar
1½ tsp salt
2 tsp chili powder
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground black pepper


  1. Cook the pasta in salted water for 8-10 minutes. Remove pasta and shock with iced water, rinse pasta. Reserve pasta water.
  2. Cut acorn squash into ¼ inch rings, remove seeds, rub squash with chili powder, cumin, salt, pepper, and a drizzle of vegetable oil. Roast squash for about 10 to 12 minutes or until a little tender. Cool down. Cut into a half-moon.
  3. Mix pumpkin seeds with the same spices used for the squash and roast for 3 minutes. Cool down.
  4. In a blender, add lime juice, vinegar, chopped garlic, chopped onions, cilantro, avocado, salt and pepper. Blend and add one ounce of oil and 2-3 ounces of pasta water gradually. Add a touch of salt if needed.
  5. In a medium bowl combine cooked pasta and dressing; mix gently. Top pasta salad with half-moon acorn squash and sprinkles of pumpkin seeds.

Blackened Cauliflower Salad

Recipe courtesy Jay Varga, The JDK Group


2 oz blackened cauliflower (recipe below)
2 oz burrata, cut in half
Crushed pepitas, for garnish
1 oz fresh herb dressing (recipe below)
2 ea. micro flowers, for garnish


  1. For plating, alternate between blackened cauliflower and burrata. End with the cauliflower.
  2. Top with the crushed pepitas and fresh herb dressing and garnish with micro flowers.

Ingredients for Blackened Cauliflower

16 oz cauliflower florets
⅓ cup olive oil
1 tsp paprika
2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp granulated garlic
1 tsp granulated onion
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
¼ tsp red pepper flakes
4 ea. lemon wedges
1 tsp salt and pepper


  1.  Preheat your oven to 425 degrees.
  2.  In a bowl, toss cauliflower with olive oil and all spices except the lemon wedges. Lay out on a sheet tray with parchment paper and roast in the oven for 15 minutes.
  3. Remove from oven and squeeze lemon juice on top. Then toss everything together (lemon wedges included). Place salad once again on tray and return to the oven to roast for an additional 15 minutes.

Ingredients for Fresh Herb Dressing

2 oz basil, chopped
2 oz cilantro, chopped
2 oz chives, chopped
2 oz dill, chopped
1 tsp garlic, minced
1 tsp sea salt
1 T red wine vinegar
2 T olive oil


Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Note: Should look more like a chimichurri than an actual dressing

Amber Kispert

Senior Content Producer

Amber is the Senior Content Producer for Catersource. Amber previously worked as a Communications Specialist for LeClair Group and a reporter for the Woodbury Bulletin, both located in Woodbury, Minn.  As a self-described "foodie," Amber loves to experience the world of food and beverages, and is excited to help share the stories of Catersource and the world's caterers.