Cheese atop salads is the perfect addition.
A crumble of feta or blue mingles with garden vegetables. A shave of Parm or Manchego sits atop mixed greens. A sprinkle of cheddar or Swiss jazzes up spinach. Cheese is an essential ingredient in a classic salad—something North American chef innovators such as Bob Cobb, Caesar Cardini and Alice Waters knew when they concocted their iconic salads and inspired a world of combinations.
Crumbled, cubed, shredded or shaved—any way you slice it—cheese can bring aroma, creaminess and taste to the salad party. By surrounding cheese with complementary bowl mates, a home chef can add texture, flavor and color.
The Cobb salad got its start at the Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood, CA, in 1937, when its owner invented his now-signature salad by combining a hodge-podge of available salad fixings. The Julia Child Foundation website refers to a story Child told about visiting Tijuana as a child and watching Cardini make his famous Caesar. Waters marinated pats of goat cheese, coated it in seasoned breadcrumbs, then baked and served it warm atop salad at California’s celebrated Chez Panisse.
Laura Vanderbilt, cheesemaker at Haute Goat Creamery in White Oak, TX, enjoys matching cheese with interesting ingredients in salad. “But I won’t just throw any cheese on salad. I love cheddar and Parmesan, but these are overused. I like to grab the overlooked cheeses, such as Gouda and Gruyère. “If you discern the notes like you would with wine or beer, you can make the salad more special.”
Molly Browne, education manager for the Madison, WI-based Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin (DFW), says the universal theories of cheese pairing can translate into salad-making.
Find aromatic and flavor affinities. Look for like flavors and aromas and pair them for a layering effect, says Browne. “That amplifies the flavor. For instance, if you have a lemon salad dressing with a light, lemony cheese—a farmers cheese or ricotta—those will work nicely together.”
Sheana Davis, cheesemaker, monger, instructor and consultant at her company, The Epicurean Connection in Sonoma, CA, agrees. She pairs Fromage Blanc with a trio of citrus (Meyer lemon, orange and grapefruit) and a lemon vinaigrette. She adds a lemon spritzer mocktail, garnished with a citrus blossom. It also goes well with sparkling wine, Sauvignon Blanc or Pilsner.
Find contrasting textures and flavors. Salads offer so many different experiences in one bowl. “Since fat is a primary driver of every cheese, it will lend that creamy mouthfeel. You’re combining crunchy, then creamy, then salty, then sweet. It’s what makes a salad such an enjoyable eating experience,” says Browne.
The most popular salads on the brunch and dinner menus at Hudson Prime Steakhouse in Irvington, NY, incorporate the principles of using contrasting tastes, colors and textures, says executive chef Ibrahim Mohammed (“Chef Moh”). Tartare of Heirloom Beets includes smoked goat cheese mousse, black tahini and puffed quinoa; Arugula Salad is topped with beets, walnuts and sliced gorgonzola; and the Burrata Salad uses arugula, Prosciutto di Parma and a sweet balsamic glaze.
Find balance. Pair a strong cheese with milder greens (bibb, romaine, iceberg, watercress), suggests Browne. “If you choose a cheese with a powerful flavor, you risk overwhelming the salad, and that cheese is all people will taste. A mild lettuce helps because it is a natural palette cleanser. If you are using an intense blue, then use less cheese. If you are choosing a mild blue, you can use more. Blue cheese works in a Cobb because there are so many other flavors (in the salad) to balance it out. Look at the overall composition of the salad, and weigh it out.”
It’s Crunch Time
“The more informed we are, the more fun making dinner can be,” says Vanderbilt, a creative salad maker who runs Haute Goat Creamery with her husband Jeff. She likes to add grains such as quinoa, farro or couscous to a salad. “I like a chew.”
The right lettuce can also make a difference. Vanderbilt suggests arugula for flavor, radicchio for color and romaine for crunch. If a salad calls for softer, mixed greens, she will add Marcona almonds or crisp radishes for texture.
Once you get the notes of a cheese in your head, you can easily find complements, such as candied pecans or pumpkin seeds. Vegetables, like bell pepper, carrots and radish, can lend crunch in a salad.
One of Vanderbilt’s favorites is to create a salad that mimics the ingredients in fondue. Alpine cheeses—Comte, Gruyère, Appenzeller—”add rich funkiness and you don’t need a lot. Think of a fondue pot and what would be going in there. Include cold new potatoes and salty ham and serve it with crusty bread. It makes a great salad combination.”
Vanderbilt is all about the texture of a salad, along with finding the right complement to a cheese’s subtle notes. One of her favorite salad combos are Manchego cheese with dates, celery, chicken with a dressing made from orange juice for some acidity.
“If I go for mixed greens, I will add Marcona almonds, chewy dates or cornichon,” says Vanderbilt, who uses milk from local farms to make her cheeses, including Alpine-style cheese, raw milk Gouda and goat cheese.
Other unusual ways to add texture and flavor: olives, tortilla strips, pomegranate arils, fresh mint or cheese crisps, the latter being a recent trend.
In Wisconsin, packaged cheese crisps are a growing category for snacking and salad topping, says Browne with DFW.
Browne suggests trying it in place of fresh shaved Parm. “Baking the cheese intensifies the flavor and adds dimension and texture to a salad. The trend has been driven by the Keto craze. Keto dieters want something crunchy and salty, so that fits.”
To make cheese crisps at home, shred a firm cheese—Parmesan, cheddar or Asiago—and place it by the tablespoon on a silicone baking sheet or Silpat at 375 degrees F. (Crisps tend to stick to parchment paper.) Bake until light brown and melted, about five to six minutes, and let cool.
Whatever Romaines in the Pantry
“I just love cheese,” says Ghana-born Chef “Moh,” explaining his inspiration for many of the salads on the Hudson Prime menu. He puts some form of blue cheese on many of the salads and other items (blue cheese butter and sauces for steak). He likes to use Roquefort because it contains probiotics.
Salads became popular as an easy way to make use of foods on hand, says Browne. According to the “Oxford Dictionary of English”, salad is defined as a cold dish of various mixtures of raw or cooked vegetables, usually seasoned with dressing and sometimes accompanied by meat, fish or other ingredients, or an incongruous mixture.
The word salad comes from sal, the Latin root of salt. “The French created many types of salads and dressings, and the rest of the world followed,” says Douglas Stuchel, associate professor of Food & Beverage Management at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, RI. “The first salads were basically just raw vegetables with added oil, vinegar and flavorings, like we still do today.”
Janet Fletcher, author of several cheese books and creator of the Planet Cheese blog and website, has seasonal favorites when it comes to salads. Like the majority of Americans, she reaches for feta and blue cheese as salad toppers year-round, adding different accompaniments depending on the season. “Pears, apples or persimmons in fall and winter. Figs in summer.” In the winter, Fletcher makes a salad with escarole, toasted walnuts and matchsticks of Comté or Gruyère in a walnut oil dressing.
Vanderbilt likes to pair Gouda with dried blueberries. “They are fabulous together in a salad. The caramelly and sweet notes of the Gouda combined with the dried fruits are a match made in heaven.”
Last summer, Vanderbilt brought Halloumi—a cheese from Cyprus that doesn’t melt—into her shop. While she thought of it as a summer cheese for grilling, she now likes it any time of year. “Halloumi is a squeaky addition to a salad; it’s a lot of fun. It’s a bland cheese but it is still flavorful to me. You can put spice or onion in the oil and pan fry it. If you don’t want to use oil, roll it in herbs to pick up the flavor. Cube it like croutons before or after it’s fried.”
Although Alice Waters began serving goat cheese with salad in Berkeley, CA, almost 40 years ago, cheese experts say it is a returning trend (that probably never went away). Also in Northern California, Davis and Fletcher use warm, soft cheese in salads. For Fletcher, it’s a rindless, fresh goat cheese. Fletcher warms her cheese “until it quivers,” says Fletcher. “Then I spread that on crostini and serve this with a green salad or beet salad.”Davis’ version is more akin to fromage blanc whipped with crème fraiche, then heated in a ramekin as an accompaniment to salad.
Using the air fryer is a healthier way to cook the goat cheese after coating it in panko breadcrumbs, says Haute Goat’s Vanderbilt. If you don’t want to cook, Vanderbilt suggests chilling a log of goat cheese, then slicing it and letting it warm on top of the salad. “Or halfway freeze it and grate it into the salad to get more even distribution of goat cheese flavor in the salad. If it is just plopped onto the salad, you only get the flavor in some bites. This way, you get the taste in every bite.”
Kale, Farro, Gouda and Butternut Squash Salad
By Laura Vanderbilt, Haute Goat Creamery
2 cups roasted butternut squash, diced
½ medium red onion, sliced
4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and black pepper
½ cup golden raisins
2 Tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp grainy mustard
pinch of cayenne pepper
1 ¼ cups cooked and cooled farro (1/2 cup uncooked farro cooked according to package directions)
4 oz of your favorite Gouda ( finely diced or shredded )
½ cup toasted walnuts chopped
½ cup chopped pitted dates
1 cup fresh fruit, either blackberries or blueberries or 1/2 cup of dried cherries or blueberries
4 cups of baby kale or lacinato kale
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a pan with parchment paper
Drizzle squash and onion with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, salt and pepper, and place on the baking sheet. Cook for 30 minutes or until tender. Cool to room temperature.
Put the raisins and dates in a small bowl and pour the vinegar over them.
Toss a few times over 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, drain the vinegar into another bowl to make the dressing. Press the vinegar out of the fruit. To the vinegar add mustard, cayenne, salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle olive oil into the vinegar while whisking until it becomes incorporated.
Assemble the salad in a large bowl. Combine all the ingredients and toss with the dressing, salt and pepper. Finish with flaky salt and more Gouda cheese.