Salad days


Red Snapper owner John Sheehan estimates he orders about 125 pounds of lettuce each week for the restaurant’s popular salad bar.

By Karen Brucoli Anesi
Special to the Herald

Of all the parts of the meal, none conjures up more imagery of life more so than the salad.

The salad’s parts and its makers are metaphors often used throughout literature and history. Who among us gives this humble blend of nature’s ingredients the contemplation it deserves?

“To make a good salad is to be a brilliant diplomatist. The problem is entirely the same in both cases – to know how much oil one must put with one’s vinegar,” Oscar Wilde said.

The quest to achieve a balance between tart and sweet, crunchy and smooth, fine and coarse is played out every time the salad bowl is hauled off the top shelf to feel the press of the garlic clove against its sides.

And now let the salad circus begin.

To make a salad is to take the freshest of what nature has to offer and to dress it with one’s imagination and resourcefulness – even leftovers in the refrigerator can add color, texture and contrast. Occasionally toss in a surprise from the grill, fruit bowl or nut dish. Dress it with the right blend of flavors and dust it with freshly ground pepper.

For many in Durango, salad begins with what’s freshest in the garden.

Cyprus Cafe owner Alison Dance depends on seven raised beds and a permanent greenhouse to come up with enough salad treats for the Second Avenue restaurant she has owned for 16 years.

Despite the bunches of basil and tomatoes, mustard and mesclun mixes, buttercrunch and oak leaf lettuces, Dance said she still must supplement what she cannot grow in her rural garden with fresh produce from the Durango Farmers Market.

This month’s No. 1 selling menu item at Cyprus is a seared feta salad featuring fruit, greens, avocado, champagne vinaigrette and caramelized, crispy-crusted feta. Dance said she sells 60 to 70 seared feta salads each week.

She estimates that each week she picks about 5 pounds of lettuce, 2 pounds of basil and all the tomatoes she can ripen in her greenhouse.

“I am a rookie. But every year I get better and better with this mini farm market of mine,” Dance says of the 4-year-old, mostly self-designed and constructed organic and biodynamic garden.

Members of Shared Harvest, a cooperative of La Plata County gardeners, are enjoying flavorful buttercrunch, red and green Romaine and All-Star lettuces that were planted the first week of April in their garden on County Road 234. Radishes, cilantro and garlic have been harvested all month at this community model of low-cost, high-quality food production.

On just half of one irrigated acre, members raise enough vegetables to feed about 150 adults and children from June to October. The salad team, a six-member group led by Durangoan Cindy Brush, selects lettuce seed varieties that are ideal for Durango’s climate. Rows of delicate lettuce are shielded from the hot sun by a light-transmitting protective fabric that also is effective at keeping early-season frosts at bay.

For those who like to eat salad year-round, Durango’s The Red Snapper has offered its signature salad bar since the restaurant opened in 1985.

John Sheehan, who has owned the restaurant since 2005, said initially he wasn’t sure he’d keep the restaurant’s salad bar.

“It’s hard for me to talk fine dining and salad bar in the same sentence, but when I bought the place, I asked the public what they thought,” Sheehan said.

The public gave the salad bar a resounding thumbs-up.

Sheehan said the salad bar remains very popular, despite the produce not necessarily being locally grown.

The Red Snapper goes through 125 pounds of lettuce and mixed greens, 80 green peppers, more than 50 red onions and 70 sliced cucumbers each week. Salad dressings and croutons are homemade. Seasonal fruits, such as strawberries, are diced daily. When in season, it’s not unusual to go through 4 gallons of strawberries each day, Sheehan said.

One of the challenges of keeping up the salad bar’s reputation is ensuring adequate amounts of regularly-inspected, safe produce. Sheehan said that even large producers have occasional contamination issues, but precautions such as careful washing and separating salad ingredients into their own containers with their own utensils are just one step to increasing food safety at salad bars.

“You have to take more precautions and be careful in preparation because salads are uncooked,” Sheehan said. Sneeze guards and keeping ingredients chilled to the right temperature are critical.

Only one person preps the salad bar and does nothing else from the time he or she starts preparation until the setup is complete, Sheehan said.

The same type of practices are necessary at home, so there’s no cross-contamination from cutting boards and utensils.

Salad consumption is increasing in popularity, Sheehan said.

“Dining as a whole has changed. No longer are they going for one-pound slabs of prime rib. More are noshing on smaller plates that offer foods that are interesting, nutritious and offer variety,” Sheehan said.

Dance agrees that interesting twists on green salads are the expectation. She looks to European and Australian cooking magazines for novel ideas and new recipes.

“Some of these magazines offer simple, clear ideas. I learn, too, from traveling and trying great salads in other places,” Dance said.

But the classics such as Cyprus Cafe’s warmed duck salad with a garlic, citrus vinaigrette and garnished with whole toasted almonds and Manchego cheese are here to stay, Dance said.

“We can’t take that one off the menu,” she said.

Sheehan said nearly every day he hears customers say: “That was just the best salad.”

“I tell them, ‘Well you made it.’ That’s my comeback – the best line we have,” he said.

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