Deconstructing, Reconstructing, and Reviving this Classic
Chef’s Salad used to be a popular main-course choice for people who wanted to “eat light.” Particularly from the 1950s into the 70s, it was a go-to among “ladies who lunch.” Then people realized how much fat and sodium were in the cheese and cold cuts that typically garnish it — and the salad promptly fell out of favor.
Too bad. Yes, Chef’s Salad has a fairly high caloric count, but then it’s supposed to be a main course. Really a meal in itself.
It’s also exceptionally tasty and easy to make. So why not toss one together now?
Recipe: Chef’s Salad
A Chef’s Salad is nothing more than salad greens tossed in dressing, plated, and then topped with a variety of vegetables and proteins. The usual toppings include tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, and meat of some kind (often ham, chicken, or cold cuts). But you can use any salad vegetable or protein that captures your imagination. Red onion, green pepper, cucumbers, olives, turkey, roast beef, and shrimp are familiar options.
The choice and quantity of toppings is really up to the “chef” (which is how the salad got its name). Mix and match ingredients to suit your taste — or what’s available in your refrigerator. I often make Chef’s Salad when I have leftover cold cuts, for example. Or when I have leftover roast turkey, chicken, or ham. You can make the salad as simple or elaborate as you choose.
Salad dressing can be whatever you prefer. I like either vinaigrette or Blue Cheese Dressing.
This recipe serves 4. But you can easily adjust quantities up or down to serve more or fewer people. Preparation time is about 15 minutes (although it partially depends on how many ingredients you decide to incorporate into your salad). I don’t recommend making more than you need; leftover dressed lettuce deteriorates when stored.
- 1 head of lettuce (leaf lettuce, romaine, or Boston Bibb work best, IMO; I often use a mix of several types)
- 8 - 12 ounces of cheese, cut into sticks, cubes, triangles, or whatever (more/less if you prefer; Provolone, Swiss, and Cheddar are my favorites, but use what you like; see Notes)
- 8 - 12 ounces of sliced cold cuts, ham, turkey, or chicken (more/less if you prefer; see Notes)
- 1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes or 4 medium whole tomatoes (I usually slice or quarter the whole tomatoes)
- 2 - 4 Hard-Boiled Eggs, peeled and cut into slices or quarters
- 6 - 10 tablespoons of Blue Cheese Dressing (to taste; or substitute your favorite salad dressing)
- salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- parsley or another green herb as a garnish (optional)
- At least an hour (2 or more is better) before you want to serve the salad, wash and dry the salad greens, and tear into bite-size pieces. Wrap in kitchen towel, and place in refrigerator crisper to, well, crisp.
- Meanwhile, prep meats and cheeses. Cut into whatever shapes you prefer (see Notes).
- Shortly before making the salad, wash tomatoes. If using whole tomatoes, slice into your preferred shape.
- Peel and slice hard-boiled eggs.
- Place lettuce in large bowl. Add salad dressing — less than you think you’ll need. Toss lettuce thoroughly to lightly coat leaves with dressing. Taste, and add more dressing if necessary. (Particularly when using a high-flavor dressing like Blue Cheese, you don’t want the taste of the dressing to overwhelm or clash with the meats and cheeses that top the salad).
- Add more dressing if necessary and salt and black pepper to taste. Toss to incorporate, then place greens on 4 dinner-size plates.
- Arrange the cheeses, meats, tomatoes, and eggs over the salad greens in a pattern that pleases you (the pictures in this post offer several suggestions). Top with a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Garnish with parsley or other fresh herb if desired, and serve.
- Quantities truly are elastic in this salad. I don’t recommend overdoing the toppings, because the lettuce (you know, the “salad” part) really is important. But if you’re serving this as a main course, you do want enough veggies and protein to satisfy your appetite. You’re the chef, so make it your salad!
- And I’d always serve this as a main course. It’s too heavy for a traditional salad appetizer.
- To make it a bit less heavy — and much healthier — you can replace some of the meat and cheese with veggies (your choice — the possibilities are endless).
- When preparing the meat and cheese, keep in mind that the salad will be more attractive (and easier to eat) if you cut toppings into easily forkable pieces, preferably bite-sized. It’s traditional to use Julienned (thin) strips of meat and cheese. But cubes, triangles, and so forth also work well.
- Runny cheeses (like Brie) don’t work in this salad, but almost any other cheese will.
- However, you probably don’t want to use something with a flavor that’s too pungent — you won’t be able to taste the other ingredients. Provolone is excellent, and it’s my favorite (the flavor blends particularly well with Blue Cheese Dressing).
- Speaking of blue cheese, some versions of this salad feature sprinkles of Roquefort cheese as a garnish. Pretty good, but I think the flavor of the blue cheese works better in the dressing. Which, of course, is why I use it that way in this recipe.
- Almost all varieties of salami are great in this dish. I particularly like Genovese, Milanese, and Romano.
- In fact, these days when I see Chef’s Salad on a restaurant menu, it’s almost always in an Italian restaurant, and they typically showcase some great Italian salami.
- Although I really like my Blue Cheese Dressing in this salad, a vinaigrette is traditional. If you don’t have a favorite recipe for vinaigrette, I recommend the one I used in my Poached Scallops on Artichoke Scoops recipe. The mustard in that vinaigrette adds a nice zing to the salad.
- Hard-boiled eggs almost always appear as a topping on Chef’s Salad. I like mine sliced or quartered, but many people prefer them chopped fine.
- Croutons typically aren’t used as a garnish in this dish. But if you’d like some, go for it! I recommend my recipe for Homemade Croutons.
- Rather than croutons, though, I’d recommend serving this salad with a nice hard roll and some good butter. And a glass of wine.
Time to Revive This Classic
Although it’s not clear how Chef’s Salad originated, both Wikipedia and The Food Timeline speculate that it may be derived from a 17th century English dish called Salmagundi (a salad composed of cooked meats and vegetables). Or it may be a 20th century dish, probably first made in New York or California.
Whoever invented it, though, the salad became associated with Louis Diat, who was chef at the New York City Ritz-Carlton during the 1940s. The dish appeared on the menu there and became very popular. Word of Chef’s Salad soon spread and it began showing up on restaurant menus throughout the US, where it remained for decades.
Today? Not so much.
But it’s still a great salad. With a few well-chosen toppings, you can have tons of flavor. And you can mix and match ingredients to suit your fancy (or your waistline).
You know it’ll be good. After all, they served it at the Ritz.
Blue Cheese Dressing & Wedge Salad
Scallops on Artichoke Scoops
Potato Salad Basics
Spinach Salad with Hot Bacon Dressing
White Bean and Tuna Salad
Spinach Salad with Parmesan
Pineapple, Coconut, and Carrot Salad