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Grain Salads Whole-grain salads offer a healthful, natural platform for flavor innovation

This Greenwheat Freekeh and Massaged Kale Salad pairs an earthy ancient grain with trending kale for a doubly healthful bowl.
PHOTO CREDIT: inHarvest/Rob Yuretich

The world of grains has opened up in the last few years, ushering in a new era of discovery. Bolstered by intriguing, historical narratives and significant health positives, chefs are menuing ancient grains like quinoa, freekeh, farro and barley in whole-grain salads, as both sides and entrées. Bowls have become the modern version of a salad: heartier, driven by global flavor exploration, and perceived as both delicious and wholesome.

Grains are playing a significant role in the development of bowls and salads. Endlessly customizable with dressings, drizzles and add-ins, grains offer a blank palette for flavor building, heft, texture and a pleasing sense of well-being—all attributes that register highly with today’s consumers.

The precursor to the current ancient grains salad could easily be wild rice, officially a grass, but classified as a whole grain. Wild rice pilaf and other versions that proliferated 10 years ago led the way. They demonstrated that salads didn’t have to be green. Today, wild rice salads help brands tell a compelling health and wellness story. Modern versions are as mainstream as the Cranberry Orange Pecan Wild Rice Salad at Fresh City, a Northeast chain with 14 units, or as unique as the Wild Child Salad at SweetGreen, with locations across the Midwest and Northeast, featuring organic wild rice, raw beets, cabbage, raw seeds, and miso-sesame-ginger dressing. With a great American narrative, wild rice offers a boost on today’s menus.

Reigning Grains
Although not a true grain, quinoa paved the way for the next generation of whole-grain or, more specifically, ancient-grain salads. As one of the only non-animal complete proteins, quinoa shifted the paradigm, helping change how Americans think about protein sources. Quinoa has seen an extraordinary growth in menu mentions—since 2010, it’s gone up 800 percent, according to Datassential MenuTrends. Quinoa options include the Local Apple and Bacon quinoa-based bowl at B.Good, based in Boston, to the Baby Kale and Quinoa Salad at California-based Jinky’s, both of which trade on familiar flavors and ingredients to balance the less common quinoa. Unique items include the Quinoa Ssam Salad with pear-fennel kimchi at Chicago’s Belly Shack. Levy Restaurants offers a Toasted Quinoa Salad, tossed with dried apricots, sour cherries and crunchy almonds.

Springboarding off of quinoa’s menu success, American restaurants have broadened their focus to include a variety of other ancient grains. Grains to watch in salads going forward include: farro, spelt, teff, kamut, amaranth and freekeh. Though far less common than quinoa, some of these grains have made it into the mainstream. The Cheesecake Factory, for example, now offers a Santorini Farro Salad that is heavily influenced by Mediterranean cuisine. Così’s Baby Kale and Farro Salad includes complex flavors and textures with the addition of Sriracha almonds, grapes, apples, eggs and charred tomato vinaigrette.

Green Companions
Kale, along with other greens like arugula and baby spinach, has acted as an on-trend partner for these new grain offerings. For example, look to California Pizza Kitchen’s Quinoa and Arugula Salad with asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes, red onion, toasted pine nuts and feta.

In fact, kale is the second most common vegetable menued in salads and bowls featuring whole grains (tomato being the first). The combination of kale and whole grains has increased nearly 20 percent in menu penetration over the past year, according to Datassential’s MenuTrends. Other greens growing in the frequency of their pairing with whole grains include watercress, Brussels sprouts, butter lettuce, napa cabbage and baby spinach.

It is important to note that while ancient grains and salads based on ancient grains are relatively new to the scene and are some of the fastest moving items on menus in the United States, these types of salads have been common worldwide for many years. With the continuing exploration of global flavors, whole-grain salads offer another entry point.

Cuisines such as South American, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern have long relied on grains as a fundamental element. Grains like quinoa are traditional to on-trend cuisines like Peruvian, while the origin of teff and barley can be traced back to Ethiopia, a cuisine that has gained attention thanks to the efforts of celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson.

As a result, operators looking to find inspiration within these cuisines should consider grains as a key base. The most common example of this is tabbouleh (or tabouli), which appears on menus using several different types of grains as a base, from the tabbouleh featuring bulgur wheat at Café Olé in Washington, D.C., to the quinoa-based tabbouleh at Le Petit Greek in Los Angeles.

The Ensalada Mixta at El Rocoto, a Peruvian restaurant in Gardena, Calif., combines quinoa with Peruvian corn, queso fresco and passionfruit dressing. An emerging dish in the whole-grain pantheon is freekeh, made of roasted greenwheat. Freekeh is uncommon in the United States, but growing enough that B.Good created a video devoted to the grain: “We Want to Eat Freekeh With You.”

Growth in Grains
Another still untapped opportunity for whole grains is the breakfast daypart, which continues to be the growth leader in foodservice. Though less common than lunch and dinner options, breakfast bowls featuring whole grains are appearing on more menus today.

Au Bon Pain’s new Superfood Blueberry-Chia Hot Cereal features whole-grain oats, quinoa and puffed amaranth. In Los Angeles, Backyard Bowls offers a number of breakfast options including the Ancient PB&J Porridge Bowl with quinoa, cashew milk, peanut butter, almonds, banana and local preserves.

Though growth has been rapid over the past few years, salads and bowls based on whole grains remain relatively uncommon on American menus, which spells opportunity for menu distinction. For example, despite the press around the growth of quinoa, only 4 percent of operators with any type of salad or bowl currently feature one with quinoa, according to Datassential. This penetration is far greater than any other ancient grain. Farro is the second most common grain in salads and bowls, but only with 1 percent menu penetration.

As operators continue to look for unique, visually appealing salad and bowl options, grains will play an ever-growing role in recipe ideation. With consumers increasingly interested in the functional quality of the foods they consume, whole grains have a great deal to offer.

About The Author

Maeve Webster

Maeve Webster, President of Menu Matters, is a lead consultant for foodservice manufacturers and operators. She has spearheaded hundreds of major industry studies during her 16 years as a foodservice specialist, and today runs her private consultancy focused on helping manufacturers and operators analyze, understand, and leverage foodservice trends. Maeve’s expertise is in the areas of trend analysis, market assessment, consumer behavior, product testing, and brand optimization. During the past decade, Maeve was Senior Director at Datassential. During that time, she helped develop several of Datassential’s new products and programs including the company’s publications group and TrendSpotting package, headed the company’s health & wellness group, and participated in several industry initiatives including the Culinary Institute of America’s Healthy Menu R&D Collaborative. She is a regular speaker at top industry events and has contributed to major media outlets including The Wall Street Journal, NPR, CNBC, MSNBC and CBS. She regularly contributes to several industry publications including Flavor & the Menu. Maeve earned her MBA at the University of Illinois, and holds a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago.