CHOPPED salad is the quintessential Los Angeles salad. After all, it's akin to the Cobb salad, which rose to stardom during the heyday of Hollywood's Brown Derby. And who hasn't been tempted to order one in any of a dozen Italian restaurants that have it on the menu as a cornerstone? But let's face it -- for years, the chopped salad has been resting on its laurels -- or its iceberg lettuce, anyway.
Fortunately, it's undergone a renaissance lately. All those heaps of cut-up iceberg, mozzarella, salami and chickpeas tossed in red wine vinaigrette have given way to more interesting ingredients, more artfully prepared.
Take, for instance, the chopped salad at the Foundry on Melrose -- an over-the-top toss of diced red-purple beets, roasted butternut squash, fennel, celery, cucumber, currants, piquillo peppers and pistachios with Parmesan and Idiazabal cheeses. Plus, chef Eric Greenspan adds another dimension with greens such as arugula, romaine and frisée (what Alice Waters calls "the shock-headed leafy green fright wig" -- not so frightening when cut into manageable pieces).
So that you get a little of everything in each mouthful, the vegetables and cheeses are chopped into a small (quarter- to half-inch) dice. Every bite is deeply flavorful: sweet and salty with a hint of bitter, simultaneously a little nutty and a little herbaceous. The textures are all-inclusive, too. This salad is chewy, succulent and crunchy at the same time.
But just like a great three-ring circus or a lively Doo Dah Parade needs good stage management, a chopped salad isn't about chaos; it's about improvising with several categories of ingredients and linking together different combinations of flavors.
A good chopped salad is like a free-form composed salad. Each component is selected for what it brings to the party -- a bit of crunch, a juicy tang -- and when mixed together, the whole is surprising, perhaps, in its juxtapositions, but harmonious too.
You can change out the traditional mainstays. Instead of a base of lettuce, imagine a duo of grilled greens: romaine and radicchio lightly browned and crisp on the edges. The smoky notes and slightly wilted textures of the ribbons of leafy ingredients contrast with the add-ins of diced red onion, black olives, hard-cooked egg and parsley. An assertive anchovy-garlic dressing makes this a robust dish.
You can balance a chopped salad in a number of ways, weighting it toward greens sometimes, toward root vegetables another time. It's a great winter dish because the season's farmers market offers a lot of sturdy vegetables that stand up to chopping: celery, fennel, endive, turnips, artichokes, cardoons. . . .
And you don't always need to start with a long list of ingredients. Just three or four can be sublime. How about diced beets and fennel, toasted walnuts and watercress? Dressed with a little tarragon, orange zest and sherry vinaigrette, it's a lively and unusual mix of sweet, nutty, herbal and tangy flavors.
Now's also the perfect time to toss in watermelon radishes, or daikon. The crisp texture and peppery bite of radishes set off grilled chicken beautifully. Maybe with carrot, cucumbers and green onions -- and instead of leafy greens, a leafy herb (cilantro) and spicy radish sprouts.
It's everything a chopped salad should be, both satisfying and refreshing, with layers of textures, simple to prepare but with complex flavors. It's a fastidious execution of laid-back chic, in true L.A. style.