Racines restaurant in Denver launched their 30th anniversary celebration recently with a contest offering trips to Paris, France, or Racine, Wisconsin. One of Racines' keys to success over three decades is their fresh and hearty garden salads, a go-to order for many customers.
Lee Goodfriend--who with David Racine and the late Dixon Staples--founded Racines, said salads are one of the restaurants’ bestsellers—and not only in the new year, when many people have made resolutions to eat more fresh vegetables and fruits or perhaps even a salad a day.
“Garden-based salads are very, very popular at Racines. We serve on average 1,000 people per day, and 1,500 on Saturdays and Sundays. I would say that after breakfast, salads are our most popular menu item,” Goodfriend said.
Racines knows how to combine the best from the garden and proves that salads can be delicious, as well as nutritious.
“I think we have some of the best salads in Denver. And our salads are big, with an abundance of ingredients, so a lot of customers will split a salad.”
Goodfriend attributes the popularity to the fact that Racines’ salads not only taste good, but also make customers feel good.
“People feel better when they eat from the garden. Many people in Denver prefer to eat healthfully,” Goodfriend said. “We use really good ingredients. We buy organic field greens. We make our own salad dressings from scratch. We pair a protein with the bounty of all the vegetables, fruits and nuts in our salads. I know for myself, if I up my intake of greens and fresh veggies, I’m satisfied and have more energy.”
Racines' menu includes garden-inspired salads for every taste. Currently on Racines’ menu: Greek Salad, Chicken Caesar Salad, The Wedge Salad, Mexicali Salad, Cobb Salad, Ahi Tuna Nicoise Salad, Salmon Solitaire Salad, Lee’s Favorite Shrimp Salad, Dixon’s Steak Salad, and Oriental Chicken Salad.
But the bestselling salad on Racines’ menu is the Nutty Cheese Salad, which happens to be the favorite of Mike Adams, Racines’ executive chef for the last nine years and in the restaurant business for 40 years.
“I eat salads all the time, and this is my personal favorite because the combination of ingredients is so different,” Adams said. He noted that a secret to the Nutty Cheese Salad is the preparation of the nuts: “We take raw nuts and toast them,” he said.
Racines’ Nutty Cheesy Salad also includes mixed organic field greens, sunflower seeds, toasted almonds, cashews, avocado, tomatoes, and the quirky addition of banana slices that lend an unexpected flavor and texture to this substantial, nutritious bowl. The banana slices, Goodfriend said, were the idea of her partner, David Racine.
“It’s an unusual, delicious combination,” Goodfriend said. “Sometimes people add chicken.”
Racines’ savory Roasted Red Pepper and Goat Cheese salad is another unusual menu offering. To high quality goat cheese, Racines adds fresh herbs: basil, oregano, parsley and thyme. The soft cheese and tender greens get a snap from a large, crunchy, house-made crouton.
“The crouton we cut out of ciabatta bread from Blue Point Bakery and drizzle the bread with olive oil and bake it until crisp,” Adams said.
The chef added that Racine’s newest salad is Lee’s Favorite Shrimp Salad, named in honor of Goodfriend. “It’s proved to be very popular,” Adams said. “One thing on that salad that you don’t see much is hearts of palm.”
Racines shared the following salad secrets:
• Use the freshest ingredients possible. “Fresh is best. I can’t emphasize freshness enough. Buy salad greens in small quantities because they deteriorate quickly. Heat and temperature affect greens a lot. Use your greens the same day or the next day. Everything in the grocery store is designed to make the greens look fresh, but you don’t know how old they are.”
• Wash and thoroughly dry salad greens. “Once we cut our romaine, we put it in ice cold water,” Adams said. “Once lettuce is cut, water tends to find its way into cracks and crevices.” Racines dries the greens in an industrial-sized version of a salad spinner. “That centrifugal force gets all the water out. The dryer the greens are, the better they’ll perform and hold up in a salad.”
• Keep a salad simple. “Sometimes less is better,” Adams said. “People tend to add too many ingredients to salad. When you make a salad at home, you can add more of what you like, but don’t overdo it with an ingredient. Don’t overtake your greens with too much feta cheese. An even distribution of ingredients in salad is what you’re looking for.”
• Use whole ingredients when possible. Chef Mike said, “If you cut grape tomatoes, the acids deteriorates the greens. When you have small ingredients, it’s best to use them whole.”
• Make salad dressing from scratch. Goodfriend said, “Racines makes every one of our salad dressings in-house, and we have since day one. My mother made great salad dressing, and it’s super important to me.”
Racines’ red wine vinaigrette is inspired by a recipe from Goodfriend’s late mother. Goodfriend’s sister Kit Goodfriend Simon modified the dressing with more vinegar to make it tangier. (See the family vinaigrette recipe shared below.)
Goodfriend added that Racines’ salad dressings are so delicious that they sometimes find unorthodox applications. She said, “Our staff eats our 1000 island dressing with French fries, it’s so good.”
Racines’ kitchen staff currently whips up the following homemade salad dressings: blue cheese, ranch, balsamic vinaigrette, honey mustard, ginger soy, orange balsamic, Caesar, Greek, and salsa ranch—a combination of the homemade ranch dressing mixed with Racines’ homemade salsa.
• Don’t overdress a salad. Nobody loves a soggy salad. Besides, the chef said, “Acids in salad dressing deteriorate greens.”
• Dress and toss salad just before serving. “The salad is always the last thing to do at a meal,” Adams said. “Don’t dress and toss the salad until everybody’s ready to eat.”
• Don’t over-toss a salad. Salad greens are delicate, Adams emphasized, “The more you handle salads, you tend to bruise leaves, and they deteriorate.” Handle salads gently, and toss minimally.
Goodfriend noted that Racines does not toss their salads at all. Dressings are served on the side in a small pitcher.
“We put all greens into bowl and then add other ingredients on top,” she said. “Our customers can decide how much dressing they like. But if customers request, we will toss the salad in the kitchen.”
In the new year and beyond, do as the popular food writer Michael Pollan advised: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
Jeanne Goodfriend’s Sassy Red Wine Vinaigrette
This sassy salad dressing recipe is inspired by the mother of Racines’ co-owner, Lee Goodfriend, and modified by Kit Goodfriend Simon.
1/3 cup canola or saflower oil
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 clove garlic, mashed
Combine all ingredients except oil in a Mason jar.
"Shake the hell out of it," Lee Goodfriend said.a
Add both oils--olive and canola or safflower oil.
"Shake the hell out it again," Goodfriend said.
Taste. "I added a bit more oil because I thought it was a touch too vinegary," said Goodfriend. "Refrigerate and use when you’re good and ready."
For more about Racines' popular salads, other dishes, and your chance to win a free trip to Paris, visit their website.
To read Bill Husted’s Denver Business Journal interview with Lee Goodfriend and David Racine, complete with slideshow, click this link.
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Colleen Smith writes from and gardens in Denver, Colorado. She's been a longtime regular contributor to The Denver Post, Colorado Expression, Sunset Magazine, and other publications.
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