Why do salads always taste better in restaurants? I have a few theories. But I’m out to change that. This Shaved Brussels Sprout Salad with Pancetta, Parmesan, and Toasted Breadcrumbs with Lemon Thyme Vinaigrette is the perfect first step to making a restaurant-worthy salad at home.
So why do salads taste better in restaurants?
Theory #1: Salt
You may be a little shocked at the amount of salt used in restaurant salads. The dressing/vinaigrette already has plenty of salt, and chances are high that the lettuce leaves are sprinkled with salt, too. It’s not necessarily a bad thing—salt makes food taste better.
Theory #2: Dressing application
When you eat salad at home, do you pour salad dressing on lettuce and eat it without mixing? I usually do. Restaurants take the time to toss the dressing with the lettuce until each lettuce leaf is coated. When I’m making salad for company, I’ll toss it with the dressing just before serving. Clean hands or a pair of silicone tipped tongs are best for incorporating the dressing without bruising the leaves.
Theory #3: Texture
My typical homemade side salad has lettuce leaves, dressing, and maybe cherry tomatoes. But salads at restaurants? They’re full of texture: crispy, crunchy, creamy, chewy. Restaurants have the luxury of plenty of prepared ingredients—something I don’t usually take the time to do.
When I do take the time to make a prepared salad, it needs to be fairly straightforward. It’s only a side dish, after all! This one takes about 20 minutes of prep time, and the result is well worth it.
The first step is to make homemade breadcrumbs. The best time to do this is when bread or a baguette is about to go bad. You just toast the bread (oven or toaster) and pulse the bread in a food processor until it’s finely ground. I’ll usually freeze the breadcrumbs in a resealable plastic bag unless I’m going to use them right away. In this case, I made something even better than breadcrumbs: buttery breadcrumbs. I toasted the bread, pulsed it in the food processor, tossed the breadcrumbs with butter, and gave them one final toast in the oven to get crispy. The end result creates an incredible crunch to the salad—kind of like having a crouton in every bite.
The next step is to crisp up the pancetta. It has plenty of fat in it, so you won’t need any oil or butter in the pan. Just dump it in, cook, and stir. It’ll turn into crisp little nuggets of salt-cured pork in 5–6 minutes.
I’m a big fan of non-lettuce salads, so I chose shaved brussels sprouts instead. Let’s face it, they’re really just the vehicle to enjoy pancetta, parmesan, and crispy breadcrumbs. And they’re the perfect vehicle, because they’re chewy, a little crunchy, and add a great fresh flavor to the salad. You could shave them on a mandoline, but I find that slicing them finely with a knife works just as quickly.
For the vinaigrette, I made a simple one with lemon juice, olive oil, dijon mustard, honey, and fresh thyme. I really love the flavor that fresh thyme adds here—it’s pungent and a little grassy, and almost minty actually! I find it really refreshing how it brightens up the flavor of the shaved brussels sprouts salad.
I also added shredded parmesan and artichoke hearts to the salad. Crispy, crunchy, creamy, chewy—we hit all of the textures here just like at restaurants!
The main dish for this meal was Spinach and Artichoke Stuffed Twice Baked Potatoes. It was the perfect combo of a piping hot stuffed potato with a crisp, fresh salad. And best of all, both recipes used shredded parmesan and canned artichoke hearts—I love when a meal contains duplicate ingredients to cut down on my grocery list.
The Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad is best the day that it’s made. After a few hours, I find that the breadcrumbs get soft and the salad loses its crisp texture. However, I did enjoy another serving the day after, topped with grilled chicken. That combo would make an excellent main dish for a lighter meal!
Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad with Pancetta, Parmesan, and Toasted Breadcrumbs
Yield 4–6 servings
For the salad:
- 1¼ lbs brussels sprouts
- 3 oz pancetta, cubed
- ⅓ cup shredded parmesan cheese
- ½ (14 oz) can artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
- 3 slices white bread or 4–5 inches of a baguette, sliced
- 1 tablespoon butter
For the lemon thyme vinaigrette:
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, roughly chopped
- 2 teaspoons honey
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- ¼ cup olive oil
- Pinch of salt
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the bread or baguette on a sheet pan and bake until lightly toasted, about 8–10 minutes. Place the bread in a food processor. Pulse until the bread forms breadcrumbs (there can be some slightly larger chunks). Place the breadcrumbs back on the sheet pan and toss with the melted butter. Spread the breadcrumbs onto a single layer and bake for another 3–4 minutes, or until toasted.
- Meanwhile, place the pancetta in a sauté pan over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the pancetta is light brown and crispy. Place the cooked pancetta on a paper towel lined plate to drain.
- Cut the stem off of each brussels sprout. Cut each sprout in half horizontally, then make thin vertical cuts to create ribbons. Place in a large bowl. Add the chopped artichoke hearts, shredded parmesan, pancetta, and breadcrumbs. Toss to combine.
- Place the vinaigrette ingredients in a jar with a tight fitting lid. Shake until combined. Note: the salad itself contains several somewhat-salty ingredients (pancetta, parmesan, and artichoke hearts). You really only need a small pinch of salt in the vinaigrette.
- Pour the vinaigrette over the salad and toss to combine. Serve immediately.
Tip #1: The salad is best right after it’s made. The breadcrumbs will become soft and the salad will lose its crunch as it sits.
Tip #2: The other half a can of artichoke hearts can be used for these Spinach Artichoke Stuffed Twice Baked Potatoes (recipe coming soon!). They pair wonderfully together.
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