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CHEF SALAD: Chandra Ram

CHANDRA RAM IS ABSOLUTELY CRAZY ABOUT CROUTONS. In fact, when I sent her a note asking if she’d talk to me about salads, her immediate response was: “I have a LOT of feelings about croutons, if you are up for that conversation as well?

Up for it? If people wouldn’t think it strange, I’d say that I’ve never before been so interested in a topic. Especially since it was going to be with Ram, who is, among other things, the editor of Plate, a terrific magazine for chefs, and a cookbook author. (Not long ago, when I received an instant pot as a gift, I put out a call for advice; Ram generously sent me The Complete Indian Instant Pot Cookbook, which I’ve used many times and highly recommend.)

Before we got to the croutons, we strolled past the various stations on Interview Lane. Ram lives with her husband in Chicago but grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, where her parents settled after moving to the U.S. in 1969, from London. People in Lexington often assumed her family ate “saag paneer and butter chicken.” Or mainly North Indian food. They didn’t. They ate spicy South Indian food about twice a week, while also trying to navigate America’s obsession with convenience dishes, including the kindly tuna casseroles and chess pies that arrived when her father got sick. “I definitely have some holes in my culinary background,” she said. “I’ve had meatloaf about four times in my life.”

They were able to shop sufficiently enough at a single Indian grocer in Lexington, but when the family travelled to India every other year, they would bring back supplies, including dreamy, boldly fragrant spices. “We would get back, unpack our suitcases, and leave them outdoors in the sun to air out. They would smell like all of those spices, including asafetida, which is so strong,” she said, referring to the essential yellow powder known for its “eggy” aroma.

“It’s hilarious when people say to me: ‘Oh, doesn't it make you crazy? White people are taking this cuisine.’ And my response is: My mother is a blue-eyed, red-haired Irish lady. And most of the Indian food I had growing up was prepared by that woman. She has the spiciest palate of anyone I’ve ever known.”

Because I’m an idiot, I thought Ram told me her mother learned to make dosa in Italy (which would be cool), when in fact she’d said her mother learned to make dosa and idli (the puffy, steamed rice cakes). This naturally led us to chaat, or snacks 

“So chaat is the name of a masala, or spice blend, but it’s also the name of the enormous category of Indian snacks,” Ram explained “A lot of those are street food, where, in addition to the familiar crunchy things like murukku, pani puri, and samosas, you’ll see chopped-up vegetables and fruit, which will often just have maybe a little lime juice and a sprinkling of chaat masala on top.” 

This is about as close as India gets to what you might think of as a typical salad tradition, and it led us to the salads Ram was sharing, including one she describes as “a hybrid of, Indian chaat and kachumber, which is a really good tomato-cucumber salad.” 

And: all of them include croutons!

“I just love them so much,” she told me—and in all their forms (toasted, fried, torn, sliced, cubed, crustless, crusty).  “People ask that very tired question: ‘Oh, what’s your guilty-pleasure food?’ I don’t necessarily feel guilty about anything I eat. But I’m not extremely proud of the fact that you can put a box of the crappiest store-bought croutons in front of me and I will eat the whole thing.” 

Food historians don’t seem to know the exact origins of today’s utilitarian crouton, per se, beyond the fact that the word comes from the French for crust, which is derived from the Latin word crusta, meaning “shell.” And it has always been a given that croutons were a way to use up bread scraps, floating them in soups, gilding them with savory spreads. Larousse de la Langue Francaise has traced the word itself back to 1596, which is very likely the year the croutons I used to eat at the Pizza Hut in Galax, Virginia, were made. 

And those were probably very close to the croutons most people imagine when you say the word. Like this:

But when Chandra Ram talks about croutons, you realize what croutons can become. She gave me not one salad but three—stunning beauties that venture way beyond the typical salad bar take on the crouton. She also gave me a list of rules. 

CHANDRA RAM’S CROUTON COMMANDMENTS

  1. Don’t slice bread into croutons; tear it into pieces instead; that way, you’ll get lots of little craggy edges for the dressing to soak into.

  2. Toss the croutons with vinaigrette instead of just olive oil so that they are well-seasoned (thank you Phyllis Grant for this tip from a previous DOS newsletter!)

  3. Use any kind of bread to make croutons; cornbread croutons on a fried chicken salad are a particular kind of heaven, as are toasted cubes of pumpkin bread on butternut squash bisque.

  4. Follow Chef Amanda Cohen’s lead/genius idea to top a salad with grilled-cheese-sandwich croutons, and consider untraditional croutons like seared gnocchi, fried saltines, or savory beignets. Also: Hot French fries on a chilled salad are so good! 

  5. Most importantly, make sure your croutons are seasoned with salt and whatever spices work for your salad.

Ram is such a pro, and so generous—three salads! Three kinds of croutons! —that I’ve decided being adept with croutons must be a sign of a generous human being.

Maybe I’ll start reading people’s salads the way a fortune teller reads tea leaves. 

In the meantime, I’m extremely excited to share two of the salads Ram sent me. They’re unbelievably, jaw-droppingly delicious. You’ll gobble them up. (The third one, which features some very surprising, super-lovely croutons, will be included in the paid-subscriber issue, which comes out during the week.)

And one final note: Try to remember that just because a salad has “steps” and a substantial list of ingredients doesn’t mean it’s “hard.” The flavor payoff these recipes deliver is enormous, plus you’re learning tricks and sub-recipes that you can mix and match in salads you make later. It was very difficult for me not to eat all the croutons and drink the dressing before I got to the assembly stage of both salads. I can’t stop thinking about either one of them.

*RECIPE: Chandra Ram’s Mixed Greens with Everything Bagel Croutons and Ranch Dressing

Serves 4

Chandra Ram: I really love a brunch salad; I think they are especially good if you actually go out for brunch and are ordering omelets and cinnamon rolls and want something crisp and tart to balance all of that out. I think this salad is pretty fantastic any time of day, but it’s especially nice for brunch or lunch. 

Regarding the croutons: You have to start with good bread—preferably a nice sourdough, baguette or ciabatta. The best bread for croutons is slightly stale or heading in that direction; a few days old. Resist the urge to slice it into neat cubes and tear it into pieces instead; you’ll get nice, craggy edges that way that soak up the vinaigrette and become extra crunchy. (Praise be to Phyllis Grant for her advice to toss croutons in vinaigrette before toasting them. I had previously just tossed them in oil, but vinaigrette flavors the bread so nicely.)

With croutons as hefty as these, you need nice, crunchy greens that can hold their own. I used a mixture of romaine, arugula and red leaf lettuce here, but if you have to pick one, go with romaine. Don’t try this salad with soft greens only; they wimp out and the croutons kind of boss them around.

INGREDIENTS:

Everything Bagel Croutons
  • 1 small loaf of bread, preferably on the older side but not rock-hard

  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

  • 1 teaspoon Dijon or whole grain mustard

  • 1 teaspoon honey

  • Pinch kosher salt

  • 1/4 cup everything spice mix, plus more as needed

Salad:
  • 2 large handfuls chopped romaine lettuce

  • 1 large handful arugula 

  • 1 large handful red leaf lettuce, chopped

  • 3 Persian cucumbers or 1/2 English cucumber, seeded and chopped

  • Ranch Dressing:

Ranch Dressing:
  • 2 tablespoons minced shallot or spring onion

  • 1 small clove garlic, grated 

  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice 

  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise

  • 1/4 cup yogurt 

  • 2 tablespoons chopped basil

  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley

  • pinch kosher salt 

  • pinch freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 cup buttermilk (shake it first!)

To make the croutons: 

  1. Heat your oven to 350°F. 

  2. Tear the bread into pieces roughly an inch in size; you don’t want your croutons to be too big to eat in a single bite; it creates awkward salad-eating moments. Some people trim the crust off first; I am a crust fan and keep it on—you do you. You should end up with about 4 cups of croutons; place them in a large bowl. Save any extras in the freezer (just use them within a few weeks so they don’t dry out). 

  3. Combine the lemon juice, olive oil, mustard, honey, and salt in jar, cover with a lid and shake until combined. Pour the vinaigrette over the croutons, using your hand to toss everything together until well combined. Scatter the everything bagel spice mix over the croutons and toss again to combine.

  4. Transfer the croutons to a baking sheet, making sure to get all of the spice blend left in the bowl. Bake about 10 minutes, then remove the pan from the oven and stir the croutons around. Return the pan to the oven and bake the croutons for another 10 minutes. Remove the croutons from the oven and let them cool slightly. 

To make the ranch dressing:

Combine the shallot, garlic, lemon juice, mayonnaise, and yogurt in a bowl and whisk until combined. Stir in the basil, parsley, salt, pepper and buttermilk. Let this sit, refrigerated, for an hour for the flavors to meld. Taste, and add more salt and pepper if desired. 

To finish the salad:

Place the greens, cucumber and croutons in a large bowl and toss to combine. Drizzle the ranch dressing on top and sprinkle a little more spice mix on top. Eat immediately.

Note: If you want to use the dressing as a dip instead of salad dressing, simply reduce the buttermilk by 1/4 cup, and add more mayonnaise or yogurt if needed to thicken it.

*RECIPE: Chandra Ram’s Tomato and Cucumber Salad with Turmeric Paneer Croutons

Serves 4

Chandra Ram: I made paneer croutons for the saag paneer in my cookbook a few years ago, and decided they needed to become salad croutons, preferably immediately. They found a home in this salad, which is equally inspired by kachumber (the chopped cucumber and tomato dish that is India’s answer to salads) and Southern tomato salads. A sprinkle of chaat masala on top makes all the different here. Chaat masala is an Indian spice blend that includes amchur, which is very tart, and black, salt, which has a deep funkiness to it. I think of chaat masala as something that wakes up whatever it’s paired with; it’s one of my favorite spice blends.

  • 1/4 cup neutral oil, like grapeseed or canola oil

  • 2 teaspoons ground turmeric 

  • 1/2 teaspoon Kashmiri chile powder (see note)

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 8 ounces firm paneer, cubed [EDITOR/Emily NOTE: I made my own using the recipe in Ram’s book; it was fun and easy. You can also find it at the grocer, though.]

  • Juice of 1 lemon

  • 1/2 teaspoon chaat masala, plus more for garnish

  • 2-3 large ripe tomatoes, sliced into thin wedges

  • 2 Persian cucumbers, sliced

  • 1 shallot, thinly sliced

  1. Heat your oven to 400°F. Drizzle 1 tablespoon oil on a sheet pan and place it in the oven. 

  2. Combine the turmeric, chili powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a medium bowl. Add the paneer to the spice mixture and gently toss to coat it evenly. 

  3. When the oven has reached temperature, remove the sheet pan and carefully tilt it to spread the oil around the pan. Place the paneer cubes on the hot sheet pan, return it to the oven and cook for 7 minutes, until the underside of the paneer pieces is browned. Flip the paneer over and cook the other side until browned. Transfer the paneer back to the bowl.

  4. While the paneer is toasting, combine the remaining salt, oil, lemon juice and chaat masala in a jar, cover with a lid and shake until blended. Arrange the tomato, cucumber, shallot and paneer croutons on a plate and pour the dressing on top. Sprinkle a little more chaat masala on top and eat.

Note: Kashmiri chile powder is a very mild chile powder. If you don’t have any on hand, combine 3 parts paprika with 1 part cayenne.

***OKAY, THAT’S IT FOR NOW! NEXT WEEK: As I said earlier, the paid issue arriving midweek will include another splendid salad recipe from Chandra Ram, as well as a couple of treats from me. The next weekend issue may or may not be another all-dressing issue! Who knows? I’m keeping you on the edge of your seat, aren’t I?

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