A 'Why Didn't I Think of That?' Trick for Better Salads

March 20, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland

We all know how to make a salad, right? Start with some leaves, add a few bonuses (chopped vegetables, roasted nuts, crispy croutons, you name it), drizzle with dressing, toss. That’s the everyday way.

And then there’s the Estela way.

Estela is a restaurant in New York City by Chef Ignacio Mattos. In 2013, the year it opened, The New York Times gave it two stars. Currently, it holds a spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Which is to say, if you go to Estela, you’re going to get good food.

Think: spiced almonds and Iberico ham. Burrata with salsa verde and charred bread. Lamb ribs with charmoula and honey. Oh, and the most Why didn’t I think of that? salad you’ve ever had in your life.

For what it’s worth, it doesn’t look like a salad. It looks like a pile of endive leaves—maybe even a pile you recognize, considering that the dish is also the cover of Estela’s recently released, namesake cookbook.

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Top Comment:
“I’m slowly starting to appreciate the bitterness of endive and can’t wait to try this salad. I love the idea of the “granola” on the bottom. It’s like a gift that just keeps giving. ”
— marilu

“People associate us with this salad,” Chef Mattos told me.

After one or two bites, it’s easy to see why: If you dig your fork beneath the leaves, you’ll find all sorts of crunchy, cheesy clusters. Mattos calls it “granola,” but where you’d expect oats, there are actually sourdough croutons, toasted walnuts, and Ubriaco Rosso (an Italian cow’s milk cheese with a purplish rind), all dressed with a peppery anchovy vinaigrette.

It sounds good and tastes even better, which makes it all the more curious that Estela hides the granola at the bottom of the bowl. But to Mattos, that’s all part of the fun.

“It creates a surprise element and makes a statement by keeping the food simple yet bold,” he said. “The salad eats better when its plated this way—each bite is different.”

In the cookbook’s recipe headnote, he encourages readers:

The way to start is by eating a few of the top leaves, little endive cups holding orange juice and oil, and then begin filling the rest of them with the absurdly delicious crouton-and-cheese mixture hidden below, sort of like making your own taco.

And with respect to those hard-to-find ingredients? Mattos encourages substitutions, too. The Ubriaco Ross, he told me, can be replaced with blue cheese. The garnacha vinegar can make way for a red wine counterpart. And even the iconic endive can be swapped out for “radicchio or chicory,” he said, “anything that is fresh and alive to balance the granola's richness.”

In other words? This dish is about as famous as a restaurant salad can get. But it’s also a template for salad assembly at home. Instead of tossing your mix-ins with the leaves, hide them beneath like buried treasure, and be sure to dress each component separately—either with the same vinaigrette, or take a cue from Mattos and mix and match.

Below is the recipe for Estela’s version. But I can’t wait to hear what upside-down salad you come up with on your own.

What’s your favorite way to make salads? Spill in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


marilu August 31, 2019
I’m slowly starting to appreciate the bitterness of endive and can’t wait to try this salad. I love the idea of the “granola” on the bottom. It’s like a gift that just keeps giving.
Mari J. March 20, 2019
Looking for recipes with chia seeds that actually taste good enough for small children to eat.
Annie S. March 20, 2019
I put them in hamburgers and meatloaf instead of breadcrumbs and they are undetectable.
Lisa T. March 21, 2019
So I make this really Delicious coconut chia pudding. I'm not sure how much you know about chia seeds. But I I just buy the regular coconut milk that comes in a carton like almond milk. And I mix 1/4 chia seeds with one cup coconut milk. Give it a good stir once every 6 hours. Place it in the refrigerator. It'll be ready by that night or the next morning. I like to mix in a spoonful of coconut Greek yogurt that I buy from Aldis for $0.59. Then I will add a dollop of jam, sprinkle a few chia, Sesame, flak, and quinoa seeds. (optional)Top with a few pieces of dried unsweetened coconut slices. I get them for a dollar from the Dollar Tree. One bag last me all month.
Rachael A. May 21, 2019
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk (tin)
1 tbsp cocoa powder
1/2-1 tsp coconut extract (you can sub in pretty much any flavor here)
1/8-1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup chia seed (heap this a little for a more solid pudding)
Mix in all the ingredients in the above order, cover and refrigerate until set. Serves 4 in small portions. Use leftover coconut milk mixed with any other milk for the same (but slightly different) recipe.