Chopped salad

Best rabbit food ever: Using unexpected combinations, we take a fresh look at chopped salads. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)

Is anybody else excited by the lettuce options out there these days? My local supermarket offers bagged and boxed salads in more than a dozen combinations. However, it's the clamshell boxes of miniature heads of artisanal lettuces (often with their roots still attached) that really thrill my inner rabbit.

I am super-fond of the small red-tipped lettuce heads and small whole romaines by Tanimura & Antle, a California company that uses sustainable growing practices. Some markets even carry trendy restaurant favorite Little Gem head lettuce, which makes fantastic salads. I guarantee switching up lettuces eliminates salad boredom.

Good news since I eat a salad at least once a day. I never tire of crisp lettuces, crunchy vegetables and great vinegar and oil. I love to find interesting add-ins such as roasted and salted sunflower seeds, toasted corn bread crumbles, crispy nuts and dried fruit.

Truthfully, I eat my salads in restaurants often because someone else did all the rinsing and chopping. Good restaurants also serve the salad chilled and the dressing at room temperature, which puts all the ingredients in their best light.

I dream about the Italian-inspired chopped salads I've enjoyed at two of my favorite pizza joints — Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles and Napolese in Indianapolis. Both restaurants use a variety of cured meats and cheese to make a superhearty salad. Both serve their chopped salads tossed with just the right amount of dressing. (Nothing kills a salad faster than globs of dressing.)

On a recent Sunday night for dinner at home, we made our own version, choosing the readily available Italian cured meats found at the local supermarket. I crisped the pancetta in a dry skillet for a crispy topping and cut the already-thinly sliced prosciutto and capocollo into thin strips.

I love Castelvetrano olives from the Italian deli, so I don't mind slicing the flesh off the pits for a salty note in salads. Pitted Kalamata or manzanillo olives need no prep. The hearty meats call for sturdy greens, such as romaine (red-tipped is gorgeous here) and a little escarole or frisee.

Ever since I can remember, I've been a huge fan of Asian chopped salads — even pedestrian versions with tinned mandarin oranges and chow mein noodles. My version features updates with mango and crunchy roasted coconut chips. A fresh ginger and lime dressing perks up romaine and cabbage with minimal fat.

No matter what salad you build, choose the type of lettuce that best complements the add-ins and the dressing. Creamy dressings welcome robust greens such as romaine, leaf lettuces and spinach. Lighter vinaigrettes pair well with spring greens and baby lettuces. A bit of finely shredded savoy or napa cabbage adds fat-free crunch, as does torn radicchio or sliced Belgian endive.

Homemade dressing rules. So take the time to make some — especially when the rest of the salad contains such nice ingredients. Use good olive oil and vinegars and fresh garlic. Most homemade dressings will keep in the refrigerator a week or more.

Don't be squeamish about the anchovies in the creamy Italian salad dressing here. The salt and texture pair great with the meats, cheese and olives in the salad. If you opt out, substitute a few tablespoons of good Parmesan cheese.

Chopped salads are usually presented with all their ingredients in neat rows. I like to arrange everything in a shallow dish or deep platter and then present it to guests. To serve, I transfer everything to a large bowl so I have plenty of room to toss the ingredients with just the right amount of dressing. The best rabbit food ever!

Chopped antipasto salad

Prep: 40 minutes
Cook: 5 minutes
Servings: 4-6

Note: I use bottled roasted red and yellow bell peppers to save time; rinse before cutting.

Creamy Italian dressing:

3 to 4 anchovy fillets

(or grated Parmesan)

1 clove garlic

1/4 cup red wine vinegar