Spring is just around the corner, but there are still plenty of damp, cold days ahead and a trip to the farmer’s market for some lovely fresh produce is still a ways off. If you’re like me, the romance of having a pot of stew bubbling away on the stove and root vegetables roasting in the oven is starting to wear a bit thin and you’re craving more of a clean, fresh and juicy taste. Fortunately, you don’t have to wait for Spring to arrive to enjoy these flavors — put away the stock pot, freeze what’s left of the stew, and make yourself a bright winter salad.
For a visually enticing and tasty winter salad, contrast sweet and salty, juicy and crunchy, and dark greens with the bright colors of fruit or chopped vegetables.
Start with fresh greens. You can use a single type like baby spinach or romaine or you can contrast soft, buttery lettuce with peppery or bitter greens like arugula or radicchio. A multi-colored slaw of sliced cabbage makes a nice base, or try thinly sliced raw kale quickly marinated in a vinaigrette. Chef Lucas Muehlenweg, of Pawling’s Petite on Main, suggests a simple salad of thinly sliced fennel, mushrooms and shaved parmesan drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil, but fennel also makes a nice crunchy addition to mixed greens.
Instead of relying on plump juicy tomatoes and the delicate herbs of summer, you can get those bright flavors by using fruits that are in season like oranges and grapefruits, pears, apples, or the strawberries that are just beginning to arrive. Or you can use dried fruit like cranberries, cherries, apricots, figs, or raisins. Add a sweet and sunny flavor by making a fruity vinaigrette sweetened with honey or citrus juice. Combine rice vinegar and orange juice or apple cider and maple syrup. Experiment with different vinegars like Champagne or sherry vinegar. Julie from The Little Red Bake Shop favors a raspberry vinaigrette paired with greens, dried cranberries, soft goat cheese, and sugared pecans.
Cheese is a wonderful compliment to the sweetness of both fresh and dried fruit, especially strongly flavored or salty cheeses like gorgonzola, ricotta salata, shaved parmesan, or smoky gouda. Or instead of cheese you can make a creamy dressing with créme fraîche, yogurt, buttermilk, or sour cream.
Since we also eat with our eyes as they say — color is important as well. Thin slices of red onion, pickled beets, golden persimmon or the sparkly garnet of pomegranate seeds will pop on a bed of dark greens, as will the pure white of crumbled feta.
For some crunch you needn’t limit yourself to croutons, although I have nothing against them, especially when they’re freshly made. Toasted pecans, walnuts, sliced almonds, pumpkin or sunflower seeds are natural friends of cheese and fruit in a salad. Or add fresh, crunchy vegetables like cucumber, celery, or jicama. My husband is partial to Bac-Os, but I prefer crisply fried thick slices of bacon or “lardons,” which make an especially nice addition to a salad of frisée topped with a fried egg. My friend Michael tops his salad with crispy fried Asian noodles, and don’t laugh, but I’ve been known to add some crumbled potato chips to mine!
In the summer heat we crave the lightness of a fresh salad, but when its still cold out you might want your salad to be a bit more substantial. To make a heartier vegetarian salad, add tofu, or grains like barley, wheat berries, and quinoa, or legumes like chickpeas or lentils. You can add warm roasted vegetables like parsnips, carrots, beets or sweet potatoes or chilled, steamed vegetables like broccoli. To add protein, you can top almost any winter salad with strips of pan-grilled chicken, salmon, or sliced steak. My friend Catherine adds shrimp to a salad of sliced napa cabbage and orange segments, mint and crushed peanuts, tossed with a ginger-lime dressing.
Always use the best quality oil you can, and for a finishing touch, nothing beats the intense spark of freshly ground pepper. I use whole Tellicherry peppercorns which many consider the finest in the world. When you’re making good, simple food these details really make the difference!
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