What's In Season: Winter Salads
My friend Pat always used to say that if you eliminated the salad from a meal it would cut the time it takes to make dinner in half. She was right, as she was about many things, but I noticed it didn't seem to stop her from including a salad at almost every meal I ever saw her make. Her signature salad was romaine lettuce, slim pieces of red pepper, oil cured black olives, and an olive oil vinaigrette that always began with her rubbing pieces of cut garlic against the bottom of a well worn wooden salad bowl.
Pat's point was that a salad requires so much chopping and washing that you can almost make the rest of the meal in same amount of time you need to make the salad. But I think it's time well spent. My husband is convinced that salads are an alternative to eating more potatoes or pasta. But I love salads because they're raw or mostly raw: there's something about uncooked ingredients sharing the plate with cooked ones that together makes the meal even more satisfying.
It's a no brainer to make a great salad during the summer and early fall when local produce is prime. As the first lettuces come to market, all that's needed is a bowl of tender greens, some paper-thin slices of little kirbies or scallions, a pinch of salt, and the lightest sprinkling of oil and vinegar. As the weeks pass and we gain the choice of garlicky ramps, baby arugula with its peppery bite, and the miracle known as the New Jersey tomato, the produce almost puts itself together into the salad bowl.
But by January we're mostly left with cellophane bags of hearts of romaine, cherry tomatoes, and seedless English cucumbers wrapped in their protective sleeves, making it a challenge to be creative and not bored.
On a winter trip to Rome I was introduced to a popular salad with a big personality called puntarella alla salsa. It's made with a local chicory that grows wild in Lazio, the region of Italy where Rome is located, its celery-like stalks first soaked in cold water until they curl. Puntarella's almost wet taste -- wet in the way that celery is wet -- makes it demand its aggressive anchovy and garlic dressing.
If you do not like anchovies this is not for you. But if you are a fan of the salty, complex taste of these little fish, this salad may become, as it has for me, a sense memory that you'll almost never stop craving. So every time I've had the joy of returning to Rome, as others may be off in search of a Gucci bag or an apricot gelato, my first errand must be this puntarella salad.
It's been frustrating to never be able to make it here. I'd read of farmers in California that have started to grow puntarella and this past summer I joyously found some from a local New York farm at the Union Square Greenmarket. I bought a bunch and with flashes of Rome guiding me, I did all the requisite fussing, washing and trimming the stalks and placing them in icy water so that they'd curl. I almost couldn't wait to eat it.
You can hear the disappointment coming, can't you? Why is it that the taste never quite matches the memory? It doesn't have to be a Roman salad. It can just as easily be an applecake made by a favorite childhood neighbor, or the pierogis (curry, biscuits, chicken mole, pot roast, satay…) that your grandmother made.
Maybe it's better to just create new favorites that can be made with ingredients and methods fully within your control without the burden of nostalgia. For example, since I can't have puntarella alla salsa without a passport in hand, I can make other favorite winter salads. Some feature citrus, at its mid-winter best, either in the salad itself or the dressing. Others include roasted ingredients, like beets.
Being tenacious I didn't give up on my puntarella memories and I've come close to its full Roman taste with one that combines radicchio, a chicory cousin to puntarella, paper thin slices of red onion, and the same anchovy vinaigrette. We've added the recipe (see the link to the left). We've also created other winter salads, some requiring pre-cooking, such as roasting beets or cubes of butternut squash to become tender "croutons." But with a little planning, such as slow roasting plum tomatoes the night before, winter salads can be almost as easy as chopping up a head of lettuce.
Here are some salads that are well suited to winter ingredients and we've added links to each of them:
- Roasted Tomato, Artichoke and Mozzarella Salad
- Cobb Salad
- Roasted Beet and Arugula Salad With Goat Cheese
- Caesar Salad
- Red Cabbage Salad
- Blood Orange and Arugula Salad
- Grapefruit and Avocado Salad
- Winter Salad With Butternut Squash Croutons and Crispy Pancetta and mustard vinaigrette
- Carrot and Chickpea Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette