When the days would grow shorter and the weather would turn wintry, I used to find myself despairing over the quality of salad fixings at my local market. Limp, tired lettuce. Pale tomatoes as hard as potatoes. Cucumbers with skins like buffalo hides. So I'd stop making salads altogether, until springtime rolled around and the first crop of tender young greens would show up at my local farmers market.
Then, a few years back, I discovered the pleasures of winter salads. In these hearty dishes there's no one ingredient that stands out. Instead, an array of root vegetables — such as kohlrabi, beets and celery root — as well as greens, grains, beans, nuts and seeds, combine into a harmonious whole. The lineup can also showcase fruits such as persimmons and pears, and proteins, such as bacon, chicken or cheese.
"The bottom line for me has to do with the kind of produce that's readily available in winter," says Deborah Madison, author of Vegetable Literacy: Cooking and Gardening with Twelve Families from the Edible Plant Kingdom. While both winter salads and their summer siblings might be dressed with a simple vinaigrette, a salad created during the colder months, Madison explains, would not "be made of tomatoes and cucumbers and delicate lettuces if one is eating at least somewhat seasonally."
I find that when the days grow short, a brightly hued mix of wilted collards, sparkling pomegranate seeds, thinly sliced celery root and walnuts can be the perfect antidote to a case of the wintertime blahs. Winter salads — whether the ingredients are raw or cooked — can stand on their own as a main course. They also play well alongside a roast chicken or a succulent loin of pork. And salads loaded with greens, grains and root vegetables are rich in nutrients such as potassium and vitamins A and C.
What's more, there's no end to the mix-and-match possibilities. You can top jewel-like slices of raw beets with a crumble of tangy ricotta salata. Or toss cubed sweet potatoes with finely chopped pancetta. Add to this pleasing duo sliced toasted almonds and a handful of Medjool dates, and you have a dish that's as comforting as it is sumptuous.
Of course, the idea of winter salads is all relative depending on where you reside during the period from Thanksgiving to Easter. In the South, winter salads "are often made with fruit" and paired with pecans, says Virginia Willis, author of the cookbook Bon Appetit, Y'all. Root vegetables, while not traditional Southern salad ingredients, are now getting a nod from Southern cooks.
"While my grandmother would never have made a salad of Brussels sprouts, I certainly would," Willis says.
Though winter salads may seem like a modern-day invention, they're nothing new.
"They've been around for a really long time," says Mollie Katzen, author of The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation.
There have long been bean salads and noodle salads, she explains, not to mention that diner and deli standby the "diet plate," a single scoop of tuna or chicken salad set on a bed of iceberg lettuce.
"When I was growing up in the '60s," says Rick Rodgers, author of Thanksgiving 101, "winter salad was fruit cocktail, and a lot of people still feel that way." Rodgers recalls that for Thanksgiving and Christmas, his family has long served a wintertime salad — layered, three-tone cream cheese and Jell-O.
But winter salads may hark back even further. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots, was said to have dined on boiled celery root over greens covered with creamy mustard dressing, truffles, chervil and slices of hard-boiled eggs.
And then there's the Waldorf salad, created in the 1890s by Oscar Michel Tschirky, maître d' at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Today, the apple, celery, walnut and mayonnaise mélange is often dismissed as a dish your great Aunt Zelda might have served to her Wednesday afternoon bridge game. But try lightening the dressing with yogurt. Add some garbanzo beans. Toss in a bit of cumin and a squeeze of lemon juice. All of a sudden, the hoary Waldorf salad makes a leap into the 21st century.
So when the last of the tomatoes vanish from your farmers market and the weather turns frigid, don't despair. Button up your coat. Put on your mittens. Then embrace winter's varied salad bounty.
This recipe is adapted from Deborah Madison's Vegetable Literacy (Ten Speed Press, 2013). Madison's original recipe called for quinoa. But I chose to use farro instead. Its nutty flavor contrasts beautifully with the greens, avocado and pistachios that combine to give it a colorful tabbouleh-like appearance.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
2 heaping cups of cooked farro
1 cup of kale, chopped
1 cup of beet greens, chopped
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 cup parsley, chopped
1 heaping tablespoon chives, finely sliced
1 avocado, halved, pitted, peeled and sliced
1/4 cup crumbled feta, ricotta salata or smoked ricotta
1/2 cup shelled pistachio nuts, coarsely chopped
Toss the farro with the kale and beet greens, using your fingers to distribute the greens through the grains.
To make the vinaigrette, whisk together the lemon zest and juice, oil, vinegar, cumin, salt and pepper. Pour it over the farro and greens, add the parsley and chives, and toss gently to coat the greens and grains.
Spoon the grains and greens mixture onto a platter. Lay the slices of avocado over the salad, and sprinkle the feta and pistachios over the top and serve. If not serving immediately, refrigerate the salad but let it come to room temperature before serving.
This recipe is adapted from a recipe by Virginia Willis, author of Bon Appetit, Y'all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking (Ten Speed Press, 2008). The red onion, parsley and mint add a burst of color as they nestle in the crevices of the white cauliflower. Purple and green cauliflower varieties are a nice alternative in this dish.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 head cauliflower, cut into florets
1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted
1 small red onion, diced
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
1/4 cup fresh mint, chopped
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
Pinch cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes
Freshly ground black pepper
Prepare an ice-water bath by filling a large bowl with ice and water. Set aside.
In a steamer basket, cover and steam the florets for 8 to 10 minutes if you like them on the crunchy side. Or microwave the cauliflower, covered, with 1/4 cup salted water for 2 to 4 minutes for crunchy or 3 to 5 minutes for tender. (One 2-pound head of cauliflower yields about 8 cups bite-size florets.)
Shock cooked florets in ice water. Drain and pat dry with paper towels. Transfer the florets to a medium bowl.
Mix together the vinegar, soy sauce and cayenne pepper. Toss the cauliflower in the dressing so it's thoroughly coated. Add the almonds, red onion, parsley and mint. Toss again. Season with black pepper. Serve immediately.
My testers loved how the pancetta in this salad, adapted from a July 1966 Bon Appétit recipe, imparts salty notes that contrast beautifully with the sweetness of the potatoes. I used kale, but collards or arugula would work equally well.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
8 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon or 1 teaspoon fresh tarragon, chopped
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Fresh ground black pepper
1 pound russet potatoes, peeled and sliced
1 pound yams or sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced
1/3 cup pancetta
1 small bunch kale, or 6 to 8 leaves, ripped into bite-size pieces
Whisk the vinegar, oil, mustard, tarragon, cayenne pepper and black pepper in a small bowl. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Wash the russet potatoes and yams or sweet potatoes and scrub them with a vegetable brush. Rub them with olive oil and place them on a baking sheet. Prick them with a fork to allow steam to escape. Depending on their size, they should take anywhere from 45 minutes to 1 hour to cook.
Transfer the potatoes and yams to a large bowl. Cool them to room temperature. Slice them (I like a chunky 2-inch slice), toss them with 2 tablespoons of the dressing and set aside.
Fry the pancetta in a large skillet until crisp. Transfer to paper towels to drain, then cut into small pieces. Add the pancetta to the potatoes, along with the kale. Toss the salad with some of the remaining dressing to coat evenly. If there's leftover dressing, serve it on the side or store it for future use.
This salad should be made at least 2 hours ahead so that the dressing has time to soften the kale leaves.
I updated this classic recipe for "Apple, Celery and Nut Salad (Waldorf)" from The Settlement Cookbook, compiled by Mrs. Simon Kander (25th Edition, 1943). You may certainly opt for making the traditional dish, but I prefer the lighter, half-yogurt dressing and the additional adornments of beans and cumin.
Makes 4 servings
1 cup celery or two large stalks, cut lengthwise into pieces.
2 apples, cored and sliced (peeled or unpeeled)
1/2 cup canned garbanzo beans, drained
1 cup walnut meats, broken into pieces
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon lemon juice
3/4 teaspoons cumin
1/4 teaspoon salt
Fresh ground pepper
Mix together the celery, apple, garbanzo beans and walnuts. In a separate bowl, combine the mayonnaise and yogurt, then add the lemon juice, cumin, salt, cayenne and black pepper and mix well. Gently fold the dressing into the celery mixture. Spoon onto a bed of arugula. Serve chilled.