As a child, I found it ironic that the name of the only lettuce we had in upstate New York in the middle of winter was “Iceberg.” Fast-forward 35 years. Now when the temperature drops, I know that my favorite parade of winter greens will soon be in full swing, giving me a variety of choices. Greens that normally cower in the heat of summer turn lush and full in the low light and frequent rains of early winter.
In an elegant menu, a seasonal salad can whet appetites at the start of a meal or revivify palates after a hearty main course. Great winter salads refreshingly lack the predictable ingredients found at other times of the year. I banish flavorless tomatoes and cucumbers from my table and embrace the remarkable number of fabulous fruits and vegetables that winter has to offer.
When making salads, my number-one rule is to keep it simple. No one wants to chop ingredients for half the day. After choosing greens, I limit additional ingredients to four (not including those in the vinaigrette), because any more than that tends to clutter a salad. It’s important to choose ingredients that provide contrasting textures and flavors, all of which play off of one another. I’ve included three recipes that follow this flavor-texture principle, but you can also design your own salad combinations—see below for ingredient ideas.
Choose and handle your ingredients carefully. Remember that all of your salad’s elements are equally important; it doesn’t make sense to buy beautiful greens and then compromise on everything else. Sturdy winter lettuce can be washed a day or two ahead of time; just be sure to spin the leaves dry and store them in a sealed plastic bag with a slightly damp paper towel to prevent dehydration. I like to clean enough lettuce for a couple of days so I can toss a salad together at the last minute.
Choosing oils and vinegars
In all vinaigrettes, I recommend using a good extra-virgin olive oil. (If you find it too strong for your palate, dilute it with a cold-pressed neutral oil like canola or safflower.) But don’t buy good olive oil and skimp on the vinegar. My shelves weigh heavily with many varieties of vinegar, each of which has a different flavor and acidity level. I use Champagne and white-wine vinegars for lighter salads, cider vinegar for salads that contain apples, and red-wine and sherry vinegars for salads that include strong cheeses. Experiment with different vinegars to find ones that you like.
How to design a winter salad
I like to vary my salad ingredients, using contrasting elements that are bitter, crunchy, sweet, juicy, salty, and tangy. I’ve set out some ideas for ingredients below, but in the end, you decide what goes into your salad. Stick with ingredients you love and you’ll seldom fail.
Salty, tangy: The intensity of salty ingredients like olives, capers, and cheese is a great foil for bitter greens. Cheeses not only supply salty, tangy flavor, but also creaminess and body.
Bitter: Bitterness is not a bad thing when it comes to salad, so you should never shy away from it. Bitter greens refresh the palate, provide contrast to vinaigrettes, and serve as a sturdy base for other ingredients. For texture, I like to mix several different greens together—try chicory, Belgian endive, frisée, radicchio, or arugula.
Sweet, juicy: Fruits lend juiciness and softness to salads. Apples, pears, oranges, blood oranges, and grapefruit make sweet and refreshing additions.
Crunchy: Ingredients like crisp vegetables, croutons, and toasted nuts provide texture and crunch. Nuts can be toasted a day or two in advance and stored in airtight containers.
Preserving the quality of lettuce and other leafy greens depends on striking a balance between too little and too much moisture. For short-term storage, the more pressing concern is too little moisture, which quickly causes leaves to dehydrate and wilt. A moist environment can be created inside a sealed plastic bag; that, coupled with cold storage (40°F), slows dehydration so the plant tissue remains juicy and crisp. Maria Helm Sinskey’s suggestion to add a slightly damp paper towel to the bag is helpful because the towel adds extra humidity, but don’t make the towel too damp. Too much moisture in the bag can promote decay, especially if the lettuce is stored for more than a few days. —Linda J. Harris, Ph.D.