When you think of your favorite winter dishes, you may not think of salad, but I do. Not salad as in “cool, crisp greens and ripe tomatoes,” however. If you choose heartier ingredients and give them all the right touch of heat, that summer standard can become a warming winter dinner.
Toss out any memory of overcooked, withered spinach salads adorned with hard-boiled egg and bacon. The kinds of warm salad I’m talking about are filled with delicious flavors and appealing textures. I think the first key to great warm salads lies in the method—learning to barely wilt the greens so that the warm vinaigrette brings all the flavors together but doesn’t make the salad soggy. The second key lies in the ingredients—bold but complementary flavors, with plenty of textural contrast.
Imagine warm, tangy dressings drizzled over sharp and tender greens, tossed with crunchy roasted nuts and rich, pungent cheese. Then imagine that salad topped with sautéed shrimp, roasted chicken or pork, or even roasted vegetables, and you’ll see how satisfying a “warm” salad in winter can be.
The right technique separates a good warm salad from a bad one
Once you understand the basic techniques for preparing a warm salad, you’ll be able to create your own versions that feature your favorite ingredients or just those you have on hand.
Start with cool, crisp greens, and just wilt them slightly. When a dressing is warm, it has a more pronounced flavor than when it’s cold, plus the heat really brings out all the flavors of the salad. You have to be careful when you dress the greens, though, because you want them to be just slightly wilted. I suggest a few different ways to do this.
The first method I like is to combine the greens and toppings with the unheated dressing in a stainless-steel mixing bowl, and then hold the bowl over a burner and toss the salad until the greens just begin to wilt. If you don’t have a stainless-steel mixing bowl, another good method is to heat your dressing in a pan. You can add the dressing to whatever you might be sautéing, such as shrimp or chicken, or heat it alone. Then simply pour the warm vinaigrette over the bowl of greens, add the garnishes, and toss. These methods work well with hardier greens like spinach, escarole, and kale. You can wilt mesclun this way, too; just dress the greens a little more lightly and serve them immediately. Or you can arrange the raw greens on serving plates, top with the warm shrimp or chicken you’ve just cooked, and then drizzle the hot dressing over all. I use this method when the greens are particularly tender, like mizuna or mesclun. Whichever wilting method you choose, just remember you don’t want to fully cook the greens, so don’t put them directly into a hot sauté pan. And don’t wilt the greens until you’re ready to serve them; these salads look and taste best when freshly dressed.
Remember, the more tender the greens, the less wilting they need.
Three methods to slightly wilt the salad greens
Complementary flavors and contrasting textures make the best toppings
When I want to prepare a warm salad, I first consider the individual elements—the greens, the dressing, the toppings—and how they work as a whole. Are the flavors complementary? Is there enough contrast in texture, color, and flavor?
Choose the right greens. For warm salads, try using a combination of bitter and mild greens for a nice balance. For example, too much strongly flavored kale can overpower a salad, but incorporating spinach balances it nicely.
- Buy the freshest looking greens. If the recipe calls for mizuna, but it looks past its prime in the market, substitute other greens, like mesclun or arugula.
- Be sure the greens are very dry before you use them so that the dressing clings to the leaves and doesn’t get diluted. You can wash them several hours ahead of time; they’ll keep well if you spin them dry, put them in a bowl covered with a damp paper towel, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate.
- Match your greens to your dressing. Sturdy greens go best with something hearty, while more tender varieties need a light, delicate dressing that won’t weigh them down.
- Experiment with different greens. Spinach, frisée, escarole, mustard greens, and kale are all available this time of year, and mesclun mixes seem to fill the produce bins year-round. Buy the smallest leaves of kale and mustard that you can find; they’ll be more tender. Or slice bigger leaves into ribbons.
Be flexible with your dressings. Try using various combinations of vinegars and oils. Keep a variety on hand: extra-virgin olive and vegetable oils; redwine, balsamic, sherry, and rice vinegars. Experiment with nut oils like hazelnut or walnut, or herb-infused oils and vinegars. Remember that any basic salad dressing uses one part vinegar to three parts oil.
For warm salad toppings, the possibilities are wide open. Your salad can take on any personality when you consider all the different ingredients you can toss with those greens and the dressing. For the main source of protein, some of my favorites are roast chicken or pork tenderloin, or roasted fall vegetables such as butternut squash, turnips, yams, and shallots. Two other favorite toppings are stir-fried shrimp and vegetables and a sautéed assortment of wild mushrooms.
To make sure I’ve got plenty of crunch in my salads, I love to include toasted nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, pine nuts, and—especially for Asianinspired salads—cashews and peanuts. Cheeses like Gorgonzola, feta, goat cheese, or any good aged grating cheese make great additions (except to salads with Asian flavors), giving a rich, salty balance to sweet and sharp flavors in the salads. Other additions for texture and flavor can include dried fruit like cherries or cranberries, or beans like cannellini or chickpeas.
Just use your instincts. Sure, following the recipe is fine, but improvisation, prompted by a spark of inspiration or just an inventory of your refrigerator, is a natural for warm salads.
Warm salads make perfect one-dish dinners, served with just a loaf of hearty bread and a glass of wine. They’re easy enough for busy weeknights, when I like to cook without a lot of extravagance, but I really like them for casual entertaining, too, because I can prepare all the ingredients in advance. The only time I have to spend in the kitchen away from my guests is when I toss the salad together, just a few minutes before we gather at the table.
Get Great Looking Warm Salads
When I “plate” warm salads, I find that using tongs is the best way to evenly distribute the greens and other ingredients (the ones that tend to fall to the bottom of the bowl) over the serving plates. Or I reserve some of the garnishes to sprinkle on the plated salad. Another trick is to dress the greens (reserving some of the dressing) and plate them. Then I fan the chicken or pork slices over the salad and drizzle on the remaining dreessing.