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Winter Salad Tips & Tricks

Winter Salad | Delightful Crumb

Earlier this month, we were supposed to go to my cousin’s wedding in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I know what you’re saying right now—a January wedding in South Dakota?! Yes. And you’re right! Even hardened Chicago people said this to us. But you must understand: prairie people are particularly tough people. They live out there, you know? They do not pause their lives for snow and cold. I may have become a bit of a wimp when it comes to the cold, but I am proud to come from this stock.

But airlines, they pause. In a drawn-out comedy of errors, our Friday night flight was cancelled due to weather in Chicago, and we were put on standby for a flight the next morning. Ben was flagged at random for a super search as we went through security—if ever you see “SSSS” on the top of your boarding pass, beware! Also known as a “quad-S,” it prompted an expletive from the supervising agent, and then they shut down the whole security lane. While I sat on the other side waiting for Ben, watching the security representative flip carefully through his books and pat down the bottoms of his feet, I got a text saying this flight was cancelled due to blizzard conditions, such as 55 mph winds, in Sioux Falls. (Though it was not the reason for the cancellation, I feel obligated to mention that it was also, like, 0 degrees.) At that point, we were way down the standby list for the next flight—and all of these being tiny 50-person planes, there was no chance we were getting on. This is when we were advised to give up, which was for the best, as that flight was cancelled, too. Then, we sat for a couple of hours by the baggage claim, watching for our checked luggage, which never came, and so we gave up again. Much later that evening, Ben went back and met with success, though he had to demand that someone search for the bag in real time.

It was a true disaster. (Also, sorry, Lucas and Emily!!)

All that to say: while this has been a mild winter in Chicago, winter is tough! My memories are not incorrect! And the other truth is that being without abundant local produce is as bad as I thought it might be. Winter cooking is simply more fun when the market keeps overflowing. (Also, where is all of the escarole?! Is it really too difficult to ship, or are you Californians eating all of it?)

But there’s hope! A well stocked pantry and a few creative ideas will get you well on your way to filling up with produce even in winter. And while my tips today are most directed at those without bountiful winter markets, a good salad secret is good for anyone, even if you live in LA. Plus, another truth is that sunshine and warm temperatures and fresh vegetables (in winter or whenever) do not preclude sadness and the blues. Everyone knows what a long, hard, cold, dark winter feels like, if only internally. While I also recommend chocolate, a top-notch salad can help. Here are some thoughts on how to get there.

Winter Salad | Delightful Crumb

Techniques

  • The Creamy Layer: This has come to the fore in restaurants and cookbooks like Alison Roman’s, so you might be familiar with the concept. In short, sweep a layer of yogurt, labneh, tahini or a similarly creamy ingredient across a platter, then pile the salad on top. This is both delicious and an easy way to elevate even a simple salad. It’s great with most any leaf (though better with heartier ones) and also salads featuring roast veg. More on prepping your creamy ingredient below.

  • The Essential Crunch: A salad needs some crunch. This can come by way of nuts, seeds, croutons or simply crunchy vegetables. I’ve listed lots of ideas below, but don’t neglect this important textural element!

  • The Simplest Dressing: I generally make a very simple salad dressing and let the interest come from the rest of the ingredients. I start with the acid (lemon juice or vinegar) and whisk in mustard, salt and pepper, then add olive oil and mix again. I like a ratio of acid to oil that’s along the lines of 50/50, but many people go far heavier on the oil. Taste, adjust and find your own preference!

  • Massage That Kale: If you use kale for the base of your salad, give it some love first. Kale salads have been trendy for years, but I still encounter some sorry ones—personally, I have no interest in laboriously chewing a full leaf of raw, underdressed kale. My method is to wash the greens, strip them from the thick stalk and chop them in thin ribbons. Then, put them in a bowl and add a big pinch of salt and a pour of lemon juice or vinegar, or your completed dressing. Massage that into the leaves, really working it through. Let the kale hang out for a bit before you carry on.

Principles

  • Contrast: Consider acid, crunch and creaminess and how they all interact. Channel Samin: find the balance of salt, fat and acid even with an entirely raw salad.

  • Complexity: Think about number of ingredients. In the winter, unless you have access to super fresh greenhouse greens or live somewhere warm, delicate greens tend to be less compelling as they’ve traveled a distance. If you want to stay simple, consider a citrus salad, which can be as stripped down as a layer of citrus with two or three toppings (toasted seeds and pomegranate, for example, or olives, red onion and parsley—finished with oil and flaky salt, of course!).

    If you want something more hearty or complex, think through the role of the salad in the meal and what else is on the table. Is it a major component or a side? Do you have a lot of strong flavors in the meal already? Does the salad have a starring ingredient or set of ingredients—something you’re really craving or that looked particularly fresh?

    With this in mind, decide whether you want a creamy layer. If you’re putting creamy things atop, like Feta cheese or avocado, or if your meal is already very rich, I think this is overkill. From there, determine the base of the salad, which could be greens—leafy (butter lettuce), bitter (escarole), crunchy (romaine) or hearty (kale)—shaved vegetables (think fennel, carrot, radish) or even a fruit like citrus or apple. Three to five additional toppings feels like a sweet spot to me: fennel, apple and toasted walnuts; roasted delicata squash, farro, goat cheese and herbs; oranges, toasted pepitas and pomegranate seeds.

  • Composition: Even before you begin, imagine how the salad will look on the plate. Consider color—ingredients like pomegranate, blood orange and watermelon radish offer pops of color, or you could go for a single-color salad (green or pink/red are your best bets). Use a bowl or platter that is bigger than you think you need; it always looks attractive, and your greens won’t get squished. Also, pause before you start to chop: try slicing thin vegetables on the bias (aka a slant), supreming citrus or cutting herbs in a chiffonade. Generally, herbs go a long way in making a simple salad prettier. Finally, pile it carefully. I typically layer my ingredients rather than mixing the whole salad together. Not every component needs to be thoroughly dressed, and you can always finish with a squeeze of citrus and/or drizzle of olive oil to balance flavors.

  • Quality: Use the good stuff. It’s trickier in winter, but choose the produce that looks best—don’t get too wedded to your plan and end up buying wilting greens!

Ingredients

Crunchy
  • Nuts & seeds: Find what you like, but also keep rotating for interest. I always have almonds, walnuts, pepitas and sunflower seeds on hand. I toast them in my toaster oven or on the stovetop in a dry pan. Typically, I start with whole nuts, then chop them once cooled. You can also buy most toasted. Or, candy them by adding sugar or maple syrup to the pan, letting it caramelize. And don’t forget about the little seeds, like sesame and hemp!

  • Toasted buckwheat & quinoa: Similarly, you can get an excellent crunch from toasted buckwheat, which lends a deep, nutty character, or quinoa. If raw, toast these in a dry pan until lightly brown and fragrant. You can also find toasted buckwheat in a well-stocked bulk section.

  • Savory granola: Like nuts or seeds, with a little more oomph. Here’s a great recipe.

  • Bread based: Classic croutons, breadcrumbs and toasted pita chips all work nicely. To jazz up homemade croutons, add a chopped garlic clove or a pinch of red pepper flakes to the olive oil and salt before roasting.

  • Fruit & veg: Thinly sliced radishes, fennel, apples and pears are a few of my cold-weather favorites. Carrots shaved lengthwise in ribbons and thinly sliced red cabbage add color. (Note: citrus and avocado covered below!)
Creamy
  • Greek yogurt or labneh: Stir in a pinch of salt, then spread it onto a platter in big swoops. You can also add more flavor by mixing in chopped preserved lemon, fresh lemon zest and/or juice, a spoonful of tahini, minced garlic or pepper flakes. Thick yogurt can also be dolloped atop a hearty salad.

  • Tahini: Thin out tahini with water until it is a spreadable consistency and stir in a pinch of salt and, if you like, some lemon juice. Spread it onto the plate, or thin it until pourable and drizzle over the salad instead.

  • Hummus: If you’re making an individual salad, a scoop of hummus tucked alongside is an excellent flavor and protein addition. Try making your “hummus” with another legume, too!

  • Avocado: Avocado pairs particularly well with citrus in winter salads. When using avocado, I sometimes make an exception to my rule of tossing the greens alone before adding toppings. I like how the avocado breaks down a bit, making the salad creamier.

  • Cheese: In seeking out creaminess, consider crumbled goat cheese, Feta, burrata and torn mozzarella. (On the non-creamy front, shaved Parmesan is always a good bet.)
Heft
  • Roasted veg: My winter favorites are squash (particularly delicata and kabocha) and sweet potatoes. Beets are excellent, too, when you’re up for the mess, or choose the pretty golden ones for cleaner prep.

  • Cooked grains: Farro and wheat berries lend a nice chew and pick up dressing well. Quinoa and even brown rice are also good options. You don’t need a lot—just a handful or two tossed over top will lend texture without too much weight.

  • Legumes: In the same vein, try spooning a few spoonfuls of cooked lentils over the salad. This works best with varieties that keep their shape, such as beluga or French green lentils. Or try chickpeas, whether straight from a can, cooked from scratch or baked/fried for crunch.

  • Soft-boiled eggs: Cook them to your liking, from very runny to firm, and slice lengthwise in half or quarters. Take a cue from Bartavelle in Berkeley and top each open face with Aleppo pepper flakes, a little sprinkle of flaky salt and a quick drizzle of olive oil.

  • Sliced frittata: I learned this trick from the brilliant Kelsie at Standard Fare, my other favorite place in the world for a salad (also in Berkeley, go figure!). I’m not saying you need to prepare a frittata before you can toss together a salad, but if you happen to have leftovers of a thick frittata, slice it cold from the fridge and arrange the slices over the salad.

  • Crispy tofu: Fried or baked in cubes, tofu is a solid protein addition and can be delicious, too—just make sure to cook it until crisp. Scour the internet or your cookbooks for a flavorful marinade.
Acid
  • Preserved lemon: Truly a secret weapon. Preserved lemons have so much flavor. Chop finely, then add to your dressing or creamy component, or just sprinkle a bit on top.

  • Citrus: Any citrus is lovely, from plain old oranges to brilliant Cara Caras to textural pomelos to zippy grapefruit. If you see kumquats, get them! Slice very thinly, removing the seeds. They provide wonderfully vibrant flavor.

  • Olives: A particularly fine pairing for citrus. If they have pits, smack them on the cutting board with the flat side of a big knife for nice, rough pieces. Castelvetranos and those wrinkly black ones are my favorite.

  • Capers: Another great choice toward this end. I choose salt-packed capers whenever I have the option. If you’re feeling ambitious, fry them in a shallow layer of oil for some extra crunch.

  • Pickles: A quick pickle is an excellent way to get an extra hit of acid. Slice your veg thinly and let it marinate in some vinegar with a big pinch of salt while you put the salad together. This is particularly tasty with shallots, red onions and radishes. Or, just buy some good pickles, leaving them whole or slicing them into smaller pieces.
Pizzazz
  • Pomegranate: As beautiful as they are delicious, pomegranate seeds offer color, texture and a literal burst of flavor—a winter treasure.

  • Spices: Sprinkle spices over a salad for extra flavor—try crushed pepper flakes such as Aleppo, Urfa or Maras (all milder than red pepper flakes); toasted fennel or cumin seeds; sumac or a blend like za’atar. Alternately, stir pepper flakes or a ground spice into your tahini or yogurt.

  • Herbs: I put a lot of herbs in my salads. They can be mixed in with the leaves or tossed on top. While it takes a little bit of time to pluck leaves from stems, it’s well worth it for the payoff. My everyday salad favorites that are easy enough to find in winter are parsley, mint and chives.

  • Sprouts: Much like herbs, these add dimension and flavor to any salad. Sprout them at home for something fresh! My mom just got me a kit, a reminder of how easy this is.

  • Dates: To me, the very best sweet addition to a salad. One of my longtime go-tos is a green salad (any leaves you like) with dates, avocado and chopped toasted almonds.

  • Dressing additions: Add anchovy, chopped garlic or shallot, grated fresh ginger, turmeric or even a tiny bit of fish sauce to your dressing to kick things up a notch.

Note: I’m aware that there’s something wrong with the comment function on my site right now—I’m working on getting to the bottom of it! Thanks for putting up with the lo-fi nature of this humble blog in the meantime.

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