As February looms, I can barely remember those days in July and August when I sat under an umbrella on my patio eating tender, lightly dressed field greens. My memory may be failing, but my salad days are hardly over, not while I can still buy kale, Swiss chard, mustard greens, radicchio, and escarole at the supermarket.
Tough-looking balls of lettuce and unwieldy bunches of thick-stemmed greens may not immediately appeal as you cruise the produce aisle in winter. But with a little bit of creativity, a head of radicchio or a big bunch of kale could become tonight's answer to summer mesclun. A plate of substantial chicory is more satisfying at this time of year than a fragile handful of frisee, especially when dressed with garlicky croutons and a warmed mixture of olive oil, lemon juice, capers and anchovies. Chopped and stemmed kale, tossed with warmed sesame oil, sauteed garlic chips and chili peppers, and a little bit of orange juice pleases more than a summery mix of butter lettuce and tomatoes.
Nutritional value is a bonus. Winter greens and lettuces are famously good for you. A kale salad can supply a day's worth of Vitamins A, C, and K, as well as folate and potassium. Mustard greens, chicory and its relative radicchio contain powerful antioxidants and have been shown to regulate blood sugar levels.
There are several secrets to a good winter salad:
KNOW YOUR LETTUCES AND GREENS Salad ingredients available in winter differ from each other in taste, so choose carefully to wind up with a dish that you like. Kale has a relatively mild and neutral flavor, while collards have a more powerful cabbage-like taste. Mustard greens can be spicy, while chicory and radicchio are decidedly bitter. Tailor your dressing ingredients to the leaves you've chosen.
PREP THEM PROPERLY Large leaves with tough stems are difficult to eat. Trim stems from all greens that have them. Remove center stems from kale, collards and Swiss chard by slicing the leaves away from them on either side. Then chop the greens into manageable pieces before tossing them with dressing.
USE GENTLE HEAT While tender spring and summer greens become limp and unappealing when warmed even to room temperature, greens available in winter benefit from some warmth. More often than not I'll bathe my winter greens in a warm dressing, or actually stir them around in a hot pot to wilt them slightly just before serving. When wilted, tougher greens become more tender. Their bitter flavor is also improved, tempered to a pleasant bite. The idea is to soften and wilt the greens, but not to cook them. You still want your salad to have a degree of crispness.
ADD RICHNESS AND SOMETHING SWEET Toasted walnuts, bacon or crumbled blue cheese might overwhelm delicate mesclun, but rich ingredients balance the bitterness of radicchio, chard and chicory. Slices of pear or apple also lend balance, as does a teaspoon of sugar stirred into your dressing.
WARM RADICCHIO SALAD
Wilting the radicchio tempers its bitterness without entirely taming it. Fennel gives the salad a little bit of sweetness and crunch. Use a vegetable peeler to shave cheese into thin strips as a garnish.
4 strips bacon or pancetta, diced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
Ground black pepper
6 cups radicchio leaves, coarsely chopped
1 fennel bulb, trimmed, quartered, and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese shavings
1. Cook the bacon in a large pot until crisp. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Discard all but 2 tablespoons bacon grease from the pan.
2. Add garlic and cook over medium heat until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Whisk in olive oil, vinegar, sugar, mustard, salt and pepper.
3. Add radicchio, fennel and parsley to pot and stir to coat with dressing and slightly wilt radicchio leaves, 1 to 2 minutes. Do not overcook.
4. Divide among 4 salad plates, sprinkle with bacon and Parmesan shavings, and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.
CHARRED ROMAINE HEARTS WITH WARM ANCHOVY DRESSING
Grilled Caesar salad has grown in popularity over the past few summers, but to me it makes more sense in the colder months, when a grill pan can sub in for the barbecue.
1/2 baguette, thinly sliced on the bias
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
8 oil-packed anchovy fillets, chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Ground black pepper
3 romaine hearts, sliced into quarters vertically, with all four pieces still held together by stem
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place baguette slices on baking sheet and toast until golden, 12 to 15 minutes.
2. Combine 1/2 cup olive oil, anchovies and garlic in a small saucepan and cook on medium until garlic is fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in lemon juice. Season with pepper to taste. Cover pan to keep warm.
3. Brush romaine with remaining tablespoon olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill the romaine in batches on a stove-top grill pan over high heat, cooking just long enough to brown in spots, but not to completely wilt leaves, 1 to 2 minutes on each side. Transfer to a platter, drizzle with warm dressing, garnish with toasts, and serve. Makes 4 servings.