When was the last time you had a salad? Not a third glass of Straus eggnog, not a fourth frosted-snowman cookie, not a plate of short ribs oozing into polenta, but something crunchy and made of actual vegetables rather than equal parts bacon, croutons, and blue cheese.
Yes, we know: holiday chip-n-dips, Aunt Mavis's much-loved, once-a-year rum balls and better-than-sex bars, peppermint Jo-Jo's singing their siren song. Not to mention the greasy, porky, Spanx-busting allure of pigs-in-a-blanket after three hours of an open bar at your boyfriend's company Christmas party. At this time of year, where can you go, short of a Green Gulch retreat, and not find yourself facedown in fondue?
So, take it from me, you need a salad right about now.
When I worked for a biodynamic farm at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City a few years ago, we sold bags of greenhouse-grown mache for something like $6 a quarter-pound. And New Yorkers in fur hats and down coats bought the stuff by the pillowcase-sized bagful, because the only other fresh and local options were potatoes and turnips. Long, snowy months would have pass before April, when the first fresh offerings would be pungent, oniony ramps and a handful of foraged fiddleheads.
But here, where it's cold enough for hot toddies and sweaters but rarely below freezing, the markets are still in full color-jolted swing. At the Berkeley farmers' market last Thursday, there were inky-purple carrots and kale, pink-hearted watermelon radishes, Spanish radishes black as dirt, Tyler Gold pears and Black Twig apples, persimmons, mandarins, and Meyer lemons glowing like Christmas-tree lights, ruby chard, Boston lettuce, fennel, sweet Japanese turnips, butternut squash and more.
Salads in summer require no thought, only a lavish hand with the tomatoes and basil. In winter, salads are best when composed with a little more artistry, as an integral, balancing part of the meal rather than a lettuce-and-croutons afterthought. So, armed with the crunchy bounty of the winter solstice, now's the time to discover pleasures beyond the hunkered-down hibernation of roasted roots and mashed potatoes.
RECIPE: White-on-White Salad: Endive, Tokyo Turnips, Fennel, & Grapefruit.
As crisp and chic as a freshly pressed white shirt. You can make this salad strictly white-on-white, with thinly slivered endive, fennel, and celery heart scattered with half-moons of sweet Tokyo (also known as Japanese or hakurei) turnip over pale fronds of frisee or escarole, perhaps with segments of white grapefruit or pomelo added for their juicy acidity. Or you can add a zing of color with ruby grapefruit and/or thin slices of magenta-centered watermelon radish, as shown here.
Its cool crunch and mild bitterness makes a perfect foil for richly flavored wintery dishes, like braised duck legs or French lentils braised in red wine. Because watermelon radishes can be tougher than your typical small red-skinned radish, it's a good idea to shave them as thinly as possible, using a mandoline or the slicing disk of a food processor. Topped with fresh Dungeness crab and an extra squeeze of Meyer lemon, this salad can become a meal in itself.
2 bulbs fennel, halved
2 heads endive, halved
4 Japanese turnips, halved
3-4 stalks of celery from the heart
1 watermelon radish, peeled, or 1 daikon radish, peeled
1 grapefruit or pomelo, peeled and segmented
pale center leaves from 1 head frisee, escarole, or butter (Boston) lettuce
Slivered rind and juice of 1 Meyer lemon Vinaigrette:
Juice of 1 Meyer lemon
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar or white balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon finely minced shallot
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1. Let minced shallot macerate in lemon juice, vinegar, salt, and pepper while you prepare the salad.
2. Cut fennel, endive, and celery into thin slices on the diagonal. Slice turnips into thin half-moons. If you have a mandoline, shave watermelon radish or daikon into very thin slices; otherwise, cut as thinly as you can.
2. Toss sliced vegetables with juice of 1 lemon to prevent browning.
3. Cut grapefruit or pomelo in half through the equator. Using a small sharp knife, cut out wedges of fruit, leaving membranes attached to the rind.
4. Whisk olive oil into shallot-vinegar mixture. Taste for seasoning, adding pepper, more salt, lemon juice, or olive oil as needed.
5. Toss greens, sliced vegetables, and Meyer lemon rind with half the dressing. Taste and add more dressing as needed. Arrange on a platter or individual plates. Top with grapefruit wedges and a sprinkle of sea salt.
RECIPE: Persimmon, Pomegranate, Pecan Salad with Goat Cheese
I'm warning you: don't think you can make the toasted, sugar-and-cayenne-dusted pecans used to garnish this salad anytime but right before you serve it. Not because they won't keep--in fact, they'll be just fine made several days in advance--but they're so good, so nutty-crunchy hot and sweet, that your guests will sweep through the kitchen like locusts and hoover up every last nut before you've even folded a napkin or put out a wine glass.
This recipe is adapted from a dish I had, and loved, at Bay Wolf in Oakland (still going strong after 37 years), and was delighted to find in the Bay Wolf Restaurant Cookbook. A mainstay on my Thanksgiving table, it's just as good, and colorfully cheering, throughout the winter. Fuyu persimmons are the round, yellow-orange, flattish ones, which can be eaten while firm.
1 cup pecan halves
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
cayenne pepper to taste Dressing:
1 shallot, minced
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons white wine or champagne vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil Salad:
2 generous handfuls arugula leaves
3 generous handfuls mixed salad greens
3 Fuyu persimmons, sliced in thin wedges
Seeds of 1 pomegranate
4 ounces soft, fresh goat cheese (chevre), crumbled
1. To make pecans: Preheat oven to 325ºF. Fill a medium-sized saucepan with water and bring to a boil. When water is boiling, drop in pecans and blanch for 2 minutes. Drain. Toss wet pecans with sugar, salt, and a gentle sprinkle of cayenne. Spread out on a baking sheet and bake, stirring occasionally to keep nuts from clumping, until dry and toasty, 10-15 minutes. Remove pan from the oven and scoop nuts onto a plate to cool.
2. While pecans are baking, strip thyme leaves off the stalk and let shallots and thyme leaves macerate in the vinegar for at least 20 minutes. Whisk in salt, pepper, and olive oil. Taste for seasoning.
3. Just before serving, toss greens and persimmon wedges with half the dressing, adding more as needed. Arrange on individual plates. Top each serving with pomegranate seeds, pecans, and crumbled goat cheese. Sprinkle with a little sea salt and drizzle on a little more dressing if needed.