Cold weather salads balance seasonal vegetables with fruit, nuts and vinegars

WINTER GREENS

February 26, 1992|By Linda Lowe Morris | Linda Lowe Morris,Staff Writer

When winter winds are blowing, few of us want to race to the fridge and make a salad. The very thought of a salad -- so cooling and tasty in summertime -- is enough to make you shiver when outside temperatures drop.

But there are some salads made just for winter: salads of pungent greens that complement heavy stews and meats, savory salads of cheeses and nuts, comforting salads of potatoes, beans and other cooked vegetables.

The best ingredients, says Noel Richardson, author of "Winter Herbal Pleasures" (Sterling, paperback, $9.95), are seasonal ones. "I think you can be quite inventive with some of the winter vegetables."

Ms. Richardson, co-owner with her husband of Raven Hill Herb Farms on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, looks for ways to use cabbage, onions and carrots. "I love red cabbage," she says, "because I love seeing red vegetables in winter. They look so colorful."

When making a winter salad, avoid cucumbers and tomatoes. Their watery, cooling qualities are better suited for use in warmer seasons. Besides, most winter tomatoes -- even the fancy hydroponic ones -- are so poor in flavor they aren't worth buying. Ms. Richardson stops using tomatoes as soon as the last one is picked from her garden.

Look instead for the greens that are traditionally harvested in late autumn or early spring: spinach, watercress, chard, the chicory family, red cabbage, romaine and arugula. If you want to use the milder Boston, bibb or butter lettuces, mix them with some of the stronger greens.

Among the stronger greens are the chicories, including radicchio, the curly loose-leaf endive chicory, escarole and Belgian chicory. Leaves of red radicchio give color as well as bite to salads. Whole leaves of radicchio can cradle other salad ingredients for a fancy presentation.

In Italy, arugula grows so abundantly it is considered a weed, food fit for peasants. In this country, arugula -- once only eaten by gardeners with exotic tastes -- suddenly became a favorite of trendy, upscale restaurants in the mid-1980s. Now things are leveling out. You can find arugula in more and more markets at reasonable prices. It looks similar to spinach and its leaves have the same almost meaty texture. Its flavor has been compared to mustard, nutmeg, peanuts or even mushrooms -- depending on the palate. It is often sold packed in bunches tied with a giant twist-tie. When you get it home from the market, remove the tie, take out any yellow or broken leaves and refrigerate, loose, in a plastic bag.

The beautiful rosettes of ornamental kale are also showing up in produce sections. Their decorative leaves -- curly-edged and ranging in color from creamy white to pink and purple -- may be used as a centerpiece one night and in a salad the next. Float the whole rosette in a bowl of water for use as a centerpiece. For a salad, the flavor of ornamental kale is nearly as strong as regular kale so you may want to use it sparingly.

Give coleslaw a winter personality by adding thin slices of apple and flecks of red cabbage. Warm it with a creamy dressing made with peanut or sesame butter. "When I was growing up in British Columbia we had no lettuces from California, so cabbage was always our winter salad," Ms. Richardson says.

In her book, she has recipes for a fennel salad with olive oil and lemon juice, a watercress and red onion salad with raspberry-yogurt vinaigrette and a salad of arugula and pine nuts dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Almost all of the bitter greens like arugula, spinach and chicory blend well with walnuts or pine nuts, with walnut oil, with &L strong-flavored cheeses and with flavored vinegars. Instead of your regular one, try balsamic vinegar, one of the fruit vinegars such as raspberry, or an herb-flavored vinegar.

Touches of fruit -- slices of apple, bits of yellow- or red-skinned pear, sections of orange -- add delicacy to a winter salad. Their sweetness is a nice balance for the somewhat bitter greens.

When making your salad, remember to tear rather than cut all of the different types of lettuce. Cutting them will cause the edges to discolor. Wait until the last minute before serving to toss with salad dressing.

Any leftover salad made with bitter greens can be chopped and added to bean or lentil soup. Or you can saute it quickly in olive oil -- just enough to barely wilt -- then toss with hot pasta and lots of slivered or grated Parmesan cheese.

Cooked vegetables -- potatoes, green beans, asparagus, carrots, broccoli, roasted red peppers -- are also welcome additions to winter salads. You can fill a steamer with a selection of seasonal vegetables and then serve them topped with a rich dressing -- one made with a base of yogurt or of peanut or sesame butter. It's an easy and nourishing lunch or dinner for one or two people.

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