Cold facts on how to winterize your salads

Use best from markets and don't forget to add an element of surprise

January 31, 2007|By Regina Schrambling | Regina Schrambling,Los Angeles Times

When chef Nancy Silverton spots a caprese salad on a menu in winter, she says, "I don't stay in that restaurant." Nothing is a surer sign of seasonal insensitivity than the routine tomato-basil-mozzarella assemblage offered in months with "R" in them.

But when Silverton needed a simple salad for the new Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles, she took that summer standard, winterized it and created a sensation. Her winter caprese does not rely on pallid, out-of-season tomatoes, rubbery mozzarella and basil leaves with jet lag.

The tomatoes are a local variety, roasted on the vine to intensify the flavor and juiciness. The cheese is either a sumptuous, locally made burrata or buffalo bocconcini from Italy. A hand-pounded, bright pesto augments snippings of the fresh herb.

Never in all of history have cooks had such easy access to any ingredient at any time of year. But after years of reveling in flouting nature, more and more are understanding that salads need to change with the pages on the calendar. If something is not naturally in peak season, it needs to be tweaked. And if you can work with what is best and brightest at the farmers' market, you will create something even livelier.

Always, though, salads need to be attuned to appetites. What people naturally crave in the coldest months bears about as much resemblance to a salade nicoise as hot chocolate does to a Fudgsicle.

Winter salads carry a different weight from those in other months. They are less likely to be a main dish, more likely to be counted on to offset the richness in the rest of the meal. And the element of surprise is never more essential.

The signature salad at Maremma in New York City is a perfect example. Mingling mellow lettuce with scrambled eggs and chunks of pancetta with fresh herbs, Insalata Pontormo is robust but delicate, filling but still light. It echoes the quintessential French winter salad with frisee, lardons and poached egg, but takes it to another, very Italian level.

Cesare Casella, the chef-owner who dreamed it up and named it after a favorite Florentine painter, keeps it on the menu year-round. But it really is the ideal winter salad, soothing and warming in the color green. You could eat it before a plate of osso buco, or all by itself as supper, and feel equally satisfied.

Other winter salads are much more season-specific, mingling citrus, pomegranate, dried fruit, nuts and other ingredients that are so essential to a winter larder. Combinations that would seem polar in summertime are ideal now, and probably no one understands that more than Suzanne Goin of Lucques and A.O.C. in Los Angeles.

"My idea of salad in winter is similar to my take on salad in general," she says. "It's a way of celebrating what's around now. I'm a big fruit-and-vegetable fan, and that becomes the focus for me."

Goin has a whole philosophy of how ingredients should come together, how cravings shift with the seasons and, most important, how to make the most of everything at its peak. She uses an abundance of the citrus currently in markets, for instance, but she does not stop with tangerine segments or squeezed blood oranges; she uses both the juice and the pulp to get maximum effect.

Goin believes all ingredients should be mixed with an equal hand, rather than letting greens dominate as they do in other seasons; the nuts and pomegranates should rival the arugula in a given bowl.

"I like things when everything tastes integrated," she says. So she is obsessed with balance, with harmonizing bitter and sweet flavors and ingredients.

A favorite combination of roasted beets with blood oranges starts out like a predictable winter ensemble but takes a turn for the vibrant with fresh mint and orange flower water, with more citrus in the vinaigrette.

Pears that she would toss in freshly sliced any other time of year are more likely to be caramelized, for a sweeter, darker contrast with other ingredients in a salad bowl.

Adding richness is another way to turn a salad wintry. Goin reaches for duck confit, jamon serrano and white anchovies for various salads as well as ricotta salata and other cheeses. If she uses a nut, she uses an oil made from the same nut in the dressing.

Regina Schrambling wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.

Insalata Pontormo (Warm Salad With Pancetta and Eggs)

Serves 4

1 1/2 teaspoons red-wine vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons red wine

3/8 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons good-quality olive oil (divided use)

3 1/2 ounces Italian pancetta, sliced 1/2 inch thick and cut into 1/4 -inch-by- 1/2 -inch strips

1 tablespoon mixed fresh herbs (any combination of rosemary, thyme, basil, savory, chives, oregano and mint)

6 large eggs

salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

4 cups washed mixed salad greens, torn into bite-size pieces

For the dressing, whisk together the red-wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar and red wine in a small bowl with the salt and pepper. Whisk in 2 tablespoons of olive oil and set aside.

Place the remaining olive oil and pancetta in a large frying pan and cook over medium heat until the pancetta is transparent, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the herbs.

Beat the eggs with a pinch of salt and pepper to taste and pour them into the pan. Cook, stirring, until they form large, soft curds. If you see they are drying, take them off the heat and continue stirring.

Place the greens in a large shallow bowl and dress with just enough of the dressing to coat the leaves very lightly. Add the egg mixture and toss until well distributed. Serve immediately.

Note: This recipe is adapted from Cesare Casella, chef-owner of Maremma in New York. Use the best salad greens you can find, such as from farmers' markets.

Per serving: 286 calories, 13 grams protein, 3 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 24 grams fat, 5 grams saturated fat, 326 milligrams cholesterol, 529 milligrams sodium

Recipe analysis provided by the Los Angeles Times.

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