Fall and winter meals aren’t just about comfort food
by Andy McDonough
When the weather turns cooler it’s time to think about all the great cold weather comfort foods, like butternut squash soup, apple cobbler served up warm with a scoop of ice cream and aromatic pumpkin pies with a dollop of fresh whipped cream.
But hold on — I may put on a few pounds just writing that sentence. Let’s consider that eating well should not be a seasonal event. The cooler weather has plenty to offer for home chefs past the comfort foods in which we love to indulge, many of which we know are more about tradition than good health.
What about salads? Are we done with them at the end of August? No, and not by a long shot. When the summer salad joins our memories of sand and surf is when things start to get interesting in the salad department.
It’s true that through the miracles of the modern supermarket produce department we could have lettuce and tomato salads year-round, but if you believe that the summer salad has had its day you’ll welcome the bold tastes and new textures that winter salads have to offer.
Winter salads can’t rely on ripe tomatoes and delicate butter lettuce to make them shine. Instead, it’s hearty greens, salty cheese, and crunchy nuts make distinctive winter salads delicious. The tastes are bold and offer lots of interesting combinations to explore. Use the building blocks below to create your own perfect winter salad or try out the recipe at the end of this article.
It’s an easy and distinctive Radicchio Hazelnut Blue Cheese Salad, perfect to accompany a hearty cold weather meal or stand on its own.
Start With Hearty Greens, Chicories or Cabbages – Avoid the wilted lettuces and mesclun mixes in plastic bags or flown in from around the globe. Go instead with the hearty greens, the crunchy chicories, or the crisp cabbages that flourish in the fall and through winter. Your wondering, what a chicory is, right? Belgian endive, escarole, and radicchio are all chicories. Related to, but bolder than lettuces, chicories have sturdier leaves and a more assertive flavor famous for its bitter edge. Use their distinctive flavors to add a bright, bracing element to your salads. Best of all, they are a fall and winter crop and are available fresh locally when lettuces are not.
Speaking of alternatives to lettuce, many of the greens you may be used to cooking (chard and kale in particular) are delicious raw and make for great salads. Buy small-leafed versions or cut larger leaves into bite-size pieces or ribbon-like shreds.
Add a Hint of Salt – Heart greens and chicories can handle a lot of flavor, including plenty of salt if you’re so inclined. Feta, cojita, and blue cheeses are all great matches for winter salads – just crumble them to taste. Olives, either whole pitted, or pitted and chopped, are also good bets. You can even create your own Green Olive Dressing mixing in some minced green olives. Don’t overdo it with mixing salty players. Pick one and let it stand out.
Toss In Something Crunchy – Winter greens have a lot of body and textures of their own, so feel free to add some serious crunch if you are so inclined. Nuts, seeds, croutons, slices of radish, pieces of fennel, slim cuts of uncooked carrot – anything that will give that crunchy element to the dish.
Don’t Forget the Sweet Option – The bitter edge that underlies winter greens and chicories can benefit from a little bit of sweetness. Roasted beets and apples are good to use for balance, as are winter fruits like pears, oranges, kumquats or dates. Dried raisins, cranberries, blueberries and other fruits can add distinctive texture and sweetness, too.
Or, Lose the Leaves Entirely – Don’t forget that some of the very best summer salads, like a Marinated Green Bean Salad, don’t always involve leaves. Some of the best possible winter salads don’t involve greens of any sort. Roasted beet salads, Celery Red Onion Salad, Celery Root Salad, or Lentil Salad are great and don’t need a leaf. Here is a versatile gem of a salad is crisp and boldly flavorful. It’s easy to put its few key ingredients together in minutes, but tasty enough to impress.
Radicchio Hazelnut Blue Cheese Salad
The secret to this salad is the balance of its three strong players: the standout taste of radicchio; the bold, salty flavor of blue cheese; and crunch from the hazelnuts. If you’re not a fan of blue cheese, substitute a cheese you like or just leave it out. The radicchio and hazelnuts are a great combination and can carry this dish on their own. Nut allergy? Then, by all means, loose the nuts. The strong flavors of radicchio and blue cheese balance each other nicely, but you don’t leave out the crunch entirely. Try it with sunflower seeds or pepitas (pumpkin seeds).
Prep Time: 10 minutes Total Time: 10 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 head radicchio
1 shallot (optional)
2 Tbsp. agrodulce or 2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar plus 1 tsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup toasted, chopped hazelnuts
1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese
Preparation: Trim and chop radicchio. Wash and dry and set aside. Meanwhile, mince the shallot and put it in a large salad bowl. Add agrodulce (a traditional sweet and sour sauce in Italian cuisine) or vinegar and sugar and let sit 5 to 10 minutes, whisk in olive oil and add salt to taste. Add radicchio to salad bowl and toss gently but thoroughly until leaves are evenly coated with the dressing. Now you can either add the hazelnuts and blue cheese and toss everything together, or divide the radicchio evenly among 4 salad plates and sprinkle with its share of the hazelnuts and blue cheese for a more elegant presentation.