Today, I have salad on the brain. Never mind that there's not much green growing around here, except for the grass. Even in the dead of winter I believe it's possible to make delicious and seasonal salads. You know what I think the secret to that is? A well-stocked pantry. That means having a whole whack of oils, vinegars, dried fruits, nuts, seeds, grains and legumes right at your fingertips. Pick and choose from these staples as your mood or imagination or the weather dictates, add whatever is freshest, juiciest or ripest and you'll end up with an easy, satisfying and healthy meal.
In the Spring and Summer I tend to make salads that are light and refreshing whereas in the Fall and Winter I want something heartier and filling. Whatever the time of year, I follow roughly the same formula when making a salad. I start by making a dressing in the bottom of a big bowl that I'll serve the salad in or eat out of (if it's just me). The essential elements of a typical salad dressing are some sort of fat (any kind of oil, cream, buttermilk or yogurt) emulsified with an acid (vinegar and/or lemon juice) combined with a bit of salt and a crack of freshly ground black pepper. There's talk about the ideal ratio between oil and vinegar for salad dressings - anywhere from 2:1 to 5:1. It all comes down to personal preference. I like my dressings on the sharper side so I add less oil in proportion to vinegar. Experiment and discover what you like best! Other things I might add to a salad dressing include: mustard, honey, jam, jelly or preserves, any kind of citrus juice (orange, grapefruit, lime, etc.), maybe some chopped up garlic or ginger, occasionally a splash of pickle juice! Unusual ingredients inspired by a particular cuisine might include pomegranate or date molasses, tahini or rosewater (Middle Eastern); miso paste, soy or fish sauce (Asian). Whisk all the ingredients you've chosen for your dressing together and then taste it! At this point it should be much saltier/stronger/sharper/brighter than you'd expect the final salad to taste like. This is as it should be since the dressing will be tempered by the ingredients you have yet to add. At the same time, you want it to be balanced. If it's really sweet or rich you might need to add a bit of vinegar; conversely if it's too acidic, add some oil. When you're first starting to concoct your own salad dressings keep it simple. It's easier to adjust the taste of a salad dressing with only four ingredients than one with eight. One more thing: If you're planning on using raw onion in your salad you might want to add it at this point. If you slice it thinly and let it sit in the dressing while you prepare the rest of your ingredients you'll find that the acidity of the vinegar softens the onion and mellows its flavour.
Now that the dressing is made, it's time to get to the substance of the salad. In my opinion the heart of any salad is the fresh vegetables and fruit you put into it. These should be of an awesome quality because it's what's going to make your salad delicious and nutritious! Making a salad in the Spring (with so many fresh green things) or Summer (such abundance) is pretty easy. Doing so in Winter might be challenging but also rewarding. Winter squash, sweet potatoes or parsnips can be roasted. There's always onions and potatoes around. Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli and beets can be used raw or cooked. There's kale and collard greens, Belgian and curly endive, radicchio. Don't forget crisp celery or fennel (and their leaves or fronds). Use avocados, sprouts, mushrooms. As Fall fades to Winter there are still persimmons and grapes, pears and apples. Oranges, grapefruit, pomegranates and kiwifruit are all at their best in Winter. I especially like contrasting textures in a Winter salad so I'll often roast some vegetables while leaving others raw. Anytime you roast or saute a vegetable you can add herbs or spices that will transport you to any corner of the globe - say cumin, coriander and sumac for a Middle Eastern experience or cardamom and curry leaves to channel India. (I think I'm going to have to talk about spices in another post. I am beyond wordy as it is). The way in which you prepare each vegetable for your salad makes a difference. You might shred carrots and beets and cabbage for a winter slaw. You might combine fat hunks of roasted squash with torn kale leaves for a rustic salad. You might finely slice beets or fennel using a mandoline if you're going for a refined look. You can slice your pear or cut it into fine cubes. Think about colour. Do you want to work with an all-green palette or would you like a vibrant mix of oranges, purples, whites and greens?
I really like to bulk out my Winter salads, adding almost anything and everything. Grains with a toothsome texture, like wheat, spelt or rye berries are particularly nice. I'll slice stale bread into fat croutons which I'll drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, maybe some pepper and toast to a rich brown. I love adding dried fruit to Winter salads; you get a punch of concentrated sweetness and sense of warmth. Throw smaller dried fruit (like raisins or cranberries) in whole and give larger fruits (such as dates, apricots or pears) a quick chop. I think the more kinds of nuts and seeds you use the merrier. I like to toast mine before I toss them in (though you could also get real fancy and candy 'em). If I have cheese around (which these days I often do) that goes in as well, maybe grated or sliced, or in chunks. If you want more protein you could add some leftover meat, or a hard-boiled egg, or some canned fish. Consider olives or capers or pickles. A friend of mine has been using a microplane to finely grate chocolate into her salads! People, it's hard to go wrong.
Think about everything in your salad - how you're going to pick it up with your fork, how it's going to feel in your mouth, how it's going to taste and look combined with everything else. You'll find it becomes easier and easier to imagine what kind of salad you want to create as you make more salads and eat more salads. You'll have a rummage through the fridge and cupboards and improvise from there. It'll be fun and rewarding. I think of us as artists. All the goodies we have in tins and jars and plastic bags are our paints and pencils and canvases. We use our creativity and a bit of inspiration (perhaps from a cookbook) to craft a beautiful dish, our version of a painting. Instead of hanging it on a wall we get to eat it!
Here's some of my sketches from Winter days past:
This is a simple yet classic winter salad. Slivers of raw fennel, grapefruit segments and avocado slices with salad greens.
I took some notes on this lovely, monochromatic salad after I made it: pear (juicy, crisp); cauliflower roasted with olive oil, salt and pepper and some fennel seeds (savour/crunch/slight liquorice notes); shaved raw cauliflower (variety of textures); toasted pine nuts (buttery, smooth richness); currants (a ball of sweetness); picked onions (acidic tang, silky texture); olives (briny/salty) and sheep's milk feta (rich but sharp, creamy and tangy). A beautiful salad to behold with lots of complex, interesting flavours going on.
Here's a hearty winter salad with roasted cauliflower and squash, shreds of raw radicchio and kale, pieces of persimmon, leftover sorghum and a combination of pecans, pumpkin and hemp seeds.
Finally, in this salad we have Israeli couscous cooked with garlic and celery, cooled, mixed with slivers of red onion soaked in sherry vinegar and orange juice, black pepper, olive oil, shreds of roasted red pepper, an assortment of olives (shrivelled black and pungent green), very sour dried cherries, peppery arugula, roasted cauliflower and carrots (sprinkled with dukkah), orange segments and crumbled sheep's feta.
I hope you find this post useful and are inspired to create some tremendous and tasty salads of your own!