In the haze of February's indecisive weather, the motivation to eat cold raw things dwindles to an all-time low. Tender leaves seem way too wimpy, cucumbers feel too cool, and anemic tomatoes are a nonstarter. Still, it's commonly agreed that skipping vegetables for an extended length of time can cause scurvy — or at least a creeping sense of guilt.
Winter salads should not aspire to the carefree minimalism of their summer counterparts. They need to be cozy, thoughtful, and filling. One approach is the warm salad, though there may be some debate as to what that actually is. Some define it as a plate that starts with room-temperature greens drizzled with a warm vinaigrette to wilt them. But the plate can also be heated with just-cooked beans, meat, roasted vegetables, or grains. You can't go wrong with a soft-cooked egg, turning the yolk into the dressing. The key is not to overdo the warm, otherwise it's a bowl of cooked food and not a salad.
"There really is a fine line," says Parc executive chef William Quinn, whose shrimp and avocado salad with lemon beurre blanc sets the standard for classic and warm. "To me, a warm salad has to have a bright element with a mix of textures and flavors that one would associate with a salad."
Another approach is to keep it cool but stick with stalwart greens. With its pallor, endive embodies the colorless days of winter, but the crisp, slightly bitter petals stand up well to heartier dressings. Exhibit A: The classic French endive salad with blue cheese.
At Royal Boucherie in Old City, Nick Elmi takes a different tack, draping red and green endive leaves with a hazelnut and poppy-seed vinaigrette enriched with an egg yolk. Finely crushed hazelnuts, cubes of pickled pear, and a generous sprinkling of fresh herbs round out the plate with crunchy, bright, and grassy components. It's what Elmi calls a "fork-and-knife salad" that gets every element into each bite.
"I don't like blue cheese, so I wanted to come up with a composed, beautiful salad that would still be seasonal," Elmi says. "I prefer simplicity in salad — four ingredients that taste good and balance each other out."
Love it or hate it, the kale salad befits the season. Elmi, for one, is pro-baby kale. "At home, I will make a very simple salad with baby kale, balsamic vinegar, and oil, maybe grilled chicken on top."
For kale fence-sitters, the chewy, nutrient-dense leaves can be improved only by adding elements and textures. Even better, a bowl of kale can sit in the refrigerator on those days when something less virtuous is required. South restaurant's take adds some Southern charm, with honey-glazed cubes of kabocha squash, pickled pearl onions, toasted almond slivers, and a comforting buttermilk dressing.
"The squash is caramelized to bring out sweetness, and that's balanced out by the acid of the pickled onions and the creaminess of the buttermilk," says chef Benjamin Bynum.
An alternative to the kale could be Swiss chard, which tastes less like minerals but which has a similarly robust structure. Shredded Brussels sprouts or cabbage can serve as a peppery slawlike base for mix-ins. Colorful chicories, like radicchio and escarole, are seasonal and hearty, though they rarely recede to the background.
"The chicories can be bitter, but acid will cut that or you can use a truffle oil to balance the bitterness," says Nich Bazik, executive chef at the Good King Tavern in Bella Vista. "Salt also breaks down the compounds that make the leaves bitter and helps neutralize the flavor."
Think also of flourishes like anchovies, olives, and briny cheeses like feta. Chicories also can be lightly roasted or grilled to bring out more sweetness.
A mix of raw and roasted radicchio appears in Food52's cauliflower lentil salad, but only in tiny bites between the namesake ingredients. With chopped walnuts and feta or goat cheese crumbles, an unexpected sprinkling of tarragon, and a gutsy anchovy and currant dressing, it has plenty of flavor and enough interest to merit repeat eatings.
Using greens as a smaller player or skipping them altogether can also change up the salad game.
Lightly cooked broccoli or raw or roasted root vegetables are a good place to start. The French also have a tradition here, with the celery rémoulade. At the Good King Tavern, the dish is dressed with a truffle vinaigrette in place of the typical mayonnaise.
"The truffle oil makes it lighter and more luxurious," Bazik says. "I make the dressing with Dijon mustard, hazelnut oil, olive oil, chopped shallot, and champagne vinaigrette, and the salad gets some shaved black and watermelon radishes."
Beets, carrots, celery root, kohlrabi can all be arranged in raw shreds, cooked cubes or slices, or some combination of all of the above.
"I like to make a beet salad with raw beets, sliced thin on the mandolin, golden beets that are pickled, and then red beets with horseradish and mustard seed," Bynum says. "I'll add blood orange supremes and goat cheese to the plate."
Crisp fennel, juicy citrus, pomegranate seeds, and nuts (hazelnut, walnuts, pecans, or almonds) punctuate with texture, as does dried fruit such as raisins, cranberries and figs. When in doubt about the winter salad, think about whether those vegetables would seem alien on a snowy day, Quinn says.