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Salad switch

The seasonal salad switch should entail more than swapping tomatoes for apples and cucumber for citrus.

It’s the salad greens that deserve a fresh look with each turn of the calendar pages. And shoppers who pay close attention in grocery produce sections can envision more on the menu than cabbage and kale. There’s an entire family of greens, known as chicories, coming into their own.

Owing to their reputation as “bitter greens,” chicories can be something of a tough sell to cooks unfamiliar with their taste, texture and appearance. Closely related to dandelion, this plant genus includes several types of endive — namely Belgian and curly, also called frisee — plus escarole, radicchio, Treviso, puntarelle and a few other varieties.

Why purposely choose a “bitter” canvas for autumn and winter fruits and veggies, not to mention nuts, seeds, cheeses and dressings? Because the naturally occurring bitter note of these greens emphasizes the sweetness, savor and acid in everything else they touch.

From a freshness standpoint, chicories hold up much longer in the refrigerator than bagged field greens, head lettuce or even bundled spinach. Their staying power should recommend chicories to cooks trying to minimize trips to the grocery store. Sturdy chicories may cost a few cents more per pound, but their preparation is minimal and almost always entails less waste compared with lettuce.

Any of the wilted leaves of chicories can be set aside for cooking, which I can’t really fathom doing with lettuce. I also like to separate the tough outer leaves of escarole and radicchio, in particular, and allocate them for dishes that benefit from their distinctive persona while saving the tender, inner leaves for salads.

Escarole is a common ingredient in Italian wedding soup, which often incorporates meatballs and rice or small pasta shapes. Suffice it to say, my kids don’t take any offense to escarole in this easy-to-love soup, made more appealing with star- or alphabet-shaped noodles.

Also in the Italian pantheon is my favorite pasta alla carbonara with sauteed radicchio. The inclusion of chicory may not be strictly speaking traditional, but it mellows beautifully when sauteed, and its remaining bit of bitterness cuts through the richness of bacon, egg and Parmesan cheese.

Pork fat is a popular pairing with chicories, not least because extra calories entice during cold weather. Adding a poached egg creates a dressing that’s become a classic restaurant interpretation of frisee, which I make a point of putting on wintertime menus when good-quality frisee is available.

Warm dressings composed with olive oil keep winter meals fresher and lighter, particularly if beans constitute the protein. I’ve enhanced this salad of escarole and white beans with diced, fresh fennel bulb and roasted, diced golden beets. Once citrus fruits come on, they’re a natural companion to these other flavors, which have garnered rave reviews from friends and family.

In the absence of chicories, I’ve been experimenting with salads of shaved Brussels sprouts, which impart their own bitterness to recipes tempered with citrus, nuts and cheese. I recently tossed very thinly sliced sprouts with roasted beets, toasted pine nuts and Parmesan cheese in a lemon vinaigrette. I also could see substituting chopped Belgian endive for the raw sprouts.

My favorite way with Belgian endive, however, keeps the “Rogue Valley salad” concept fresh. If you haven’t seen this on restaurant menus locally, it typically touts ripe pear, Rogue Creamery blue cheese, either dried cranberries or a similar fruit and often some nut variety on field greens.

I take all those quintessential flavors and layer them on chopped Belgian endive. Quickly assembled and offering a hearty crunch, the salad also accommodates chopped apple and dried sour cherries. If you don’t want to splurge for blue cheese crumbles, a good-quality blue cheese dressing suffices.

Bacon and Egg Salad

1 small garlic clove, peeled and cut in half

8 ounces frisee (6 cups packed), washed and spun dry

4 slices uncooked bacon

2 large eggs

4-1/2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 cup store-bought or homemade croutons

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Rub inside of a salad bowl with cut sides of the garlic clove halves; discard them. Add the frisee to bowl and set aside.

Line a plate with paper towels.

Cook the bacon in a medium skillet over medium heat until it has crisped and browned, then transfer it to drain on lined plate. Chop into bite-sized pieces. Pour half of bacon fat from skillet (reserve for another use, if desired).

Fill a 4-quart saucepan with about 2 to 3 inches of water, enough to cover the eggs completely, and leave enough room for them to float freely. Bring water to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer.

Crack 1 egg into a small cup or bowl with rounded sides. Gently, but without stopping, tilt bowl or cup, letting lip break simmering water’s surface, and pour in egg. Repeat with remaining egg. Whites will begin to coagulate around yolks.

Cook for about 3 minutes for medium-done eggs. Whites will be firm, but yolks will still be runny.

Using a slotted spoon, lift each egg from water and pat softly with a paper towel. If you are not going to use eggs immediately, plunge them into a cold-water bath to stop them from cooking.

Return skillet with remaining bacon fat to medium-high heat. Add the balsamic vinegar, sugar and a scant teaspoon of water, stirring to combine; bring to a boil and cook for 30 seconds, until mixture has thickened slightly, then remove from heat.

Pour half of this dressing over greens in bowl; toss to lightly wilt greens. Add the croutons, cooked bacon pieces and remaining dressing. Season with the pepper, to taste.

Divide salad between 2 bowls or plates and top each with a warm poached egg.

Makes 2 servings.

Escarole and White Beans with Lemon and Rosemary

2 tablespoons very good olive oil

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced (about 1 tablespoon)

4-1/2 cups cooked cannellini or other white beans (1 pound dried beans, cooked, or two 15-ounce cans, rinsed and drained)

Zest and juice of 1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons juice)

2 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves (from 2 or 3 sprigs), finely chopped

1/2 cup vegetable broth or white wine

1 head escarole, rinsed and blotted dry, leaves torn or chopped into bite-sized pieces

Sea salt, to taste

Small handful pine nuts, toasted, for garnish (optional)

In a large soup pot over medium heat, heat the olive oil. Stir in the red pepper flakes and minced garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, or until garlic becomes soft and golden. Add the beans and stir.

Add the lemon zest and juice, chopped rosemary and vegetable broth or wine. Gently stir in the escarole, which will start to wilt from heat of beans. Bring everything to a simmer, giving an occasional stir. Cook for about 20 minutes or until escarole starts to soften but keeps its frill and color and beans are heated through.

Season with the sea salt to taste, scatter the toasted pine nuts on top, if using, and serve.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Feta and Brussels Sprouts Salad

2-1/2 cups Brussels sprouts, ends removed and shaved on a mandolin, divided

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/4 cup olive oil, plus more to taste

3 tablespoons golden raisins

2 ounces Bulgarian feta

2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar

3 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place 1/2 cup of the shaved Brussels sprouts on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with a few pinches of the salt and pepper. Drizzle with a few drops of the olive oil and toss to coat. Roast in preheated oven for about 8 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove from oven and cool.

In a large bowl, combine remaining raw Brussels sprouts with roasted sprouts, the raisins, feta, balsamic vinegar, olive oil and pine nuts. Gently toss to coat. Serve.

Makes 2 servings.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.