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A salad in winter: counterintuitive comfort food

box of winter salad

If you skip the lettuce and choose more robust vegetables, you can make a big box of salad in minutes and keep it crisp several days in the fridge.

It’s gotten cold here. Ok, so no one else is pitying us; we had 80-plus degree weather only last week, but now there’s a very dry, sunny cold spell setting in, it’s in the 50s daytime, 40s at night, and Southern California doesn’t do insulation that well. Or ski jackets. Or wool.

On the upside, it’s been cold enough so that I can run the oven and bake–a rarity in Pasadena this year. [OK again: prepare for a couple of digressions from the main topic]

I made a big round spanakopita for a Chanukah party, quick pizzas for my daughter and her friends and calzones for me and my husband, rosemary and sesame bread, and rye bread–which is still in the attempt stage; I didn’t have a properly developed sour and wasn’t scrupulous about weighing out and getting the hydration and gluten ratios right and all that the first time around, and it collapsed in the oven…

I’m determined to get the sour and the rise textures right, so now I’m following the Inside the Jewish Bakery instructions more closely, having met and been impressed by one of the authors. It’s a matter of some urgency: my grandmothers are no longer alive to schlep good deli or bread out here on a visit, Trader Joe’s has broken ties with the really good bakery that made serious “pain miche” half-rounds that tasted like kornbroyt, none of the commercial rye breads in SoCal (or most of the country) are anything more than tanned white bread, and I’m desperate for the real thing–tough, chewy, tangy, caraway-laden, with a serious crust. Before my genes start going beige and I start deciding Bing Crosby was a really good singer.

[True unexpected fact here: a church choir director I know says that because of all the practice sessions, she and all her colleagues get serious carol fatigue by about two weeks before Christmas every year. I thought it was just me avoiding the mall, but no.]

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about comfort food, because winter cold brings on the desire for heavier dishes–stews, starches, cheeses, meat and potatoes, and more starches, and the winter holidays bring their own calorie-laden version of cheer to the table with abundant puff pastry, eggnog, latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiot (jelly doughnuts), cookies, fruitcake, and all the rest of it.

Not too many people think about salad as a comfort food this time of year. Potato salad, maybe.

And yet…it’s really not very comfortable to find you’ve gained five or ten pounds in a month when you didn’t mean to, and New Year’s is coming with an actual dress-up-like-a-grownup-with-a-life party invitation. If I’ve managed not to succumb to the excess so far this year, it’s only because I’ve been cautious-to-paranoid about eating latkes and sufganiot last week and even my typical penchant for cheese and dark chocolate (not together!) has me thinking twice. I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford to regain the weight I lost last year–even though it was “only” ten pounds, it was hard enough, and like many people, I could use another ten down before spring without having to work too hard.

So salad is what I have in mind at the moment. Yes, there will also be stew–this week, spicy vegetarian eggplant and chickpea stew, because I made a vat of it and stuck it in the fridge. Very hearty, filling, warming, and all that winter-holiday-recipe-talk, yet not very devastating diet-wise, and doesn’t make you feel like you need another nap pronto. Plus once it’s made, it’s really fast to reheat in the microwave. As I discovered yesterday, a mug (nuked less than 2 minutes and eaten on the run) can power me through a rushed non-cook evening–something I don’t do often or well–of ferrying my kid to the movies at the mall with her friends. During the very unpleasant after-Christmas sales season. What can I say–when put to the test, it was faster than fast food and twice as effective.

If only salad were like that [finally back on topic]. I’m not generally a cook-for-the-month kind of person, but it seems to me that if a restaurant salad bar can get away with making blah bulk salads that sit out for hours, surely I can do a bulk salad that looks and tastes lively and stores nicely for a couple of days in the fridge without going bad. Chop once, eat twice, right?

But salad–a lot of people have drifted away from making their own salads, or have decided that you can only make it in spring or summer when the food magazines show big colorful pictures of  heirloom tomatoes. It seems like a lot of work, and it definitely doesn’t seem “grab-and-go.”

The food magazine recipes never list fewer than 20 ingredients apiece, and the vegetables are either exotic or pre-cut in branded plastic bags (so the mags can get some advertising dollars). The take-home message  is that salads and fresh vegetables in general are too expensive and complicated for normal people to wash and cut up themselves, or that it takes chef-level knife skills to do it.

Is it any wonder, then, that the Thanksgiving most-requested-recipes-by-state survey in the New York Times last month showed  a lot of people in the middle of the country making cold, mayonnaise-laden noodle casseroles and jello-and-whipped cream trifles or messes (some of them, incredibly, with Snickers bars or potato chips mixed in) and calling them “salads”?

This is so wrong. If ever there were a season when you need a simple, fresh green salad, this has got to be it.

Not when you’ve just come in from shoveling the walk, obviously (assuming you’re not here in the Southern California drought belt). But shortly after that, when you sit down to lunch and discover you could use some sunshine on your plate, and I don’t mean bright orange-colored Jell-O with a dollop of Cool Whip.

A serving of salad with a sharp vinaigrette will remind your tastebuds that all is not lost and spring is coming–eventually. It’ll dress up your other food in a chic and svelte way, and keep your appetite from leering relentlessly–and beigely–after stodgy mac-and-cheese-and-potatoes kinds of dishes.

So anyway, I got to test out my new bulk salad theory because I had big salads to make for a couple of parties before and during Chanukah, and took the leftovers home.

Depending on what you put in it, a big box of colorful chopped salad vegetables in a snap lid container stores pretty well in the fridge for several days. And it only takes a couple of minutes to deal with, total–maybe 5-10 minutes tops, without fancy restaurant skills. And having done it once, you don’t have to do it every day to have a decent salad with lunch or dinner. Or both. You can grab and go (well, maybe not literally–it’s probably better if you sit down for a few minutes to eat it. But still. It’s a lot faster and kind of nice to have one thing ready for lunch or dinner without extra work.)

But it’s winter. The tomatoes are a travesty. The lettuce, if there is lettuce, is iceberg, and so are you when you look at it in the store. And all the decorative vegetables from the food mags are expensive!

Fortunately, some of the non-lettuce bulk winter vegetables are pretty cheap right now, and they work well year-round for salads. Most of them are more durable than summer lettuces so they’ll last longer in the fridge. They’re easier to clean and chop, and some of them–no, most of them–are pretty. Because one of the things you want to borrow from summertime is the idea of not working very hard at pretty.

My general recommendation is to keep it simple. Three or four ingredients is plenty of variety, and for my money you can skip actual lettuce because it doesn’t last that well.

Top choices of winter salad vegetables:

  • red cabbage (not those nasty dried-out wilted expensive packaged shreds, get a full head, it stays good for a couple of weeks in the fridge)
  • carrots (whole, preferably organic but regular’s okay too)
  • cucumbers
  • celery
  • radishes
  • any color of bell pepper if the price isn’t astronomical
  • raw fresh green beans or snap peas (again, if the price isn’t too high to contemplate)
  • raw broccoli or cauliflower (again, whole heads with stalks–not stale pre-cut baggies)
  • scallions or a bit of thinly-sliced (preferably red, it’s pretty) onion
  • concession: a bag of prewashed arugula or mesclun salad mix, though either of those is more delicate than the more robust vegetables. At least the leaves are dry.

Also–very important–keep the box of salad dry. Don’t toss it all with dressing and sit it in the fridge, and then wonder why it’s wilted the next day. Keep dressings and any wet or juicy ingredients separate to add at the table.

If you can get a pack of cherry or grape tomatoes (usually I’d say it’s not the economical choice, but in winter the big ones aren’t good), those are better to toss in (whole) than big sliced tomatoes. The little whole tomatoes won’t go bitter and soggy or cause the other vegetables to break down the way cut tomatoes would.

If you don’t have tomatoes, or they’re too expensive, a peeled, sliced orange–again, added to your plate at the table, not to the big box, since it’s both wet and acidic–is pretty good and very sunny. Sliced pears or Granny Smith apples are also good, even though they don’t actually deliver vitamin C.

The only exception I’d make to the keep-it-dry rule would be for cucumbers, which are going to be wettish when sliced. Marinating them lightly for a few minutes before mixing into the salad helps extract some of their water without making them utterly limp, gives them some extra flavor and may help keep them good longer thanks to the oil and vinegar. Two ways to do it: my “half-sour dill” method (garlic, dill, oil and vinegar, s&p), or (quicker for noncooks though a bit saltier) a few spoonfuls of bottled Italian vinaigrette, just enough to coat the slices. Drain off any extra liquid before tossing the cucumbers with the other salad vegetables. Or you could store them separately in a smaller snap lid box or a ziplock bag.

Optional decorations for variety when you go to serve salad from the box: sliced inexpensive winter fruit as above, a sprinkling of toasted walnuts or almonds (luxurious) or roasted sunflower seeds or peanuts (cheap but tasty). Maybe one or two good olives or artichoke hearts or a sprinkling of feta or bleu cheese. Or freshly sliced avocado if you can find it and like it–definitely don’t add avocado to the big box! A little of any fresh herbs–dill, basil, mint, parsley–that you happen to have growing in a kitchen window or can pick up at the supermarket, though these might not be available or affordable in winter all over the country.

Dressings: A drizzle of mustard vinaigrette, oil and vinegar or lemon juice, tzatziki, or other sharp, light non-mayonnaise dressing will keep the flavors bright and not overdo the calories. Make your own cheaply and easily to cut down on excess sodium, added sugars and ugly mystery ingredients.

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