Element of surprise

Special to The Times

WHEN Nancy Silverton spots a caprese salad on a menu in winter, she says, "I don't stay in that restaurant." Nothing is a surer sign of seasonal insensitivity than the routine tomato-basil-mozzarella assemblage offered up in months with R in them.

But when Silverton needed a simple salad for the new Pizzeria Mozza, she took that summer standard, winterized it and created a sensation. Her winter caprese does not rely on pallid, out-of-season tomatoes, rubbery mozzarella and basil leaves with jet lag. The tomatoes are a special local variety, roasted on the vine to intensify the flavor and juiciness. The cheese is either a sumptuous, locally made burrata or buffalo bocconcini from Italy. A hand-pounded, bright pesto augments snippings of the fresh herb.

Never in all of history have cooks had such easy access to any ingredient at any time of year. But after years of reveling in flouting nature, more and more are understanding that salads need to change with the pages on the calendar. If something is not naturally in peak season, it needs to be tweaked. And if you can work with what is best and brightest at the farmers market, you will create something even livelier.

Always, though, salads need to be attuned to appetites. What people naturally crave in the coldest months bears about as much resemblance to a salade nicoise as hot chocolate does to a Fudgsicle.

Winter salads carry a different weight from those in other months. They are less likely to be a main dish, more likely to be counted on to offset the richness in the rest of the meal. And the element of surprise is never more essential.

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A perfect mingling

THE signature salad at Maremma in New York City is a perfect example. Mingling mellow lettuce with softly scrambled eggs and chunks of pancetta with a whiff of fresh herbs, insalata Pontormo is robust but delicate, filling but still light. It echoes the quintessential French winter salad with frisee, lardons and poached egg but takes it to another, very Italian level.

Cesare Casella, the chef-owner who dreamed it up and named it after a favorite Florentine painter, keeps it on the menu year-round. But it really is the ideal winter salad, soothing and warming in the color green. You could eat it before a plate of osso buco, or all by itself as supper, and feel equally satisfied.

Other winter salads are much more season-specific, mingling citrus, pomegranate, dried fruits, nuts and other ingredients that are so essential to a winter larder. Combinations that would seem polar in summertime are ideal now, and probably no one understands that more vividly than Suzanne Goin of Lucques and A.O.C.

"My idea of salad in winter is similar to my take on salad in general," she says. "It's a way of celebrating what's around now. I'm a big fruit-and-vegetable fan, and that becomes the focus for me."

Goin has a whole philosophy of how ingredients should come together, how cravings shift with the seasons and, most important, how to make the most of everything at its peak. She uses an abundance of the citrus currently in markets, for instance, but she does not stop with tangerine segments or squeezed blood oranges; she uses both the juice and the pulp to get maximum effect.

"I always want dressings to be juicy," she says. As a counterpoint to rich entrees, citrus is "bright and not heavy."

Goin believes all ingredients should be mixed with an equal hand, rather than letting greens dominate as they do in other seasons; the nuts and pomegranates should rival the arugula in a given bowl.

"I like things when everything tastes integrated," she says. So she is obsessed with balance, with harmonizing bitter and sweet flavors and ingredients, with making the most of winter fruits that are too often relegated to breakfast and dessert.

In her thinking and her compositions, Goin approaches salads as cornucopias, with maximum ingredients spilling out together on the plate, but always with integrated flavor.

A favorite combination of roasted beets with blood oranges (or tangerines) starts out like a predictable winter ensemble but takes a turn for the vibrant with fresh mint and orange flower water, with more citrus in the vinaigrette.

(To make using citrus easier, she has learned, thanks to her pastry department, that the bitter pith can be easily whisked off the peeled fruit with a clean scrubby.)

Like Silverton, Goin also understands how to maximize the flavors in salads by cooking ingredients rather than reaching only for raw components.

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Caramelized pears

PEARS that she would toss in freshly sliced any other time of year are more likely to be caramelized, for a sweeter, darker contrast with other ingredients in a salad bowl. She also mashes some of the roasted pears into the vinaigrette, so that "you get the flavor all through the salad."

Adding richness is another way to turn a salad wintry, since this is the season for rib-sticking food. Goin reaches for duck confit, jamon serrano and white anchovies in various salads as well as ricotta salata and other cheeses. If she uses a nut, she uses an oil made from the same nut in the dressing.

Andrew Carmellini, chef and partner at A Voce in New York City, takes the same approach with his winter salad, in which cheese, black truffles and house-cured duck bresaola are tossed with bitter radicchio Castelfranco, a variety that looks like a cream-colored cabbage rose flecked with red and has flatter leaves than the more common radicchio Chioggia, the deep-red, ball-shaped kind. But his signature salad is an even better example of green in wintertime.

Insalata A Voce is an amalgam of watercress and thinly sliced green apples, celery and fennel, with plump golden raisins for a touch of sweetness and toasty Marcona almonds from Spain for crunch.

It seems like a straightforward combination, but it includes lemon zest, lots of cracked black pepper and is finished with a combination of fine, dry bread crumbs with grated pecorino or Parmigiano cheese. Every bite is a party.

Nancy Silverton's caprese has the same effect for different reasons. She says the idea for winterizing came from her partner, Mario Batali, who thought more salads and antipasti were needed on the menu at Pizzeria Mozza. She decided to use the same elements as in summertime but deepen the flavors, first by roasting the tomatoes on the vine -- either Sweet 100 from Del Cabo in Baja California or Roma or cherry.

Set on a rack in a 200-degree oven, they soften and intensify in three to six hours, depending on the size.

The basil is also from Del Cabo; it's a very flavorful variety that Silverton says is saved from bitterness by using a mortar and pestle rather than a blender or food processor to turn it into pesto. And the cheese is burrata, the creamy mozzarella, from a cheese maker in Pico Rivera. Or it could be the small bites of buffalo bocconcini from Italy.

Replicating the caprese is easy at home: Cut the burrata in quarters or in half (depending on whether each piece is 8 ounces or 16 ounces). Lay each on a plate cut-side up, sprinkle it with sea salt, spoon the pesto over and snip fresh basil leaves over that. The roasted tomatoes go on top, with a drizzling of extra virgin olive oil.

Roasting the tomatoes does take time, but there's something appealingly seasonal about a warm oven right now.

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food@latimes.com

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Insalata Pontormo (Warm salad with pancetta and eggs)

Total time: 15 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: This is adapted from Cesare Casella, chef-owner of Maremma in New York. Good-quality pancetta is available at the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills and Cube in Los Angeles. Use the best salad greens you can find, such as from farmers markets.

1 1/2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons red wine

3/8 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons good-quality olive oil, divided

3 1/2 ounces Italian pancetta, sliced 1/2 -inch thick and cut into 1/4 -inch-by- 1/2 -inch strips

1 tablespoon mixed fresh herbs (any combination of rosemary, thyme, basil, savory, chives, oregano and mint)

6 large eggs

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

4 cups washed, mixed salad greens, torn into bite-size pieces

1. For the dressing, whisk together the red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar and red wine in a small bowl with the salt and pepper. Whisk in 2 tablespoons of olive oil and set aside.

2. Place the remaining olive oil and pancetta in a large frying pan and cook over medium heat until the pancetta is transparent, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the herbs.

3. Beat the eggs with a pinch of salt and pepper to taste and pour them into the pan. Cook, stirring, until they form large, soft curds. If you see they are drying, take them off the heat and continue stirring.

4. Place the greens in a large shallow bowl and dress with just enough of the dressing to coat the leaves very lightly. Add the egg mixture and toss until well distributed. Serve immediately.

Each serving: 286 calories; 13 grams protein; 3 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 24 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 326 mg. cholesterol; 529 mg. sodium.

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Fennel, green apple and watercress salad

Time: 15 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: Adapted from A Voce in New York. Roasted Marcona almonds are available at Trader Joe's and Bristol Farms stores.

1 small bulb fennel, thinly sliced lengthwise

3 stalks celery, sliced about 1/2 -inch thick

1 green apple, cored and very thinly sliced

4 basil leaves, washed and cut into thin strips

1/4 cup good-quality olive oil

Juice and zest of 2 small lemons

1 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 bunches watercress, picked and washed

3/8 cup roasted Marcona almonds

1/4 cup golden raisins, soaked in warm water to soften and drained

2 tablespoons grated pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1 tablespoon fine, dry bread crumbs

1. In a large bowl, combine the fennel, celery, apple and basil and toss to mix. Add the olive oil, lemon juice and zest, salt and pepper and toss to combine completely.

2. Just before serving, add the watercress, almonds and raisins and toss again. Divide among six salad bowls.

3. Combine the cheese and bread crumbs and sprinkle over the salads. Serve.

Each serving: 203 calories; 6 grams protein; 16 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 15 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 3 mg. cholesterol; 382 mg. sodium.

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Winter caprese

Total time: 30 minutes, plus 4 hours roasting time

Servings: 4

Note: From Nancy Silverton and chef de cuisine Matt Molina of Pizzeria Mozza. Save extra pesto for another use. Serve with crusty bread to sop up the wonderful juices. Baby Roma tomatoes are available at Trader Joe's stores; you can also use Sweet 100s, available at Pavilions, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. Burrata is available at Bristol Farms and Whole Foods stores and Bay Cities Italian Deli in Santa Monica.

Pesto sauce

3 tablespoons pine nuts

2 to 3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped (about 1 tablespoon)

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 cup good-quality olive oil

1/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice or to taste

1. Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Spread pine nuts on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for 8 to 10 minutes, until lightly browned. Let cool.

2. Using a mortar and pestle, pulverize the pine nuts, garlic, basil, parsley and salt into a smooth paste. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil and add the Parmigiano-Reggiano, mixing well to incorporate. Just before serving, season with lemon juice and additional salt to taste. Makes three-fourths cup.

Winter caprese

1 pound baby Roma tomatoes, on the vine

1 tablespoon good-quality olive oil, plus extra for garnish

1/2 teaspoon salt

A couple of fresh grindings of black pepper

1 pound burrata or mozzarella di bufala bocconcini

4 tablespoons pesto sauce

4 large basil leaves

1. Heat the oven to 200 degrees. Place the tomatoes with vines intact on a wire rack set on a baking sheet. Brush with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast 4 to 4 1/2 hours, until the skins begin to shrivel like a raisin but the tomatoes remain plump. (Sweet 100s will take considerably less time.) Remove from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature.

2. Divide the cheese evenly and place it cut side up onto four small plates. Season the cheese lightly with sea salt (skip this step if using mozzarella di bufala). Spoon 1 tablespoon of pesto sauce over each portion. Using scissors, snip a basil leaf over each portion. Top with tomatoes, divided evenly among each plate, leaving the vine intact (use scissors to cut the vine for each serving).

3. Drizzle the tomatoes with olive oil (about one-half teaspoon per serving) and serve immediately.

Each serving: 497 calories; 22 grams protein; 8 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 41 grams fat; 19 grams saturated fat; 90 mg. cholesterol; 401 mg. sodium.

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Beets and blood oranges with mint and orange flower water

Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: From A.O.C. chef-owner Suzanne Goin

3 bunches small to medium beets

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons best-quality olive oil, divided

Kosher salt

5 large blood oranges

2 tablespoons finely diced shallot

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

A few drops orange flower water

Freshly ground black pepper

12 mint leaves, sliced thinly on the diagonal

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the greens off the beets, leaving about half an inch of the stems attached. (Save the leaves for sauteing later.) Clean the beets well, and toss them with 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt.

2. Place the beets in a roasting pan with a splash of water in the bottom. Cover tightly with foil and roast about 40 minutes, until tender when pierced. (The roasting time will depend on the size and type of beet.)

3. When the beets are done, carefully remove the foil. Let them cool, then peel them by slipping off the skins with your fingers. Cut the beets into one-fourth inch thick slices.

4. Slice the stem and bottom ends from four of the blood oranges. Stand the oranges on one end and, following the contour of the fruit with your knife, remove the peel and cottony white pith. Work from top to bottom, rotating the fruit as you go. Slice the oranges thinly, into 8 to 10 pinwheels, and discard the seeds.

5. Juice the remaining blood orange. Combine the diced shallot, vinegar, lemon juice, one-fourth cup blood orange juice and one-half teaspoon salt in a small bowl and let sit 5 minutes. Whisk in the remaining one-half cup olive oil, and a drop or two of orange flower water (be careful, it can be overpowering; a little goes a long way). Taste for balance and seasoning. Carefully toss the beets in a bowl with half the vinaigrette and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Taste for seasoning.

6. Place one-third of the beets on six chilled plates, loosely in a random pattern. Continue arranging the oranges, mint and remaining beets, layering the ingredients, letting them intertwine but not pile up on one another too much. You should have a beautiful, natural-looking mosaic effect. Spoon the rest of the vinaigrette over the salads and sprinkle a few drops of orange flower water over each one.

Each serving: 303 calories; 3 grams protein; 25 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams fiber; 22 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 79 mg. sodium.

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