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.
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.
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.