So often when we talk about salads, we apologize. If we bring a salad to a potluck, we play down our contribution. If we serve salad for dinner, we regret that it isn’t more substantial. If a co-worker asks what we ate for lunch and the answer is leafy, green and dressed with vinaigrette, we say, “Oh, just a salad.”
We take salads for granted, as cooks and as eaters. We undervalue them for their potential for sustenance and satiation, but also for the care they require in the making, a trend no doubt encouraged by our dependence on bottled dressings and pre-prepped greens.
We can do better. So with fall’s dropping temperatures, I’m adding ever more salads to the menu, wielding the season’s frost-sweetened, intensely flavored greens – collards, cabbage, mustards, chicories and, yes, kale – to restore some glamour, and perhaps some respect, to the salad course.
I suspect that many cooks would judge me a season off, salads being what we run to when the heat chases us toward something lighter. But warm-weather leaves, when you can find them, are often aggravated versions of themselves. Their bitter, pungent or spicy undertones can be aggressive, their texture brash. The cold is what brings their flavors into alignment.
Bitter chicories take on a mellow, buttery glow; collards turn bright-tasting and sweet, their stems juicy enough to eat raw; mustards, tasting of hazelnuts and wasabi, are irresistible.
“I really look forward to selling our greens this time of year because the flavor is so good,” said Mike Nolan, who grows a variety at his Earth Spring Farm in Carlisle, Pa.
But while you could certainly apply heat to these greens, it’s gratifying to capture them as they are, framing them, along with a few garden companions, as a moment in a season. Maybe it’s a ruffly head of savoy cabbage, juicy-sweet daikon radishes and garnet-skinned carrots; or a head of spiky-leaved, ruby-streaked mustard greens with a plump, crisp kohlrabi. To enjoy them fresh and vibrant is a privilege. With that in mind, make your salads soon after you buy their star ingredients, before they have anything to hide.
5 seasonal greens you need to know
▪ Cabbage is sweet, creamy-tasting and crunchy when raw; buttery-tasting, earthy and unctuous when cooked. For salads, look to savoy and Napa varieties, whose ruffly leaves keep a tight hold on dressings and retain their texture even as they wilt. (Napa, with its high water content, tends to slump more quickly.) Or cook any variety – slowly, in a little oil with a few tablespoons of water – to concentrate its flavors and keep its leaves plump.
▪ Collard greens, like most winter vegetables, produce more sugars after they’ve been nipped with frost. Finely shred the leaves for salads or coleslaw, or use whole leaves as a wrap. Alternatively, steam the shredded leaves just until tender, drain, and gloss them with a sharp, garlicky dressing. Cooked, collards become tender and succulent. Very fresh, young leaves need no more than a few minutes on the stove; more mature leaves should cook a little longer, and more slowly.
▪ Chicories – radicchio, catalogna chicory, curly endive or frisee, sugarloaf chicory and escarole – have sweet, lettucelike leaves tinged with a compelling bitterness. In salads, their complex flavor is best matched with sharp vinaigrettes and citrus-based dressings. Adding them to brothy soups or braising them lightly cuts their bitterness by half, renders them silky and tender, and brings out an earthy richness. A compromise: Remove the outer leaves for cooking and reserve the more delicate inner leaves for salad.
▪ Kale usually has deeply colored leaves that are mild and sweet, but there’s enough variation among varieties that it’s worth trying them all. Lacinato (also called Tuscan kale or cavolo nero) has crinkly, tender, almost black leaves, ideal for salads; ruffly redbor, its sturdy greens a purplish-rose, is a good choice for soups and stews. For sauteing, try any of the Siberian or Russian kales, whose large, fine-grained leaves wilt quickly into meltingly tender heaps.
▪ Mustard greens have an intense, wasabi-like bite that varies in intensity depending on the variety. Classic varieties with large, curled leaves will hit your sinuses the hardest and are ideal for cooking, which will mellow their spice and accentuate their nutty sweetness. Red, flat-leaf varieties and varieties with delicate, frilly or spiky leaves are milder-mannered and brilliantly feisty in salads, and they pair well with dressings incorporating ginger, miso or avocado.
Cabbage Salad With Winter Roots
and Popped Mustard Seed
Turn this salad into a vegetarian main dish by folding 1/4 cup of red quinoa, cooked and cooled, into the finished salad and scattering cubed extra-firm tofu around each plate.
Make Ahead: The salad can be made 30 minutes before serving.
1 medium head savoy cabbage or Napa cabbage
2 medium carrots, scrubbed well
3 medium watermelon radishes or other winter radishes, such as the Hilds Blauer or China Rose varieties
1 small red onion
3 tablespoons peanut oil
1 tablespoon brown mustard seed
2 small dried arbol chili peppers, torn into 2 or 3 pieces (reduce to 1 or omit for less heat)
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Cracked black pepper
1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves (from about 10 sprigs)
Cut the cabbage in half through the stem end, then cut each half through the stem end to yield four quarters. Slice off the core and discard, then cut each quarter crosswise into thin ribbons. You should have about 9 loosely packed cups. Transfer the cabbage to a bowl.
Cut the carrots into matchstick-size strips (julienne), and halve and thinly slice the radishes; transfer those ingredients to the bowl of cabbage.
Cut the onion in half crosswise, then slice it thinly lengthwise. Add the onion to the bowl.
Heat the oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the mustard seed and arbol chili pieces. Cover and cook for about 4 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, until the seeds begin to pop. Remove from the heat; let cool for 5 minutes (covered).
Dissolve the salt in the lemon juice in a small bowl, then pour over the cabbage, along with the oil and mustard seed. Use your hands to toss the cabbage and vegetables with the dressing until they are well coated and slightly wilted. Taste for salt, and season lightly with the black pepper.
Fold in the parsley, and serve.
Nutrition Per serving: 170 calories, 4 g protein, 16 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 470 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar
From Emily C. Horton
Collard Green, Potato and Chickpea Salad
With Spiced Lemon Dressing
2 to 4 servings (4 appetizer or side-dish servings or 2 main-course servings)
If your collards are not particularly tender, blanch or steam them first, just until tender, then drain them thoroughly before tossing with the dressing.
Make ahead: The cooked potatoes and chickpeas can be dressed and refrigerated 2 days in advance; bring to room temperature before serving. The spices can be toasted and ground 3 days in advance and held in an airtight container at room temperature.
1 pound fingerling potatoes, scrubbed well
1 bunch collard greens (about 1 pound)
5 pitted oil-cured black olives, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1/2 teaspoon caraway seed
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon plus 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup cooked or canned, no-salt-added chickpeas
1/3 cup packed cilantro leaves, for garnish
Freshly cracked black pepper
Bring a medium pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add a generous pinch of the kosher salt, then add the potatoes. Reduce the heat to medium; cook uncovered just until the potatoes can be easily pierced with the sharp tip of a knife, about 15 minutes. Drain and cool.
Cut the ribs from the collards by slicing along both sides of the stalk from the top of the leaf to the stem end; discard or reserve the ribs for another use. Stack the halved leaves and cut them into thin ribbons. Rinse in a bowl of cool water, spin dry and transfer to a medium bowl. Add the chopped olives.
Heat a small skillet over medium-low heat. Add the cumin and caraway seeds; cook for about 3 minutes, until lightly toasted and fragrant. Let cool for 5 minutes, then grind to a coarse powder using a mortar and pestle. Transfer to a small bowl and add the crushed red pepper flakes (to taste).
Use the same mortar and pestle to reduce the garlic to a paste. Add the lemon juice and the 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt; mix until the salt has dissolved. Transfer to a bowl; slowly whisk in the oil to form an emulsified dressing.
Once the potatoes are cool, cut them into bite-size chunks. Add to the bowl, along with the drained chickpeas.
Add 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons of the dressing to the bowl of collards and olives; use your hands to toss gently until well incorporated. Pour the remaining dressing over the potatoes and chickpeas, along with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of sea salt. Use a spatula to fold it in until well coated.
To serve, scatter the potatoes and chickpeas over the bottom of each plate. Mound the collard-olive mixture on the top, and garnish with cilantro leaves. Season lightly with the black pepper. Serve right away.
Nutrition Per serving (based on 4): 240 calories, 10 g protein, 37 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 520 mg sodium, 10 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar
From Emily C. Horton