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Element of surprise

With wacky weather on both coasts, chefs are focusing on sumptuous salads.

January 17, 2007|Regina Schrambling | 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.


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.


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."

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