Winter salad-making is a scavenger hunt in which the treasure is often a brand-new combination, a salad made in a pinch, inspired by the absence of lettuce.
The other day, I headed to my local food co-op, looking for a nice romaine. But the one I fished out of the produce cooler looked forlorn and well-traveled, so I put it back. I craved a Caesar salad, but not that badly.
Later that day, assembling supper, I still wanted a salad. So I went out to our little winter greenhouse to see what I could rustle up. Lush rosettes of tatsoi were still there, having given us delicious stir-fries all winter long. We’d also used tatsoi’s bright green, tender, mild-tasting leaves (like little Ping-Pong paddles) to place under sliced pears and blue cheese, or feta cheese and baked beets. But there was no lettuce, unless you counted the rows of cut-and-come-again multicolored lettuce mix, just an inch high, in too small a cradle to rob.
In the lengthening days of February, the tatsoi was starting to bolt, but it still tasted good. So I snipped a small handful of leaves, then went on to pull some wintered-over carrots, still sweet and crisp, though starting to grow tiny side roots — a sign that their salad days were numbered. Then I stole some “scallions” by pulling up a couple of plants from the row of young onions we’d planted Sept. 1.
Back in the kitchen, I chopped the onions and combined them with the tatsoi, the carrots scraped into ribbons with a vegetable peeler, a celery stalk and leaves (from the store), some rosemary (growing on a sunny windowsill in a pot) and two apples from cold storage, cut in cubes with their bright red skins still on. I fried up some croutons in butter, grated in some smoked cheddar, and had a salad that was close to a meal in itself.
It’s all about making the most of what you’ve got. A chef friend who had only claytonia in her winter garden concocted an infinity of salads with that lovely, ultra-hardy little green as a base.
The occasion doesn’t need to be winter dearth. Another chef we know, faced with a table of VIP guests, went out to his midsummer, heat-scorched garden and found almost no greens at all. There were a few tiny leaves of arugula, a bounty of herbs and the usual bonanza of zucchini. So he took some zucchini, about six inches long, peeled them and sliced them very thinly into broad, flat ribbons and broiled them lightly, slicked with oil. Then he curled them into an elegant tangle, as if they were extra-wide noodles, about four to a plate, and surrounded them artfully with arugula snippets and herbs. With an excellent vinaigrette, it drew raves for its inventiveness. Caesar himself would have welcomed the tribute.
By next week, my little mixed lettuces will just fill the plate, along with . . . what? It will be so much fun to figure that out.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”