Salads for wintertime

Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune

The deeper the snow, the more we daydream about the garden. We reminisce about the tender, sweet lettuces and fresh herbs harvested just before dinnertime.

Because the ground is frozen and our salad cravings persist, we adjust the salad bowl to the freshest ingredients in the produce aisle. Sure, bagged "spring" lettuce resides there, but we prefer to seek variety from cabbages and hearty greens from the chicory family such as endives, frisee, radicchio and escarole. These sturdy greens yield assertive flavors and textures that just seem right at this time of year. Plus they stand up well to other salad additions.

Interesting salads require few kitchen skills beyond chopping and mixing. With a few ground rules, salads rarely fail. Simply combine a few different lettuces with chopped crisp vegetables. Add shredded cooked meats and/or cheese for main-course offerings. Toss in a few toasted nuts or bits of fresh or dried fruit for drama. Most important, take time to shake a few ingredients together for a fresh, homemade dressing.

This year, Gather restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., inspires our winter salads. There, executive chef and co-owner Sean Baker (Esquire Magazine's 2010 Chef of the Year) adds roasted root vegetables and shredded, wood-oven chicken to lacinto kale. At home, we favor a mixed greens combo, rotisserie chicken and a basic balsamic vinaigrette.

Salads have a "real" food feel — high on the satisfaction quotient because of the flavors, textures and variety. Don't tell anyone: They're also great diet fare. Just limit the croutons.

Tips for the best salad

Plan on 4 to 5 cups of lettuce for main-course salads for four, 11/2 cups for side salads.

Tear bitter greens, such as endive and frisee, into small pieces and mingle them with larger pieces of crisp, sweet romaine.

Rinse greens and spin dry (or pat dry with towels). Wrap in a clean towel and place the bundle in a plastic bag. Store in the crisper drawer for up to a week.

Keep washed, crisped greens in the fridge at all times. Then there is no excuse not to make a salad.

Make homemade dressings. They taste better and are free of additives, thickeners, artificial flavors and excess sugars.

Add a little nut oil to salad dressings for a rich, surprising flavor.

For main-course salads, warm the meats before putting them on the salads.

Add cooked beans and lentils (such as those sold in pouches) for main-course renditions.

Add sturdy fruits, such as apple or pear for a sweet touch; use dried fruit in salads containing cheese or tart dressings.

Never overdress the salad. Add just enough dressing to barely coat the greens. Hold back even more if you're counting calories

— J. B.

Homemade croutons equal love

For rustic croutons, cut 1 loaf pugliese, ciabatta or other hearty country-style bread into 1-inch cubes. Put onto 1 large or 2 small baking sheets. Drizzle or spray with just enough olive oil to barely coat the bread. Toss well. Sprinkle with coarse salt. Bake at 375 degrees, stirring often, until golden and crisp, about 15 minutes. Serve warm, or cool completely and store in a cookie tin. Refresh in a hot oven, if needed.