5 Savory Salad Ideas for Fall and Winter

During the hot summer months, we automatically add salads to our menu plans. A big bowl of crisp lettuce, cool cucumbers and sun-ripened tomatoes tossed lightly with an oil-and-vinegar dressing is always refreshing during the warmest time of the year. When salad-variety produce is at its peak, it’s easy to get creative with fresh veggie side dishes that go beyond the simple tossed green salad. The best salads are simple, with just a few ingredients, like sliced tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and slivered basil, or cucumbers, red onion and dill.

As fall gives way to winter, many of us lose access to quality warm-weather produce. Sure, we can still find red, "vine-ripened" tomatoes at the grocery in January, but they’re likely to be firm and flavorless compared to those just-picked beauties we can get in August. The best summer salads simply don't translate to winter.

But just because the calendar says February, that doesn’t mean we have to abandon interesting salad options. It’s easy to default to bagged mixed greens and bottled Italian dressing as a dinner accompaniment. But if you’re looking to jump-start your salad repertoire with seasonal ingredients, consider using grains, cool-weather crops like greens and winter squash, plus healthy add-ins like walnuts or goat cheese.

Here are five ideas to help you turn your favorite summer salads into savory fall and winter meals.

1. Adapt summer favorites with winter produce. Consider the summer potluck standard: the pasta salad. The summer variation typically features fusilli (or a similar short, shaped pasta) combined with bell pepper, summer squash, tomatoes and Italian dressing. Turn the calendar on pasta salad by choosing seasonal ingredients. Start with whole-grain tortellini or ravioli, cooked according to package directions, then add  like kale or Swiss chard. Chop an onion and two cloves of garlic, then sauté in a bit of olive oil until golden and soft. Add 3 or 4 cups of greens (washed, tough stalks removed and sliced into ribbons) and cook until wilted. Toss the cooked vegetables with the pasta, and add shaved Parmesan, salt and pepper.

One of my top summer sides is Panzanella, the Italian-inspired salad made of fresh, ripe tomatoes and cubed day-old bread. Its flavor relies on the best, freshest tomatoes; I’ve made it in the winter and been enormously disappointed. But the basic idea translates well to hearty bread and cool-weather produce. This winter Panzanella recipe swaps roasted butternut squash for ripe tomatoes and whole-wheat raisin bread for the crusty Italian loaf. A bed of spinach and a dressing of apple cider and olive oil makes for a fantastic combination!

2. Try new greens. Sweet, tender varieties like Boston or butter lettuce form the ideal basis for summer salads, when you want something light and cool. At other times of the year, try different greens with a bit more texture and flavor. Romaine is a sturdier lettuce with great flavor and crunch; it’s the star of the traditional Caesar salad. Add interest to a basic green salad by throwing in a handful or two of radicchio, a red-and-white leaved plant (it’s actually chicory, not a lettuce) that packs a pleasantly bitter flavor and gorgeous color. Peppery baby arugula makes the most delicious simple salad when tossed with a generous splash of top-quality olive oil, the juice of one lemon, lots of cracked pepper and some shaved Parmesan. Or try this very French combination of endive, apple and walnuts—you’ll think you were in Paris!

3. Go for the grain. In summertime, I can make an entire meal out of a big salad and a hunk of good bread. In winter, though, I crave something heartier and more satisfying. Adding cooked grains like faro, wheat berries or quinoa is a healthy and delicious way to give heft to a salad.

All three whole grains make healthy foundations for fill-you-up winter salads. This wheat berry salad recipe brings a little taste of summer into the mix, using frozen sweet corn and cherry tomatoes, which are usually of acceptable quality in winter months. Combine cooked farro (wheat berries or barley would substitute well) with roasted butternut squash, toasted walnuts and a splash of balsamic vinegar for a hearty, savory salad. Both of these recipes are great to take to a potluck and are ideal make-ahead lunches for your workweek.

4. Think warm thoughts. Who says salads have to come straight from the refrigerator? You’ve probably enjoyed a wilted spinach salad studded with bacon and hard-boiled egg, topped with a warm sweet-and-sour dressing. If you’re watching your fat intake, skip the bacon and the heavy dressing, and instead add flavorful sautéed mushrooms, a vinaigrette with a shallot-y bite, and a bit of shaved Parmesan cheese.

5. Use holiday leftovers. For an easy summer weeknight supper, I love to assemble a bed of fresh lettuce, chopped garden veggies like cucumber, tomato and red bell pepper, and top it with a few slices of grilled steak leftover from the previous night’s dinner. That combination of ingredients translates well to fall and winter with a few seasonal adjustments, especially if you find yourself with a fridge full of leftovers from a holiday feast. Items like sautéed green beans or carrots, roasted potatoes, roast beef or turkey could be repurposed into a main dish salad with delicious results!

Salads can be quick, easy, and healthful meals year-round when you follow these tips to bring salads back to your plate in the fall and winter. You won't regret it!

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