As people try to limit their fat and calorie intake over the holidays, they shouldn't underestimate the value of a salad.
I'm not talking about just any salad.
The holiday versions call for special ingredients, spectacular presentations, and a refreshing combination of flavors accented with family traditions.
Special ingredients don't have to be expensive and they can be as simple as a favorite garnish.
When the Toledo Yacht Club Commodore's Ball was held Nov. 29, Chef Marcel Hesseling prepared a salad of mixed field greens with oven-roasted cherry tomatoes, sweet potato croutons, quinoa, and beets finished with an aged sherry vinaigrette and fresh goat cheese.
Sweet potato croutons were a new idea for me. To make the croutons, "I dice the sweet potatoes and toss them with olive oil and kosher salt and then caramelize them in the oven (set at 300 degrees) for 30 to 45 minutes until tender," says the chef. "There's a natural sweetness to the sweet potatoes, with the crunchiness of the outside and the soft inside."
The red beets were roasted and peeled and sliced. In How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (Wiley, $35) Mark Bittman writes that baking beets in foil is the single best method for cooking them because the beets are firm, not waterlogged from boiling. Once the beets are cooked, you can eat them, or store them in the refrigerator and slice them later for salads. Mr. Bittman recommends baking them for 45 to 90 minutes at 400 degrees, depending on the size of the beet (he says they bake unevenly).
The cherry tomatoes in Chef Hesseling's salad were submerged in olive oil and roasted at 200 degrees for an hour and then drained. Quinoa, a South American grain which contains more protein than any other grain, is made in advance and refrigerated.
The flavors of this composed salad are all complementary. "There's the nuttiness of the quinoa (flavor), the sweetness of the sweet potato," says Chef Hesseling. "Goat cheese and beets are like a match made in heaven."
He prefers the idea of roasting because it preserves the natural flavors.
Indeed, the best salads are a combination of textures and flavors with attention to how the salad looks on a plate.
In Merry Cherry Spinach Salad, the spinach is paired with red cherries (Maraschino or dried cherries), thinly sliced red apple, and crunchy glazed walnut halves. The delicate flavor of cubed brie adds to the spinach. Spicy Orange Dressing is drizzled over the ingredients and lightly tossed. (Children may especially like the maraschino cherries.)
Showcase a pretty salad on a holiday buffet table.
Recently I had a seafood martini salad at Hudson's on the Bend restaurant in Austin, which inspires a holiday salad for a buffet. Fresh seafood salad made with crab, lobster, and shrimp can be served in an elegant glass dish in the center of a serving platter. Place six or eight leaves of bibb lettuce, each topped with a fresh shrimp or lobster pieces and mango slice, kiwi, or fruit salsa. (Hudson's salad was garnished with honey-glazed macadamia nuts and drizzled with a passion fruit vinaigrette.) For a buffet salad, each guest takes an additional couple spoonfuls of seafood salad to add to the seafood-fruit topped bibb lettuce leaf and then places the leaf on their plate with the serving spoon.
As families gather, there's always those favorites made once a year.
Ensalada Noche Buena or Christmas Eve Salad from Mod Mex by Dos Caminos chef Scott Linquist and Joanna Pruess (Andrews McMeel, $24.95), is a colorful salad of beets and pomegranate seeds set off by deep green watercress and baby lettuces; the author describes it as a staple of Christmas Eve feasts in Mexico. The optional creamy goat cheese or queso fresco adds a contemporary touch. Although it is a holiday specialty, the salad is refreshing whenever the ingredients are available.
For other families, classic salads such as Italian antipasto salad, ambrosia, and shrimp cocktail are traditions.
Equally popular for holiday buffets are gelatin salads. Don't underestimate their popularity. I've had many requests for the recipe for Layered Cherry Salad made with two layers of fruit gelatin divided by a layer of creamy cheese. It's a salad that takes a little time to make to let each layer set before adding the next. But it can be made ahead. Cut into 12 or 16 pieces and served on the buffet table.
Salads can be made-ahead or impromptu. That's the beauty of it, especially at the holidays.
Contact Kathie Smith at: firstname.lastname@example.org