In the heart of winter, temperatures have swayed in between "polar vortex" cold and chilling rain, and typically the first thing that comes to mind around meal times is comfort food.
Although meats, gravies and generous helpings of starches might seem like the best way to fill up and keep warm, hearty main dish salads and rich, fresh produce can satisfy a winter appetite and serve as a much healthier alternative.
Everything from seasonal fruits and vegetables imported from warmer regions to lighter meats that are easier on the wallet in winter can easily come together to make creative, filling salad options that aren't just your average steak dinner side dish.
It's not always the easiest choice, as finding quality produce in the winter can be tricky, but whether you are a self-sustaining home cook or like to leave the work to the professionals at your favorite restaurants, the entree salad can prove to be the ultimate winter power food.
Finding the Ingredients
In the Midwest and northern regions of the U.S., finding delicious produce from gardens and farms in your own backyard can be nearly impossible because of the winter temperatures. However, understanding the growing seasons means you can find winter salad ingredients that are made with produce that is seasonal in warmer parts of the country.
Closer is better. Although you can always find grocery store strawberries to put in a tasty salad, in January they'll most likely be coming from quite a distance.
"If you can get homegrown produce, it's going to be fresher by several weeks," said Tana Huck, co-owner of Huck Produce Farm in Waterford. "When you get, say a cucumber that's shipped into the country, it's probably already two weeks old."
The best produce to find come winter is anything that is a strong enough crop to hold up against the cold.
"When it's cool, the first spring vegetables like the broccoli and cabbage can be available because they're hearty against frost, as are radishes and turnips," Huck said. "They can grow in the winter as long as it doesn't get too cold, and even if there's some light snow."
Piling on the produce doesn't just help keep off the pounds. Replacing a meat or starch-heavy course with a main dish salad has some serious benefits.
"The more plant-based our diet, it becomes healthier in terms of reducing risk of heart diseases and cancers," said Kathy Dodrill, a Family Consumer Science educator at the OSU Extension in Washington County.
Eating for the seasons isn't just better for you, but better for your wallet.
Dodrill explains that we are very privileged to be able to get almost any piece of produce we want, but it's a trade-off.
"In-season produce is always going to taste better and be cheaper. However, we do have produce available to us year-round because of our transport system, it's just that we typically pay a higher price in the off-season," Dodrill said.
Huck notes that more grocery stores are starting to carry produce that's fresher and grown closer to home. Her farm sells it produce to Food 4 Less in Marietta as well as to local farmers markets and Columbus retailers.
In Your Own Kitchen
Whether you've made a New Year's resolution to eat healthier or just want to try an alternative to the usual meat-and-potatoes formula for dinner, there are plenty of salad options to fill you up.
For some, it can be difficult to see salad as a main course.
"We always see salads as always more of a starter, like as an appetizer or a side dish," said Williamstown resident Louise Harris.
Eating healthy foods is more difficult in the winter, she said.
"We always tend to resort to comfort foods in the winter," Harris said. Homemade beef vegetables soups and spaghetti are frequent items on the Harris' dinner table.
Fellow Williamstown resident Dwayne Lowther doesn't quite share the feeling.
"There's nothing wrong with a nice, big salad for dinner," he said.
His wife Ginnie has a masters degree in home economics, and keeps some key salad recipes up her sleeve to serve up in the winter as well as the rest of the year.
"Every now and then we'll make a big salad for dinner, something with chopped up apples, celery and walnuts," she said.
The Lowthers also favor cauliflower in the winter, and both agree that roasting it and tossing it in a salad is tasty and healthy.
"I like to make what's called a million dollar salad for dinner in the winter. It has a Jell-O base with mandarin oranges, pineapple and covered in cool whip," Ginnie said. The dish serves several purposes. It can be made in a large quantity to save and store over the winter and it satisfies a sweet tooth while also serving as a fairly healthy fruit-based salad.
On the Restaurant Menu
Local restaurants, eager to please health-conscious and special-diet eaters, have started to put vegetables and salads front and center on the menu. Some chefs differ, however, on what is feasible for the cold winter months.
David Hearing, the head chef and owner of The Levee House, tends to save salads for the summer. He said with produce, common salad staples like tomatoes "are terrible" at this time of the year, and when people are cold, they just want something heavier.
"Caesar salad, on the other hand, can really be a year-round thing," he said. "That can work in any season."
Austyn's in Marietta changes its menu to fit the seasons as well as its customers' ever-changing palates, which means more salads and fresh vegetables than in the past.
"I have gotten a bit older and I've realized getting healthy is something I want to do personally. When I realized that I saw that could satisfy the customer's appetite that way also," said Phi Chen, Austyn's owner.
Chen said he's noticed a growing trend of people wanting more vegetables, and he has adapted his menu to cater to that trend. The Vegetarian, a hearty dish made with seasonal greens, and everything from portabella mushrooms to green beans to zucchini topped with a balsamic glaze and feta cheese, is a popular special dinner entree.
"I have seen a big difference in it in the last few years since we opened up 15 years ago. Eating healthy is a new trend that is throughout the country, and even the world," Chen said.
Million Dollar Fruit Salad
1 (8 ounce) container Cool Whip Lite, frozen and thawed
1 (13 ounce) can Eagle Brand Condensed Milk (low-fat works just as well)
1 (30 ounce) can fruit cocktail in light syrup, drained
1 (10 ounce) can unsweetened crushed canned pineapple
2 bananas, thinly chopped, rubbed with lemon juice
1/2 cup pecans, coarsely chopped
1. Fold together condensed milk and Cool Whip.
2 Add drained fruit cocktail and crushed pineapple.
3. Stir in sliced bananas with lemon and mix well. Add pecans and stir.
4. Chill for one hour or overnight and serve cool.
5. FOR VARIATION: you can add 1/2 cup of small marshmallows and 1/2 cup shredded coconut if you like.
Kale and Roasted Cauliflower Salad:
1/4 cup pine nuts
1 small head cauliflower (about 1 1/2 pounds), cut into florets
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
kosher salt and black pepper
1/4 cup tahini (sesame seed paste)
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
10 cups stemmed and chopped kale (about 1 bunch) or torn escarole
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup raisins
Heat oven to 350? F. Spread the pine nuts on a rimmed baking sheet and toast, tossing once, until golden, 4 to 6 minutes; transfer to a plate.
Increase heat to 450? F. On a separate rimmed baking sheet, toss the cauliflower with the cayenne, 2 tablespoons of the oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper. Roast, tossing once, until golden and tender, 20 to 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk together the tahini, lemon juice, the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, 3/4 cup water, and 1/4 teaspoon each salt and black pepper in a large bowl (adding more water if necessary, to achieve the consistency of heavy cream).
Add the kale, onion, raisins, pine nuts, and cauliflower and toss to combine.
Butternut Squash Salad
U.S. Metric Conversion chart
3 1/2 cup(s) butternut squash, diced
3 tablespoon(s) extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup(s) blanched hazelnuts
3 cup(s) baby arugula, 3 ounces
1 medium head frisee, torn into bite-size pieces
3 ounce(s) prosciutto, torn into bite-size pieces
1 1/2 tablespoon(s) snipped chives
2 1/2 tablespoon(s) balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoon(s) hazelnut oil
Preheat oven to 425? F. On a baking sheet, toss squash with 2 tablespoons olive oil; season with salt and pepper. Roast 20 minutes, until tender. Spread hazelnuts in a pie plate and toast 6 minutes, until golden. Let cool, then chop.
In a large bowl, toss arugula, frisee, prosciutto, chives, hazelnuts, and squash. In a small microwave-safe bowl, mix remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil with vinegar and hazelnut oil and season with salt and pepper. Microwave dressing until hot, about 1 minute. Pour dressing over salad, toss well, and serve.