Every January, I tell myself I’ll eat more salads. The catch: when I’m not saying this with my mouth full of muffin, I’m swearing it in between bites of spaghetti. The cold months make it tough to get it up for leafy greens. Still, I don’t back down so easily. I empty my pockets for Next Step Produce’s arugula, which is not at all cheap – an insurance policy against wasting the stuff, I guess. I buy good olives and Asian pears, thick, aged balsamic and salty, herby Pecorino. I put all the ingredients in the fridge, nod knowingly. I will make salads. And then, when I get home from a long day at the office where the heat is broken and the air registers a nice comfy 50 DEGREES, I open the fridge, pull out the arugula, the olives and pears, that lovely pecorino, and pile it all on a square of puff pastry for a delightful winter tart that has nothing at all to do with salad. Oops.
For problems like these, dinner parties were created. If a plate of food gets served to company, it better have something fresh. Armed with a shred of dignity (I can’t actually serve them all just pasta, can I?), I finish the pureed sweet potatoes and green beans and quiche, take a deep breath, and toss together a salad. I tell myself that people will be warm enough, they will want to eat it. Sometimes, I’m right.
A couple weeks ago I made this number, a riff on a few different salads in Ottolenghi’s books Plenty and Jerusalem. Ottolenghi is really big on seasoned croutons (as am I), and in Jerusalem, he really doubles down on them. He’s got a bunch of different varieties. My personal favorite (you can see why) combines bits of broken pita, almonds, sumac, and plenty of chile. The mixture is the sort of thing I tend to double, then put on everything I make that week. You can see how croutons this flavorful work as well in salad as they do on a bowl of hot soup…not that I need any other reasons to choose hot food over salad.
I was out of pita the last time I whipped up this salad, so I substituted baguette. I’ll tell you, I think the baguette croutons beat out their pita siblings; they were crunchier, and better vehicles for the sumac- and chile-flavored oil. They also contrasted nicely with the almonds.
Ottolenghi has you pile these sumac croutons on raw spinach, but I’m in the “spinach is a dish best served cooked” camp, so I usually go with arugula or another leafy green. This time, though, I had huge piles of herbs that needed to be used up before we headed out of town. I tore them up, tossed them into a small salad bowl, and made a really lovely salad at the spur of the moment that even this hot-food lover was happy to eat. It came out so good, I served the leftovers for brunch the next day, alongside this pear danish and these migas – my favorite – from Jennifer. Oh, and plenty of bloody marys:
The croutons made the salad, for sure. But equally important were chopped medjool dates, which manage to be sweet, sticky, and distinctly fruity all at the same time. I highly recommend them in this salad – in any salad, really. My friend Jess wholeheartedly agrees about the whole dates-in-salad thing, and her rendition – with fresh ricotta! – has been on my to-do list for some time.
So I guess that’s the game of salads in winter. They’re never going to be the thing I run to eat first, but I’ve got tricks up my sleeve to make them delicious. Especially alongside a big bowl of spaghetti.
For the Croutons:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 baguette, cut into 1/2-inch cubes or, better yet, ripped into pieces roughly that size
2/3 cup sliced almonds
2 teaspoons sumac
2 teaspoons Turkish or Syrian chile flakes, or other flavorful chile flakes (mild paprika will do in a pinch)
1 teaspoon salt, to taste
1 clove garlic, smashed
For the Salad:
8 dates, pitted and sliced
1 small red onion (or half a medium one), halved and sliced into thin rings
1 tablespoon white wine, champagne, or other mild vinegar
1 bunch (2 cups) dill, roughly chopped
1 bunch (2-3 cups) parsley leaves and chopped stems
1 bunch (1-2 cups) mint leaves
zest and juice of one lemon, to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper
In a small bowl, combine dates, onion slices, and vinegar. Set aside to marinate while you make the croutons. By the time you’re ready to make the salad, the vinegar will have been absorbed. If not, pour out whatever remains (or add it to a sauce – it’d be pretty delicious).
In a large shallow frying pan, heat the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add garlic; it should sizzle when it hits the pan. Add baguette pieces and almonds, stir to coat with oil, and then add chile and sumac and stir to combine. Cook for 4-6 minutes, until bread and almonds have browned and everything smells wonderfully fragrant. Transfer crouton mixture to a bowl, and sprinkle salt overtop, starting with 1/2 teaspoon and adding more to taste. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, combine herbs, dates, onions, and croutons, by the handful, until the balance of green to crunch looks right. Save whatever you don’t use for a meal later in the week; these croutons make everything taste good.
Before serving, whisk together lemon zest, lemon juice, and remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste (but remember that croutons have salt of their own, so go light on the salt). Dress salad, toss to combine, and serve.