DEFINITELY NOT STEW: Use winter vegetables to make a hearty salad, such as this Fennel, Celery, Apple and Radish Salad.
DEFINITELY NOT STEW: Use winter vegetables to make a hearty salad, such as this Fennel, Celery, Apple and Radish Salad. (Mike Lucia - Staff)
FEBRUARY IS NOT the month of the salad, at least not the tangle of delicate greens such as mache, mizuna, red and green baby lettuces that have become synonymous with salad on our American plates. But what to do in a season where rutabagas push butter lettuce off the shelf?

Make a salad without lettuce, of course.

A salad without greens? It's like a BLT without the bacon — something that we think is inherently wrong.

But isn't it also wrong to expect spring mix in February? Baby lettuces during the first frost? Salad in the wintertime doesn't have to be improbable, nor does it need to be a melange of micro greens and goat cheese to be considered a salad.

Instead of reaching for yet another pre-washed bag of salad mix, contemplate the vegetables and fruits that make winter so delicious: coral-toned sweet potatoes, fragrant bulbs of fennel, earthy celery root, sweet-tart Meyer lemons and crunchy radishes.

For Jesse Ziff Cool, chef and ownerof CoolEatz Restaurants and Catering in Menlo Park (which includes the famed Flea Street Cafe), making salads in winter is a wonderful way to appreciate seasonal produce in ways many cooks might otherwise ignore.

"We have wonderfully distinct growing seasons (in the Bay Area)," she says. "If you pay attention to them by visiting a farmers market, or GreenLeaf produce is a great resource, then you can get innovative and really do something totally different." (Check out the weekly newsletter at http://www.greenleafsf.com.)

Cool recommends rotating through familiar and favorite vinaigrettes, such as balsamic or Italian, and tossing them with a variety of steamed or raw vegetables.

"We happen to love the old fashioned Green Goddess (dressing), the 'Joy of Cooking' version," says Cool. "We make it with yogurt or sour cream and toss it with everything from springtime asparagus to wintertime roasted turnips to summer squash."

Think of leftover steamed squash, potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower as good foils for hearty dressings — such as a basic vinaigrette enlivened with a dollop of pesto or tapenade.

"Use leftovers from the night before, even if it's grilled, roasted or steamed, just dice it and add it," says Cool.

Another key to using hearty winter vegetables in salads, especially if you're using them raw, is to slice them thin.

"I love my mandoline for winter vegetables like fennel, potatoes, rutabagas and winter squash," says Cool. "Grating vegetables and eating them raw is yummy, too."

Vegetables that seem too hearty to eat raw will change greatly in character when sliced thin. Shave celery, radishes, fennel and apples into paper-thin shards, sprinkle with Meyer lemon juice, olive oil and a grind of black pepper and you have a crunchy, delicately perfumed salad perfect with a slow-roasted loin of pork. The stringy qualities of the fennel and celery disappear, and the spicy hit of radish is tamed when it's just a paper-thin whisper on the tongue.

In a season when rich braises and creamy gratins rule, the idea of a salad for supper may not seem hearty enough to take away the chills. But take a lesson from Cool, it's all in the accoutrements.

Olives, cheeses, nuts, eggs — even special oils like macadamia or truffle can add richness and heft to a salad, making it worthy of fireside supping.

ROOTIN’ TOOTIN’: Root vegetables can make a great alternative salad, such as the Sweet Potato Salad with Candied Walnuts, Arugula and Vanilla
ROOTIN' TOOTIN': Root vegetables can make a great alternative salad, such as the Sweet Potato Salad with Candied Walnuts, Arugula and Vanilla Bean Vinaigrette at the Restaurant at Wente Vineyards. (Suzanna Mitchell - Staff)
Take the salad that is currently featured on the menu at Flea Street Cafe — frisee, parsley and radicchio (all winter greens) topped with aged Sonoma jack, cracked black olives and a deviled egg. Just try to tell Cool that's not a hearty meal.

Another way to add heft to cold weather salads is to go with the grain. For Jerry Regester, executive chef at the restaurant at Wente Vineyeards in Livermore, winter is a perfect season to break out the farro, bulgur and couscous.

"I've even done salads with barley and artichokes," he says.

Regester is also fond of using beans and chicories (bitter leaves such as radicchio, endive and frisee), but his current and absolute favorite is the sweet potato. 

"We have a sweet potato salad on our menu right now, and for most people it doesn't register that you can make a salad out of a sweet potato," he says. "Everybody makes (sweet potato) puree or mash and it's boring. I always try and think 'How can I take a sweet potato and make it different?'"

A salad of sliced, boiled sweet potatoes tossed with peppery arugula, candied walnuts, grapes and a vanilla bean vinaigrette now graces his winter menu. There's also one of chicories, cheddar and pecans with a cider vinaigrette and one of crab, beets and citrus in a ginger-citrus vinaigrette.

"Winter is always harder in the sense of the delicate type of vegetables like green beans and asparagus, they're just not available," says Regester. "But sweet potatoes you just pop in the pot and boil and beets you can just roast. People get scared about winter squashes; they think 'What the heck do I do with this?' But most (of these things) cook fairly easily."

Regester likes to cook down onions to make a vinaigrette to toss with chicories, celery root, parsnips, even mushrooms. He also uses pickled winter vegetables, like cauliflower, to add spark to burgers or bite to grain salads.

"It's the wonderful world of food," he says laughing, "You can just keep going and going."

So step away from the spring mix, if just for a salad or so. After all, as Cool says: "How much mesclun mix can human beings eat in a year?"

Jicama and Tangerine Salad

Recipe courtesy of Chef Jesse Ziff Cool, CoolEatz Restaurants and Catering. Cool seeds the tangerines but doesn't bother to remove the membranes from the tangerine sections because they hold up better in this crunchy, wintery salad.

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Juice of 1 lime
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pinch of red-pepper flakes (optional)
2 tangerines, peeled and segmented
1 1/2 cups jicama, peeled and cut into matchsticks
4 to 5 radishes, very thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

In a medium bowl, whisk together the vinegar, lime juice, olive oil, sugar, salt and red pepper flakes, if using, until combined. Add the tangerine segments, jicama, radishes and chives and toss to coat well.

Serves 6.

Per serving: 95 Calories; 7g Fat; trace Protein; 9g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol; 180mg Sodium.

Sweet Potato and Watercress Salad

Recipe courtesy of Executive Chef Jerry Regester, Restaurant at Wente Vineyards. Regester substitutes different greens for the watercress depending on the season. Right now he's using arugula.

Vanilla Bean Vinaigrette:
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1/4 cup Champagne vinegar
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup walnut oil

Candied Walnuts:
1/2 pound shelled walnuts
4 ounces powdered sugar
3 cups oil, for frying

Salad:
1 large sweet potato
1 cup red grapes, halved
2 bunches watercress, or 4 cups arugula
1 head frisee

For dressing: Place the split vanilla bean and vinegar in a non-reactive bowl and steep for at least one hour, or as long as overnight.

Pour the vinegar and vanilla bean into a blender and add the salt, pepper and oils. Blend on high until emulsified. Strain the vinaigrette through a fine sieve and reserve.

- For candied walnuts: Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Drop in the nuts for one minute, drain, then toss with the sugar.

Heat 3 cups oil to 325 degrees in a heavy saucepan or deep fryer. Fry the sugared nuts in batches until golden brown. Drain on paper towels, let cool and reserve.

- For salad: Boil the sweet potato whole until tender and let cool. Peel and slice about 1/4-inch thick. Place two to three sweet potato slices on each serving plate. In a large bowl, toss the grapes, watercress, frisee, 1 cup of the candied walnuts and 4 ounces of the vanilla vinaigrette together in a large bowl. Mound the salad on top of the sweet potatoes and serve.

Serves 4.

Per serving (using half the dressing):494 Calories; 38g Fat; 9g Protein; 35g Carbohydrate; 4g Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol; 130mg Sodium.

Fennel, Celery, Apple and Radish Salad

Recipe by Jenny Slafkosky. Pomegranate arils add juicy sweetness and pine nuts add richness to this crunchy, fresh-tasting salad. If you have one, use a mandoline to make quick work of slicing the vegetables and apples.

1 large bulb fennel, very thinly sliced, feathery fronds reserved
2 large stalks celery, very thinly sliced
1 Golden Delicious apple, very thinly sliced
4 to 5 radishes, very thinly sliced
Juice of 1 lemon (a Meyer lemon if available)
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup pomegranate arils
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

Combine the fennel, celery, apple, radishes, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper in a serving bowl, tossing until evenly coated. The ingredients are hardy, so you can dress the salad up to an hour ahead. Just before serving add the pomegranate arils, pine nuts and reserved fennel fronds, tossing to coat with the dressing.

Serves 6.

Per serving: 122 Calories; 10g Fat; 2g Protein; 8g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol; 56mg Sodium.

Reach Jenny Slafkosky at (925) 416-4840 or e-mail jslafkosky@angnewspapers.com.