Flash in the Pan 

Secrets to winter salad

One November afternoon, long after the autumn frosts began their nightly visits to Missoula, I faced a decision: Head for a certain deer stash and wait for the fading light of dusk to coax a yummy animal in my general direction or glean from a patch of collard greens and kale.

The owner of the patch of greens was ready to be done farming for the year, and with the season's final farmers market already long gone, she had no way to sell her greens. The best part is that after a few autumn frosts, the greens were sweeter than they were all summer.

She had invited me to come take all the greens I wanted, and warned me that I better do it quick before she plowed the patch into the ground.

I decided that while I really wanted to go post up for a chance at some meat, this sunny afternoon might be my last, and most pleasant, opportunity to put away massive amounts of greens. And unlike the deer, for which I'd already been hunting unsuccessfully for weeks, these greens were a sure thing.

In 20 minutes I had about 50 pounds of greens—more edible weight than I could hope to get from an average-sized deer. And the harvest was so quick that I still had time to go hunting, albeit unsuccessfully.

Given the steady stream of data suggesting leafy vegetables are about the best thing you could possibly eat, it makes sense to invest in some good, local greens in autumn, and stash them away for use until the new leaves of spring emerge.

I brought home my greens that November, boiled a big kettle of water, and blanched them in small enough batches that the water kept boiling. After about two minutes per batch, I fished them out with a slotted spoon and then plunged them in a cold waterbath to stop the cooking and fix a bright green color in the leaves. Four months after those leaves were drained and frozen in freezer bags, they were still bright green.

My default method of cooking greens is to use olive oil with garlic and soy sauce. But lately I've been on a winter salads kick.

Although they've been blanched, thawed leaves can be treated as if they were raw. And these same salads can be made with raw greens from the store, if you have to purchase them.

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To make a winter salad from kale, collards or chard, cut the thick stem out of the leaf's center, and then slice the leaves thinly before tossing in the dressing of your choice. You'll notice an immediate difference from typical salads.

The standard American salad follows a tired formula—some bland variety of lettuce (think iceberg), maybe some onions (but not too much lest they affect our sterile breath) and, of course, red things that look like tomatoes.

In case you haven't noticed, I'm sick of fresh tomatoes in winter. The widespread sense of entitlement to these cardboard impostors is a microcosm for everything that's wrong with our food system. Winter tomatoes embody the exploitation of human laborers, the toll that vast monocultures take on the environment, and the emissions associated with production and shipment of food around the country. The one thing they don't embody is flavor.

In a well-balanced salad made with fresh ingredients, tomatoes add a burst of sweetness and acid, some contrast and diversity to the other components. But winter's flavorless tomatoes don't do that.

Currants and raisins soaked overnight in white balsamic vinegar can fulfill the function of tomatoes. They hold their own in a salad of unthawed greens dressed in soy sauce and rice vinegar, and tossed with pine nuts or sunflower seeds.

Fresh onions also add a zing to your winter salad, and they're just as easy to store deep into winter.

For an Asian-style option, toss your thawed leaves in two parts soy sauce, one part rice or cider vinegar, one part olive oil, and then sprinkle liberally with gomasio, a Japanese seasoning made from sesame seeds and salt.

For a Mediterranean twist, toss your leaves with balsamic vinegar, salt, feta, toasted pine nuts and sun-dried tomatoes that have been marinated in olive oil.

If you serve any of these salads alongside meat, or any other rich food, the fiber in the greens will help push the heavy stuff through, and clean your pipes like an intestinal Brillo pad. And these salads are a reminder that the fresh greens of summer are getting closer each day. Next summer, just remember to put more away.

This column originally appeared March 19, 2009. Ari LeVaux will return to Flash in the Pan next week.

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