- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 11, 2005

I can remember staring out the window as a little boy, looking at the gray skies and the snow-covered ground and wondering if the sun would ever come out again and turn the world green once more.

Now that I live in Southern California, that isn’t as much of a worry. But I still sometimes find myself in the middle of winter longing for springtime, hungering especially for the fresh tastes that come with the season of renewal.

Of course, there’s an easy way right now to satisfy that hunger and bring some fresh flavors and colors from nature to your dining table: Make a salad featuring winter’s own abundant fresh leaves and other seasonal ingredients.

Leaves sturdy enough to stand up to colder growing temperatures have more bracing, sometimes pleasantly bitter flavors, more robust textures, and a wide array of eye-catching colors. Choices include green and purple cabbages, green ruffled leaves of slightly bitter escarole, the lacy little pale-green leaves of mildly bitter frisee (also called curly endive), and the three somewhat finer-textured leaves I like to use for the salad recipe that follows: peppery-tasting dark-green arugula leaves, mildly bitter purple-and-white leaves of radicchio and pale yellow-green spear-shaped Belgian endive. Together, that trio of leaves offers a beautiful range of colors, shapes, tastes and textures for your winter salad bowl; but feel free to substitute any other choices you find in the market.

I don’t stop with the leaves, however. Winter is a peak season for harvesting citrus fruit, so I love to add more liveliness to a salad at this time of year by including tangy-sweet segments of orange. Pick a good seedless variety and peel it thickly enough to expose the juicy segments beneath their outer membrane; then, just cut between the pulp and membrane on either side of each segment to free it. (Even in seedless varieties you might find a few seeds, so just flick them out with a finger or the knife tip.) Chunks of sweet ruby grapefruit segments would also work well.

To complete the salad, I love to add touches of richness and crunch. Fresh, creamy goat cheese smeared onto crisp croutons adds a wonderful contrast to the other flavors. Double the quantity of cheese-topped croutons, and you could even serve this as a main-course salad. For the finishing touch, I include some oven-toasted walnuts, a garnish that miraculously complements every other flavor and texture on the plate. Toasted pecan halves or hazelnuts would also be delicious.

Serve this up at a wintry weekend lunch or dinner, and there’s no chance your guests will gaze wistfully out the window. Their attention will be riveted right on the dining table, where it belongs.

WINTER GREENS SALAD WITH MUSTARD VINAIGRETTE, TOASTED WALNUTS, ORANGE SEGMENTS AND WARM GOAT CHEESE CROUTONS

Serves 4

WARM GOAT CHEESE CROUTONS AND TOASTED WALNUTS

1/4-pound fresh creamy goat cheese, cut into 4 equal pieces

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves

1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed

Freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup shelled walnut pieces

4 long, diagonal slices French baguette loaf, each about 1/4 inch thick

MUSTARD VINIAGRETTE

1 tablespoon Sherry vinegar

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh tarragon

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

SALAD

1 seedless orange, thickly peeled with a knife to remove the outer membrane

1/2 pound arugula leaves, rinsed and patted thoroughly dry

1 small head radicchio, leaves separated, rinsed, and patted thoroughly dry

1 small head Belgian endive, leaves separated, rinsed, and patted thoroughly dry

Start marinating the goat cheese several hours ahead or the night before you plan to serve the salad. Put the cheese in a bowl, drizzle with the 1/4 cup olive oil, and add 1 teaspoon of the thyme leaves, the garlic cloves, and some black pepper to taste. Cover with plastic wrap and leave in the refrigerator to marinate.

Shortly before serving time, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Spread the walnuts in a small baking dish and toast them in the oven until fragrant and slightly darkened in color, 3 to 5 minutes; transfer them to a bowl to cool. Leave the oven on.

Remove the bowl of marinated goat cheese from the oven. Lightly brush the slices of baguette on both sides with the olive oil from the marinated goat cheese and place them on a baking sheet. Set aside briefly.

Prepare the Mustard Vinaigrette: In a small bowl, whisk together the Sherry vinegar, mustard, tarragon, and salt and pepper to taste. Whisking continuously, slowly pour in the 1 cup olive oil to form a thick, smooth dressing. Taste and adjust the seasonings, if necessary, with more salt and pepper and even a little more mustard or vinegar. Set aside.

For the salad, use a small, sharp knife to peel the orange thickly, removing along with the peel the membrane covering the fruit inside. Working over a bowl, cut each orange segment free from the membranes on either side of it, letting the segments drop into the bowl. Cut each segment into 2 or 3 pieces.

In a salad bowl, combine the arugula, radicchio and Belgian endive leaves, tearing them if necessary into bite-sized pieces. Add the orange segments. Set aside.

Put the bread slices in the oven and bake until light golden, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove them from the oven and carefully smear a portion of the marinated goat cheese on top of each slice. Return the baking sheet to the oven and continue baking just until the cheese has warmed, about 1 minute more.

Meanwhile, toss the salad mixture with enough of the dressing to coat the leaves and orange segments lightly.

To serve, divide the salad among four plates. Top each plate, slightly off-center, with a Warm Goat Cheese Crouton. Sprinkle the remaining thyme leaves over the goat cheese on each crouton and garnish the salads with toasted walnuts.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays and Wednesdays on the Food Network. Also, chef Wolfgang Puck’s latest cookbook, Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy, is now available in bookstores.)

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