Ever since the baby greens (also called mesclun) and so-called vine tomatoes became the generic base for green side salads, I find that most of them have little taste. What appeal there is comes from add-ins and the dressing.
In summer, locally grown lettuces and truly vine-ripened tomatoes rescue us from these cardboard salads, but come winter, produce trucked in from California and Florida sends me searching for ways to assemble more flavorful results.
Based on what is available at the supermarket, this wintery version of panzanella, the Tuscan salad that includes generous chunks of bread and a pungent dressing, makes the delicious best of familiar ingredients.
In summer, juicy, meltingly ripe tomatoes make any salad mouth-watering. Now, the secret to good tomato flavor year-round is patience. Buy meaty plum tomatoes and leave them on the counter - out of the sun - until they turn intensely red and yield with gentle squeezing. This technique works even when plum tomatoes, or romas, start out pale and rock hard. It can take up to 10 days, so be patient.
All the other vegetables in this salad are year-round reliable, including the romaine lettuce. Do buy a full head, not a bag of hearts, because the dark outer leaves have more taste, along with more nutrients. Cut them into strips to enjoy their flavor even if they are a bit leathery.
Panzanella's dressing is sharp with vinegar and, with plenty of dressing the bread can soak it up. My tweak for winter is adding oregano.
This gives the entire salad a flavor kick reminiscent of Greek salad and makes a wonderful marriage with crusty whole-wheat Italian bread.
Dana Jacobi is author of "12 Best Foods Cookbook" and contributor to the American Institute for Cancer Research's "New American Plate Cookbook: Recipes for a Healthy Weight and a Healthy Life."
Winter Bread Salad
•3 cups whole-wheat Italian bread (4 oz.), in 1-inch cubes
•1 garlic clove, halved lengthwise
• 3 very ripe plum tomatoes
•1 celery rib, thinly sliced
•1/2 cup diced sweet onion
• 3 cups romaine lettuce, cut crosswise into 3/4-inch strips
•3 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley, optional
•3 tablespoons white or red wine vinegar
•1/4 teaspoon sea salt
•1/2 teaspoon natural cane sugar
•1 teaspoon dried oregano
•Freshly ground pepper
•2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Spread cubed bread in single layer on baking sheet and let sit until surface feels dry on most sides, or cubes are firm but not stale-hard, 2 to 6 hours.
Rub salad bowl, preferably wood or bamboo, liberally with cut side of half a garlic clove. Reserve the other garlic half for another use. Cut tomatoes lengthwise into quarter-wedges, then cut crosswise into chunky pieces. Place tomatoes and any juice in prepared bowl.
Add celery, onion and bread cubes. Arrange lettuce over chopped vegetables. Sprinkle on parsley, if using.
For dressing, whisk vinegar, salt and sugar in small bowl until salt and sugar dissolve. Add oregano and 3-4 grinds pepper. Whisk in oil.
At table, pour dressing over salad and toss until it well-coated and any extra dressing pools in bottom of bowl. Divide salad among 4 wide, shallow bowls, including liquid from bottom of salad bowl.
Makes 4 servings.
Nutritional information per serving: 158 calories, 8 g total fat (1 g saturated fat), 20 g carbohydrate, 4 g protein, 4 g dietary fiber, 281 mg sodium.
From the American Institute for Cancer Research