What in the world does a groundhog know about the weather, anyway? It fascinates me to realize how many people lay their meteorological hopes on a fat, furry rodent from western Pennsylvania—and I say this facetiously, fully aware that folks in the western part of my own North Carolina do the same every fall with woolly worms.
Do I care what the Punxsutawney rascal saw this morning, when he emerged from his hole? Not really, given that his predictions for early spring vs. six more weeks of winter only hold about 39% accuracy. My local weather peeps get it right far more often than that. Still, it doesn’t surprise me to know that Punxsutawney Phil has his own Instagram account with nearly 14k followers. I believe this is ultimately because people are bored half to death after being cooped up inside with cold, gray, dreary weather, and they are just looking for something to amuse themselves. You can count me among them in that regard (and we haven’t even had snow this year).
It’s why I’ve been dreaming of this salad, and I finally made it last night in my own attempt to shake off the midwinter blues and blahs. My original intent was to make it a few weeks ago, and I had purchased all the ingredients to make it happen, but then we got Covid in our house—as if January, on its own, wasn’t miserable enough—and all bets (and burners) were off. Luckily, most of my ingredients for this vibrant, flavorful salad are sturdy; the sweet potatoes, cabbage, parsnips and onions kept well, and the only thing I had to buy new was the kale. Beyond that, the salad has so many things I love—tender lentils, cooked beets (I used store bought), feta, toasted pecans and a spectacular smoked maple-sriracha vinaigrette that appeared to me in a dream not long ago.
The dressing begins with a generous shake of dried minced onions, which you’ll rehydrate with some just-boiled water. Add Dijon, rice vinegar, salt and pepper, sriracha and smoked maple syrup (I love this stuff from Sugar Bob’s Finest Kind, and you’ll appreciate what it does for an old fashioned cocktail, too). Whisk in some extra virgin olive oil and set it aside until salad time. This vinaigrette brings such a huge flavor punch, I know I’ll be making it again soon, and probably roasting vegetables in it at some point before spring finally arrives in, you know, six weeks or whatever.
Is the salad easy to make? Yes, and if you want to swap in different root vegetables, go for it. If you aren’t loving the lentils, I think canned or fresh-cooked cannellini beans would be a great swap-in, or even a hard-boiled egg for a bit of protein. For an entirely plant-based salad, skip the feta and add some cubes of tofu (marinated in the vinaigrette, of course).
I can’t say for sure how long it takes to make this gorgeous plate, because I worked on bits and pieces of it while multi-tasking my day job and scrolling punxseyphil’s Instagram feed. I can assure that none of it is difficult. Make the dressing first so the flavors have time to mingle. The kale needs to be cleaned, dried and massaged with olive oil and kosher salt. I like a nice, peppery olive oil for this, and I absolutely love how tender the kale emerges after its spa treatment. What’s leftover will be great in another salad or tossed into an omelet or on top of a pizza.
The sweet potatoes and parsnips are peeled (or scrubbed), cut into chunks, tossed with onions and oil, and then roasted at 400° F for about 40 minutes—toss ‘em once or twice midway so they roast evenly.
And I cooked my lentils from dried, which I know can be a challenge so here’s my advice: ditch the directions on the bag—they always turn to mush. Use a 3:1 ratio of water to lentils, but cook them over half the heat for two to three times longer than recommended in the directions. Add a bay leaf. It takes some time, yes, but for your patience you’ll be rewarded with perfectly tender, intact lentils. They are loaded with protein and I love the flavor of these little guys.
The only thing left is assembling the salad, and that’s the easiest part. You don’t have to be all artistic about it, but I find it satisfying to compose a plate that looks as terrific as it tastes. Kale goes on the bottom of course, topped with some of the shredded red cabbage. Then add a section of lentils, a pile of the warm, roasted root vegetables and a little row of beet slices. Run a winding trail of cubed feta down through the middle, let the toasted pecans fall where they may, and drizzle the dressing all over it, especially onto the feta and lentils.
Midwinter Salad with Smoked Maple-Sriracha Vinaigrette
This salad is nutritious, colorful and bursting with flavor. Guaranteed to help you shake off the midwinter blahs!
- 1 large bunch fresh, organic kale
- 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (for massaging kale)
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup thinly sliced red cabbage
- 1 small sweet onion, chopped
- 2 medium sweet potatoes, cut into large chunks
- 2 medium parsnips, cut into large chunks
- 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (for roasting root vegetables)
- 2 cups cooked green lentils
- 4 small, cooked beets, sliced
- 2/3 cup cubed feta (preferably brine-packed)
- 1/2 cup toasted pecans, broken into pieces
- Smoked maple-sriracha vinaigrette (recipe below)
- Prep kale by rinsing under cold running water. Strip leaves and discard tough stems. Roll kale leaves up in a clean dish towel to blot dry, then tear into bite-sized pieces and add to a large bowl. Drizzle kale leaves with olive oil and sprinkle with a pinch of kosher salt. Massage with your hands until kale is wilted, and then cover the bowl and refrigerate a couple of hours.
- Preheat oven to 400 F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil directly onto the parchment, add cut up sweet potatoes, parsnips and onions. Drizzle on remaining olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Toss the vegetables around to coat them with the oil. Roast for 40 minutes, until tender with roasted edges. Toss vegetables once or twice midway through roasting.
- Plate the salad, beginning with chilled massage kale for the base, then scatter the shreds of red cabbage. Arrange the remaining elements of the salad in piles around the salad; a pile of lentils, a large pile of roasted root vegetables, a fan of sliced beets and a winding line of feta cubes. Sprinkle the toasted pecans randomly over the salad. Drizzle on the vinaigrette and serve.
- 2 tsp. dried minced onion + 2 Tbsp. just-boiled water (to soften)
- 1 Tbsp. sriracha sauce
- 2 Tbsp. smoked maple syrup
- 2 tsp. Dijon mustard
- 2 Tbsp. rice vinegar
- A pinch of dried thyme leaves
- 6 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Combine the dried onion and hot water in a glass measuring cup, and let rest until onions are softened (they will not absorb all the water, but do not drain it).
- Add sriracha, syrup, mustard, vinegar, thyme, salt and pepper to the measuring cup and whisk to combine. Drizzle olive oil into the cup, whisking constantly to emulsify the mixture. Dressing will improve after it rests awhile; give it a good whisking right before serving.