Midwinter Salad with Smoked Maple-Sriracha Vinaigrette

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.

This salad will wake up your taste buds!

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.

Perfect!

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

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Average
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This salad is nutritious, colorful and bursting with flavor. Guaranteed to help you shake off the midwinter blahs!


Ingredients

  • 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)

Directions

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

The dressing is really the star of this salad, with its smoked maple sweetness and spicy sriracha. Look for the smoked maple syrup online from a company called “Sugar Bob’s Finest Kind,” or substitute regular maple syrup for a similar flavor. Use the unseasoned version of rice vinegar, which is not embellished with additional salt.

Ingredients

  • 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

Directions

  1. 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).
  2. 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.



My Favorite Vinaigrette Potato Salad

Is there a more ubiquitous summer side than potato salad? But just because it’s always there hardly means it’s the best thing on the table. One of my most cringe-worthy food memories of childhood was played out on repeat at summer gatherings with family, friends and neighbors, and seeing what happened to the potato salad—which, many times, was little more than sticky, cooked potatoes with some hard-boiled eggs and mayonnaise. I know you’ve seen this, too, when it gets a little bit warm and separates into a greasy, gloppy mess with that thin filmy crust on the surface. Is it any wonder everyone passes over it in favor of potato chips? Nothing ruins a picnic faster than bland potato salad, slick with broken mayonnaise. Bleh.

It’s a shame to not give the versatile potato a greater chance to shine! If you are bored with potato salad or stuck in a rut with a recipe that gets left behind on the picnic table, maybe you just need a different approach—one that doesn’t depend on a heavy, mayonnaise-y coating to give it flavor because, honestly, mayo doesn’t have much flavor to begin with. Here’s something a little different and for me, it’s a winner every time.


This potato salad does not disappoint, and it could never be accused of being bland because it is doubly dressed—first, with a tangy, heart-healthy vinaigrette that soaks flavor all the way through the potatoes, and then with the slightest amount of mayonnaise-based dressing for a creamy, picnic-ready finish that isn’t greasy and doesn’t clump or break.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that potatoes are one of my very favorite foods, and I have shared a few fun twists on potato salad here on Comfort du Jour, but of all the versions I like to make, this one is my favorite (especially in summer), and for a few fun reasons.

Any kind of potato works

You can use starchy russets, baby reds or Yukon golds (my favorite, and my choice for this post). Peel the skins or keep ‘em—your call. The only thing to consider with the waxy style of potatoes is that they will absorb slightly less of the dressing, so you would want to proceed in stages to be sure it’s to your liking. But flavor-wise? Whatever you like is going to work.

This salad is adaptable

My main goal for any kind of salad is variety of texture, and you can adjust this one many ways by changing up the mix-ins. My go-to combination of mix-ins usually includes hard-boiled eggs, chopped pickles, crunchy bits of celery or radish (or both), fresh onions and any kind of fresh herbs. But that leaves it open for interpretation—I could swap out the chopped pickles for chopped olives and skip the onions but add some minced bell pepper. Dill has a completely different flavor than basil or parsley, so that’s another layer of options you can customize to your liking. As long as your ingredients are not overly wet (like tomatoes), the options are nearly endless.


It is not drenched in mayonnaise

We go through a lot of mayo at our house (mostly for my husband’s beloved tuna sandwiches), but it is not my favorite ingredient for dressing potato or pasta salads. Mayonnaise, which is essentially an emulsion of egg yolks and oil, is just plain heavy. And if you add mayo to cooked potatoes, you might notice that it takes a lot of it to keep them coated so the potatoes don’t seem dry, especially if your potatoes lean more starchy than waxy. Too much mayo is never appealing and it definitely is not healthful. Almost all its calories are from fat, and though recent reports have debunked the idea that warm mayonnaise is solely responsible for post-picnic foodborne illnesses (the culprit is usually the meat or fish that is dressed in the mayo), there’s no disputing that it looks completely unappetizing.

It’s actually delicious!

Unlike the typical mayonnaise-only potato salads, this one is mostly flavored with a tasty vinaigrette-style dressing that you can customize to your own palate. You can use a fancy French vinaigrette, a balsamic vinaigrette, a zesty, Italian-style vinaigrette or even a store-bought vinaigrette. There are only two types that I would not recommend, and for different reasons. An entirely fat-free vinaigrette is not ideal, because the extreme water content will turn your cooked potatoes soggy. The dressing should have some amount of oil in it, and you can choose one with heart-healthy fats, such as extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil. I also would not recommend a sweet, fruit-flavored vinaigrette, such as raspberry. It would be tough to choose mix-ins that would work with those flavors. It’s best to stick with a savory one.


The vinaigrette is added to the cooked potatoes while they are hot—immediately from the pot after draining is best—and it only takes a few minutes for it to be absorbed. After the potatoes cool, you simply add your favorite mix-ins and a very small amount of mayonnaise, blended with equal amount of sour cream (or Greek yogurt) and a touch of Dijon mustard for extra flavor. I like to add celery seed as well, but this is optional.


Our little secret…

Here’s one more nugget about this potato salad, and it is good news for anyone who can’t have (or doesn’t want) mayonnaise. This salad technically does not need mayo at all! The vinaigrette soaks so much flavor into the hot potatoes that you could skip the mayonnaise altogether and send it straight to the fridge for serving, just as it is—almost like a German potato salad, but chilled and delicious for summer!


My Favorite Vinaigrette Potato Salad

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: average
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What I love about this potato salad is that it is double-dressed. First, it’s flavored with vinaigrette, from the inside-out, while the potatoes are still steaming hot. The vinaigrette absorbs into the chunks for great flavor in every forkful. Then, when it’s cool, add your favorite salad mix-ins (aim for variety of textures) and a creamy dressing that has very little mayonnaise for such a large batch of salad. Enjoy!

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup prepared vinaigrette dressing (see below for my favorite blend)
  • 1 1/2 pounds small Yukon gold potatoes, cleaned and cut-up (peeled or skin-on)
  • 1/2 cup each finely chopped onions and celery
  • 2 Tbsp. mayonnaise
  • 2 Tbsp. sour cream or plain Greek yogurt (reduced-fat versions are fine)
  • 1 tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 tsp. celery seed
  • favorite mix-ins (I like hard-boiled eggs, chopped pickles or capers, radish slices, minced fresh herbs; avoid high-moisture ingredients such as fresh cucumbers)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Prep and simmer potatoes until they can easily be pierced with a knife tip, about 25 minutes.
  2. Add finely chopped onions and celery to a bowl large enough to mix the potato salad. When potatoes are tender, drain them and immediately add them to the bowl. Fold with a spatula to distribute the onions and celery throughout. Season with a couple pinches of salt.
  3. Pour the vinaigrette over the hot potatoes. Gently fold with a spatula to mix the vinaigrette evenly with the potatoes. It will take a few minutes for the vinaigrette to be absorbed. Allow them to cool at room temperature. If you wish, you can refrigerate the potatoes before adding the creamy dressing.
  4. In a small bowl, combine mayonnaise, sour cream, Dijon, celery seed, salt and pepper. Add your favorite salad mix-ins to the vinaigrette-drenched potatoes. Pour dressing over the bowl contents and fold gently to combine and coat the potatoes. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Refrigerate the potato salad until completely cold. Serve alongside your favorite summer cookout fare.

Any savory vinaigrette dressing is suitable for this potato salad, but I do not recommend using an “oil-free” version. The excess moisture may make the potatoes too mushy. Here’s my easy, go-to vinaigrette dressing recipe, but between you and me, at least half the time I make this salad, I use Good Seasons Italian. 🙂

Ingredients

  • 3 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 tsp. sugar
  • A few shakes of garlic-pepper seasoning
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (or another heart-healthy oil, such as avocado)

Directions

  1. Combine vinegar, lemon juice, Dijon, seasoning, sugar, salt and pepper in a small bowl or glass measuring cup.
  2. Gradually drizzle olive oil into the mixture while whisking vigorously. The Dijon mustard will help emulsify the mixture.