As far as seasons go, spring is typically just a means to an end. It’s the March that comes in like a lion and out like a lamb. It’s the April showers that bring May flowers. It’s just a few quick subway stops until we reach our favorite destination: summer. But in the food world, we celebrate each stop along the way. We are just as excited by early spring ramps (they’re finally here, at least in restaurant kitchens and on foragers’ Instagram feeds) as we are by mid-summer tomatoes and late summer plums and early autumn apples. We look forward to each and every new item that hits the market, eat too much until it disappears, and then move on to the next new thing. Seasonal, local farm-to-table eating and restaurants are becoming the norm. And this is a really good thing.
But sometimes seasonality is over-rated. Or, more accurately, at least for this blog post, cooking out of seasonal is under-rated. With the winter we had and the spring we’re having in this neck of the woods, and despite ramps and asparagus and pea shoots popping up on restaurant menus, I haven’t seen anything in the market other than stray root vegetables, collard greens, and scallions. But ever since the Passover seder, I’ve been making what I can only describe as a spring salad. Regardless of the weather.
The salad was inspired by a dish at Santina, a restaurant that laughs in the face of strict adherence to seasonality. (Have you been? If not, you should. If you don’t believe me, ask Pete Wells.) What’s remarkable about Santina is that it creates a transformative experience: in a glass box along the Highline with indoor palm trees, servers in white pants and Easter egg-colored polos, and tropical drinks, it evokes a sunny afternoon in a Mediterranean seaside town.
My first visit to Santina was on a grey February evening when my father was in town. It was so cold that he made a pitstop en route to buy an extra hat and a pair of gloves. I could talk about the whole meal, but what I want to discuss now is the salmon and heirloom radish salad that, to me, screamed sunshine on a plate. It matched the vibe of the restaurant, which I’d characterize as: “it doesn’t matter what’s going on out there, it’s all good in here.”
Fast forward a few weeks to Passover in Miami where it was gorgeously sunny and 80 degrees outside. It was also 80 degrees inside our apartment due to a broken air conditioner and construction preventing us from opening all but two windows.
Now here’s where things get a bit wonky. I couldn’t stop thinking about that salad, but my mind swapped oranges in for the salmon. I mean, same color, right? Sort of. Also, we had a huge bowl of Florida citrus sitting on the counter. Anyway, I popped over to the grocery store for radishes, but the only ones I could find were shrink-wrapped in plastic and buried in the far corner of the produce section. Undeterred, I grabbed a bag of fluorescent pink orbs, a similarly wrapped tray of Persian cucumbers, and a big head of Boston lettuce in a clamshell container. Seasonal or not, local or not, I was fixated on my memory of that sunshine salad.
As for the salad itself, it’s a combination of winter citrus and early spring vegetables. I first layered a wide bowl with large floppy lettuce leaves. Then I used a mandoline to slice thin discs of sharp radish and crisp cucumber. I noticed that the cut surfaces of the cucumber beaded up with water. I removed the peel from an orange and then cut it into full or half moons. A little lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper and we were ready to eat.
When I brought the salad out to our seder table, I thought I felt an ocean breeze in our overheating apartment. (Perhaps it was Elijah the prophet sneaking by for a sip of wine.) And back in New York, I’ve made the salad a half dozen more times.
Having eaten batch after batch, I’ve come up with the perfect way to apprecaite it. The salad itself is a delicate, dainty start to a meal – in sharp contrast with the shredded kale and hardy greens, laden with soaked-up dressing that we’ve just left behind. Don’t cut up the leaves when they hit your plate. Keep them whole and use your knife to pleat each one onto your fork, folding in a radish here, a cucumber there, topping it off with an orange segment.You’ll find that a few big juicy bites encourage you to appreciate the flavors and colors of the season you want it to be, wherever you are.
Rinse one large head of Boston or butter lettuce a few times until the water runs clear to remove any dirt. Gently pry each leaf off the core and lay on paper towels to dry. Line a wide, shallow bowl with the leaves. Use a mandoline to thinly slice two or three radishes and one small Persian cucumber – I prefer my radishes a tad thinner than my cucumber – and sprinkle over the lettuce. Use a small sharp knife to remove the peel from one orange, leaving behind no white pith. Slice the orange into circles or half-circles and scatter over the salad. In a cup, whisk together the juice of half a lemon (about 2 tablespoons), a quarter cup of olive oil, a generous pinch of kosher salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Pour half the dressing over the salad and then add more to taste.