This simple winter salad of celery root, pears, walnuts and manchego cheese is crisp, refreshing, and full of cold weather flavors.
Late winter / early spring - aka, right now - is the absolute worst when it comes to fresh vegetables. Just about everything local is out of season and the produce department has become dull and uninspiring. Fall veggies like squash and brussels sprouts have lost their allure, and citrus season, winter's one silver lining, is nearing the end of it's glory. Fresh peas, radishes, leeks, asparagus, and other spring favorites still seem so far away, leaving us with nothing but bland hot-house greens, a few random root vegetables, and boring conventional produce that's been shipped over from somewhere far, far away.
That said, if you look hard enough you can still find a few fruits and vegetables that have lasted through winter and feel appropriate for eating right now. Celery root has long been a favorite of mine, and thanks to its hardiness, it's readily available this time of year. It has a wonderful texture, almost like a carrot, and a mild, creamy celery flavor. It's wonderful cooked, but I especially like it raw. When it's shaved nice and thin or julienned, celery root adds a crunchy, fresh element to salads and slaws. It plays very nicely with other flavors too.
Pears make a lovely compliment to celery root in both texture and taste. They're crisp, but in a different way, and have a fragrant, fruity sweetness. My green of choice for this salad is frisee, which I once considered my favorite lettuce. I don't really play favorites anymore, but I'll still grab a head whenever I see it. Unlike a lot of boxed salad greens that are an easy go-to this time of year, frisee has a lot of flavor. It's slightly bitter and has a fun, frizzled texture. It adds fluff to a salad that would otherwise be more like a slaw. Locals, you can find frisee, celery root, and a large variety of pears at Mazzeo's produce market.
I use the julienne tool on my mandolin to easily achieve uniform shreds of the celery root and pear. You can opt to do this by hand, but it will take a lot more work. This mandolin is in heavy rotation in my kitchen, and if you're willing to shell out the $20-or-so bucks that it costs, I think you'll find yourself using it pretty often too.
I first tried this salad with gorgonzola, but it was too strong for all the delicate flavors. Creamy manchego cheese makes a much better pairing since it's mellow, slightly nutty, and compliments rather than competes. Walnuts add some crunch, and a simple vinaigrette is all we need to tie everything together.
This is the perfect late-winter salad to hold us over just long enough until the good stuff starts growing again.
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