Warming Trend: Local chefs turn up the heat on seasonal salads

Come autumn, when the air turns brisk and market stalls shutter for the season, fresh produce finds its way into heartier fare. For the next few months, root vegetables baked into creamy gratins, savory roasted Brussels sprouts and butternut squash puréed into a rich broth will tide vegetable-lovers over until the first signs of spring – and the return of farm-fresh salads.

But this fall, chefs around town aren’t waiting for the flowers to bloom to bring back this beloved starting course. Instead, they’re putting seasonal produce to work in warm salads that are pleasing to the palate and satisfying to the salad-lover in us all. But this is no easy task. Unlike their cold cousins, warm salads demand a serendipitous balance of temperature, texture and, most important, timing.

That last requirement is never more important than when giving delicate lettuce some time on the grill. Just a few too many seconds, and those romaine leaves will be ribby, limp and wilted. “If you’re doing it, it has to be seconds on the grill; you just want to barely get it warm,” said J.Fires’ Market Bistro chef and owner Jennifer Pensoneau, whose grilled salad has been on the menu at the Waterloo, Ill., restaurant since it opened in January 2009. Once the leaves are just the right temperature, she adds fragrant fennel and plump sun-dried tomatoes and finishes the dish with a drizzle of warm vinaigrette made from red wine vinegar, oil, herbs, shallots and garlic. The result: “It’s been on the menu the whole time; people just love it.”

Timing is also top of mind for Jeff Robtoy, head chef at The Bleeding Deacon Public House in South City, when he puts together the grilled wedge salad on his menu. “The whole thing comes together in about 30 seconds,” Robtoy admitted. First, he fries an egg to soft, runny perfection. When the egg has nearly a minute left, he sears a cored head of romaine on all sides, giving the leaves just a minute or two to take on a bit of smoky flavor. He drops two bulky, battered rings of spicy onion into the deep fryer and gives chunky bits of bacon a quick dip in hot, salty oil. Seconds later, he combines the warm ingredients with chilled tomatoes and capers and a generous smattering of Gorgonzola cheese. The egg is perched atop, and creamy blue cheese dressing is served on the side.

At Eclipse in the East Loop, chef de cuisine Wes Johnson keeps his lettuce away from the coals, preferring instead to let seasonal fruit take center stage in his twist on a traditional spinach salad. After poaching fresh pears in white balsamic vinegar and just a bit of water, he halves the pears and grills them for three to four minutes on each side. Both the pears and a warm pancetta-soy vinaigrette are tossed with local spinach, which transforms the leaves from crisp to just barely wilted. “I still want a little bit of the fact that it was a fresh product,” Johnson said. “You’re just trying to warm it through because when it gets to the diner, it continues to wilt.”

Meanwhile, over at Miso on Meramec in Clayton, executive chef Eliott Harris reserves the grill for seasonal vegetables hearty enough to take the heat. For his warm Japanese mushroom salad, he sautées enoki and shiitake mushrooms with sesame oil, butter and fresh ginger, then glazes them with mirin. He adds a squeeze of fresh lime juice to the sesame oil left in the pan and combines it all with earthy grilled asparagus spears for a salad that is warm, hearty and a favorite with Miso’s servers. “They know the diners are going to like it,” Harris mused.

One of the three warm salads on the menu at Stone Soup Cottage in Cottleville pays homage to another of the season’s best: the squash. Chef and co-owner Carl McConnell makes a mini soufflé from petite butternut squash to sit aside spicy arugula. He sprinkles crispy pancetta on top of the lettuce and drizzles the entire plate with a hot pancetta dressing. A warm Parmesan tuile tops off the dish, adding a layer of both flavor and beauty to the plate.

Though the complex execution required for warm salads made McConnell leery of putting one on the menu – “If you can’t pull it off correctly, you’ll be dead in the water,” he admitted – his wife and co-owner, Nancy McConnell, was enamored by their elegance. He’s glad he listened. “I love doing warm salads because you can do so much with them from a texture standpoint and from a palate standpoint,” he noted. “Hot, warm, crispy, soft – you’re adding a whole new dynamic to the dish.”

Speaking of a whole new dynamic, Fond chef and owner Amy Zupanci is making a warm salad any meat-lover would be happy to order. After cleaning and breaking down sweetbreads, she chops them into small pieces, tosses them with fresh house-made bread crumbs and fries them into croutons destined for one of the Edwardsville restaurant’s fall salads. “We let them sit so the greens start to fall and they have a warmth to them,” she said. “You get the rich, rich sweetbread, the crunch of the crouton and the bitterness of the mustard vinaigrette. It’s my favorite.”

They say soup is good for the soul. But as the weather turns cool, a warm salad – executed perfectly in temperature, texture and, of course, taste – just might do the trick too.

Visit the Extra Sauce section of saucemagazine.com for warm salad recipes.