Wintering with an artful salad

It’s nice when making food can transport you…to another time, another place, another person, another season. Even a salad can do this. A salad! Sorry, but I have to admit, I often see salads as boring, and it could be my own fault, as I limit my imagination as far as they are concerned to often seeing them as nothing more than endless bowls of just greens with dressing.

But I’m happy to say that salad can surprise me. Making salad can surprise me. I find salads with interesting ingredients —  colors, textures, homemade dressings — come along every now and again that get me stirred up and even make me feel more creative.

It is not surprising that such a salad comes from the artist Frida Kahlo. In the book, “Frida’s Fiesta’s: Recipes and Reminiscences of Life with Frida Kahlo,” by Guadalupe Rivera (the artist’s step-daughter) and Marie-Pierre Colle (Clarkson N. Potter; 1994), artful recipes from celebrations throughout the year honor the joy  and creativity Frida found in cooking and sharing her food. The recipes and photographs in the book help one imagine the festive spread on a large table in Frida’s blue house in Mexico City. Each chapter covers a different month and celebrations of all sorts, including, of course, Christmas. The menu for a typical Frida Christmas feast, according to the book, would include such dishes as Cream of Peanut Soup, Fish in Scallop Shells, Christmas Turkey, Squash Blossom Quesadillas, Tostadas, Sugared Fritters and Cocada, a sweet egg, milk and coconut drink. 

Also on the menu, a Christmas Salad that I have made the last couple of years at holiday time. Its unique combination of somewhat unusual ingredients initially intrigued me, but I’m also sure my longtime interest in Frida Kahlo mostly was the push to try and make it.

At the base of the salad are slices of jicama. Remember jicama? I was a budding food editor in the late 1980s when jicama was a “new” food trend in the produce aisle. A large, turnip-looking round that is crisp and juicy thought somewhat bland, but sweet, jicama was all the rage for awhile everywhere, from the salad bowl to the crudite platter, until the interest wandered to kale and other matters. But jicama is still out there, in its pristine unpeeled state, or conveniently pre-cut. It has the ability to not only provide refreshing crunch to whatever it is in, but also take on the flavors (of dressings, etc.) of whatever is around it. For this year’s salad, I bought just one whole jicama that was HUGE, as I could find nothing smaller than those the size of cabbages. My slices for the salad would end up halved (in order to make them manageable, serving-wise), but I saw them as flower petal-shaped. Seemed perfect for Frida’s salad.

Fragrant citrus, in the form of thin slices of orange (or clementine, etc.) are then laid atop the jicama. As I was arranging/composing the platter, I found myself extremely in the moment and enjoying putting it together. Maybe salads could be my new medium of expression. 

Deep dark cooked beets, quite the contrast to the jicama and orange, became the center to this salad flower. A final garnish of softly green pepitas (Frida’s recipe calls for peanuts), added a rich nutty finish to the platter.

The dressing might be the best of all, a simple vinaigrette of vinegar (I used some recently purchased pineapple vinegar from Rancho Gordo), olive oil, honey, salt and pepper, shaken in a jar, made for one of the tastiest salad dressings I’d ever made (and continued my wonder why as to why we don’t always make our own vinaigrettes versus buying them).

The salad was almost as rewarding to eat as it was to make, full of crisp sweetness and a depth of dark and light flavors, perfect for winter…just a few ingredients that seemed unlikely brought together by someone with vision long ago for a favorite festive feast. 

Christmas Salad

From “Frida’s Fiesta’s: Recipes and Reminiscences

 of Life with Frida Kahlo,” 

by Guadalupe Rivera and Marie-Pierre Cole

(Clarkson N. Potter; 1994)

Makes 8 serving

  • 2 medium jicama, peeled and sliced
  • 2 oranges, peeled and sliced
  • 2 medium beets, cooked, peeled and sliced
  • 3/4 cup shelled peanuts, chopped
  • Vinaigrette
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • Salt and pepper

Arrange a circle of sliced jicama around the edge of a large round serving platter, then the orange slices and, in the center, the beet slices. Drizzle with the vinaigrette and sprinkle with peanuts.

To make the vinaigrette, combine all the ingredients in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake to blend well.

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