Weeknight Cooking

A Greens and Ripe Tomato Salad, From a Coffee Shop in Minnesota

We all harbor secret fantasies of moving away, starting a café, and feeding people. Every month, Sarah Kieffer from the Vanilla Bean Blog will be indulging us with stories and recipes from the Wolners, who own the Blue Heron Coffeehouse in Winona, Minnesota.

Today: The story of the Wolners, and a fresh tomato-and-greens salad for the last days of summer.

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Fifteen years ago, Larry and Colleen Wolner purchased one of two coffeehouses in Winona, Minnesota. I had worked in that coffeehouse for two years under the previous owners and was desperate to stay on staff: Good, free coffee was a luxury I wasn’t ready to part with just yet. Thankfully they kept me, and when the Blue Heron Coffeehouse opened its doors with a transformed shop menu, I was waiting at the cash register ready to help whoever walked through the doors.

Colleen and Larry Wolner

The Wolners were ahead of their time, especially in that sleepy little town. They brought so much with them to Winona: amazing baked goods, homemade soups and sandwiches, an organic and sustainable mindset, and a desire to build honest community. They were loving but firm, insisting that coffee should taste strong and deep. Scones should be buttery, creamy, and made every morning. Soup should have fabulous flavor and fresh ingredients. Those ingredients should be bought locally, and be in season as much as possible. 

I was twenty and didn’t know my way around the kitchen, but watching them day in and day out was motivation enough to pull out a whisk and get my hands dirty. I moved from chocolate chip cookie duty to scones and cakes, then salads, soups, and bread.

Here I am, years later, in my own kitchen. Even as I mix and mash miles away, part of me is always at the Blue Heron. The recipes I learned there are well-used treasures that have evolved over time, in both their kitchen and mine.

The thought struck me recently, however, that it was unfair for Winona to keep these gems hidden. So this column was born, in attempt to bring the Blue Heron to a wider audience. Larry and Collen’s café recipes have been reworked for the home kitchen, and each month I will write about a new Blue Heron classic that is seasonal and delicious. 

This month’s recipe showcases the tomato. Tomatoes were a daily part of the Blue Heron routine, where we would carry in boxes of them, line them up, and cut them into the thinnest circles. The red juices would leak down the sides of the slicer, seeds spilling carelessly over counters and floor, only to be quickly wiped away before the lunch rush began. Or we would unpack delicate pints of cherry and grapes, and slice them in half to be tossed into bright green leaves of crisp romaine. Colleen would top the reds and greens with one of her genius dressings, and the town would file in, ready for lunch. 

“the tomato,
star of earth,...no pit,
no husk,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness.
-Pablo Neruda, “Ode to Tomatoes”

Greens and Ripe Tomato Salad with Ricotta Salata and Balsamic Vinaigrette

Serves 4

1 head romaine lettuce, washed and chopped (or 6 to 8 cups spring mix)
1 pint cherry tomatoes, sliced in half (or 2 large heirloom tomatoes, diced)
1 red onion, sliced in thin rings
4 ounces ricotta salata, sliced and crumbled
1/8 to 1/4 cup reduced balsamic vinegar

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Sarah Kieffer 

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fiveandspice September 23, 2014
Yay Sarah! I'm very excited about this column. I've always been transported by your stories of the Blue Heron. Can't wait to see more of the recipes!
marydonovanspringowski September 11, 2014
My daughter worked for them for the past five years! Thank you for bringing these recipes to our attention! I'd love to support the people who were so good to my daughter, Kate!
Adam September 11, 2014
Can confirm: The Blue Heron is awesome. Winona is worth a day trip in itself, and TBH is the only place you should eat at. :)
Fork V. September 11, 2014
Simple and perfect.
Caroline G. September 11, 2014
This was shared on my FB page by dear friend. 15 years ago we lived in our first house, 1 block away from the Blue Heron Coffehouse. My family adored visiting and having that treasure each morning. Thank you for sharing the recipes you learned.
Francesca C. September 10, 2014
What a wonderful gift from the Midwest to me and my fellow folks here in the East.
Zoë F. September 10, 2014
So glad to finally meet these two, who mentored you into such an exquisite baker!
Lindsey S. September 10, 2014
I'm sure we can relate to that hometown cafe/bakery that made an impact on us in one way or another. So so lovely, Sarah!
Laura W. September 10, 2014
So excited for this article, Sarah, I love minimal-fuss, big taste recipes like this.
sarah K. September 10, 2014
Thanks Laura! I'm so excited about it, too. I think you would love the Wolners if you meet them. :)
Cristina S. September 10, 2014
Great to see you on Food52! This salad looks simple and tasty.
sarah K. September 10, 2014
Thank you so much!