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A Smart Way to Add Ricotta to Winter Salads

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Throughout the cold-weather season, we rely on pantry ingredients like dried herbs and spice blends to transport our kitchens to a warmer place. That’s why we’ve partnered with The Spice Hunter to bring you bright ideas for winter salads.

Salad inspiration can come from anywhere. In the case of this Italian Seared Mushroom and Fregola Salad, my inspiration came solely from cheese. And not some fancy cheese that I picked up from a specialty shop, either, but a tub of plain ricotta from the grocery store. Whipped ricotta can do wonders for salad, and now I look for any and every excuse to use it.

Seared Mushrooms, Radicchio & Fregola with Whipped Ricotta
Seared Mushrooms, Radicchio & Fregola with Whipped Ricotta

I first encountered whipped cheese on the salad plate in the cookbook Six Seasons by Joshua McFadden, the chef/owner of two restaurants in Portland, Oregon. McFadden teaches us to whiz ricotta, feta, or goat cheese together with olive oil in a food processor until smooth, creamy, and airy; spread it on a platter; and mound salad on top. That way, delicate greens and vegetables aren’t weighted down, the composed plate looks pretty (tossing salads with soft cheese can result in a cheese-coated mess), and every bite includes creamy ricotta.

This Italian Seared Mushroom and Fregola Salad is tailor-made for the technique. It’s bold in flavor, texture, and color (necessary attributes for a salad that’s getting piled on a bed of cheese). It’s terrific in the winter months, and it’s sturdy enough to enjoy for dinner and keep for lunch the next day. (Tip: spread whipped ricotta on the bottom of a storage container and pile salad on top; presentation is important for desk lunches, too!)

Radicchio, mushrooms brightened up with Italian seasoning, fregola, and whipped ricotta make a stellar winter salad.
Radicchio, mushrooms brightened up with Italian seasoning, fregola, and whipped ricotta make a stellar winter salad. Photo by Rocky Luten

It’s got many good things going for it:

  • Seared, herby mushrooms: Searing mushrooms in a hot skillet leads to crispy edges and deep caramelization in a matter of minutes. A quick toss in butter and Italian seasoning makes the mushrooms even more flavorful.
  • Fregola: The rustic texture of fregola, a toasted couscous from Sardinia, works so well in salads. Pearl (Israeli) couscous can be substituted with good results as well.
  • Radicchio: One of winter’s most beautiful offerings, radicchio is hardy enough to hold up when tossed with seared mushrooms and fregola—and its bitterness is a nice contrast to the rich ricotta. - Look for treviso (an elongated variety that looks like endive), though the easier-to-find chioggia (with its round, cabbage-like head of leaves) works well, too.
  • Herb-boosted balsamic vinaigrette: Italian seasoning is used again to reinforce the flavor, this time in the dressing. Steep Italian seasoning and shallots in balsamic vinegar to mellow and marry the flavors for a deceptively complex vinaigrette. Go a little heavier on the balsamic than normal, to lift and balance the flavors.

In fact, this salad is all about balance. All of its components are used in roughly equal proportions, so everything works together harmoniously. The ricotta trick also gives us a welcome break from crumbling, cubing, grating, and shaving cheese. You may feel skeptical about whipping and spreading cheese for a salad, but I guarantee you that after just one bite, you’ll wonder why you haven’t been doing this for years.

Seared Mushrooms, Radicchio & Fregola with Whipped Ricotta

Seared Mushrooms, Radicchio & Fregola with Whipped Ricotta

EmilyC EmilyC
Go To Recipe
Serves 4

For the salad:

  • 1 1/2 cups fregola (or pearl couscous)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus more as needed
  • 1 pound cremini, button, or shiitake mushrooms (or a mixture), stemmed and cut into bite-size pieces
  • 1 pinch kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning, such as The Spice Hunter's Italian seasoning blend
  • 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar, or to taste
  • 2/3 cup whole-milk ricotta
  • 2 cups finely chopped radicchio, either treviso or chioggia

For herbed balsamic vinaigrette:

  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, or to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon Italian seasoning, such as The Spice Hunter's Italian seasoning blend
  • 1 pinch kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
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Like this recipe idea? Stay tuned for more. We've partnered with The Spice Hunter to bring you several new recipes for winter salads. Each one highlights the way a spice or spice blend—like zesty Italian seasoning, featured here—can bring a dish to life, as well as smart tricks and tips to make your cold-weather salads better than ever.

Automagic Spring Menu Maker!
Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: Salad, Mushroom, Radicchio, Ricotta, Vegetable, Winter, Vegetarian