Maine farmers work hard to keep our local vegetable supply interesting as we march through the winter months at this latitude. There are hot houses growing tomatoes, high tunnels protecting hearty greens like kale and chard from the elements, aquaponics operations producing tender lettuce, arugula, spinach and herbs regardless of the weather, and covered pots being used to force endive and radicchio for our dining pleasure.

But even with these yeoman’s efforts from the agricultural community, we’d be kidding ourselves to ignore the fact that root vegetables are the work horses of the wintertime salad scene in Maine. They may not be as sweet as the first lettuce in June, as sexy as a ripe tomato in August, as trendy as kale once was, but beets, celery root, carrots, kohlrabi, parsnips, radishes, rutabagas, sunchokes and turnips are with us all winter long due to their inherent storing power. We can look to local chefs for interesting ways to make them the linchpins of wintertime salads, when diners are looking for a little local crunch to go with their long-simmered comfort foods.

Chef Sara Jenkins, owner of the Mediterranean-inspired eatery, Nina June, in Rockport, is more than happy to compose a winter salad featuring the forced tardivo radicchio that some Maine farmers are producing. She’ll dress the bitter, purple-red chicory relative with an apple cider vinaigrette and top it with a crumble of local blue cheese.

But more often than not, Jenkins’ menu will feature a grated root vegetable salad, either as an appetizer, a stand-alone salad or a topping to char-grilled meat. In her 2008 cookbook, “Oranges: Recipes and Flavor Secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus, and Beyond” (co-written with Portland resident Mindy Fox), she suggests two basic combinations. She grates raw turnip – using the large holes on a box grater or the narrow blades of a Japanese mandoline – and tosses it with lime and harissa (a north African spice paste) for a tangy, salty, fiery combination. Alternatively, she combines grated carrot with lemon and olive oil, which provides a softer, sweeter rendition of the grated root vegetable salad.

Jenkins suggests home cooks try these simple versions first to find the balance of flavors that suits them, and then add one or two other grated root vegetables such as celery root, parsley root, or radishes to figure out the combinations they like best.

Ben Jackson, chef at the Drifter’s Wife on Washington Street in Portland, uses the same general formula for composing salads any time of year: something creamy and something crunchy complemented by smaller amounts of something fatty and something acidic. “But salads take on a different meaning in winter because you also want to have some warmth about them. Something comforting,” Jackson said.

Root vegetables are key to his winter salads because they are culinary shape shifters. They can be raw and crisp as Jenkins espouses, they can be roasted to be sweet and tender, or they can be softened to create a puree that provides a warming base for the rest of the salad. “I like to build a salad that features a specific root vegetable all three ways,” says Jackson.

The author uses a mandolin to create thin slices of radish for a winter salad.

Chef Guy Hernandez, co-owner with his wife Stella of Lolita Vinoteca + Asador on the east end of Congress Street in Portland, says he will roast root vegetables in the embers of the restaurant’s wood fired-grill and mix them with wilted greens for a warm salad in winter. He also keeps raw root-vegetable salads on the menu. For example, Hernandez will shave raw sunchokes into hot house greens for extra crunch. But he prefers to let most raw root vegetables shine on their own in a slaw, animated by the addition of seasonal (but trucked in) citrus or local buttermilk.

“Because winter in Maine is so long and dark, we’re all craving something bright and fresh,” Hernandez said. And crisp, local, plentiful root vegetables are just the ticket.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer and tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at:

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