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News / Life / Clark County Life

Wonderful Waldorf: Cranberries, orange zest put a festive twist on traditional side dish

By Monika Spykerman, Columbian staff writer
Published: December 20, 2023, 6:04am
4 Photos
Christmas Waldorf salad with dried cranberries is a holiday twist on a classic side dish.
Christmas Waldorf salad with dried cranberries is a holiday twist on a classic side dish. (Monika Spykerman/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Before my taste was the finely honed tool that it currently is, I hated many foods with the fierce and unassailable intensity of childish opinions. I hated squash, Brussels sprouts, boiled cabbage, eggplant, canned green beans and cooked onions (except in French onion soup). These things made me feel genuinely nauseous. On the less-terrible but still extremely bad list were pecans (except in pie), walnuts (especially in cookies and cakes — I mean, why ruin an otherwise good thing?) and mayonnaise (except on a bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwich). I abhorred my grandmother’s habit of putting celery in fruit salads and Jell-O salads. I believed that celery should be reserved strictly for savory dishes and had absolutely no business on the sweet side of things.

My grandmother, on the other hand, seemed to sneak celery, nuts and mayonnaise into all kinds of things while my attention was occupied elsewhere. Case in point: her steak sandwich filling with finely minced steak, celery, mayonnaise and pickle relish. Admittedly, it was absolutely delicious and I just couldn’t get enough, but it’s the principle of the thing.

One day I caught Grandma mixing chopped apples, grapes, celery, walnuts and mayonnaise. She called it Waldorf salad and I figured she invented the recipe because it had all her favorite things. I liked the apples and grapes just fine, but why did she have to go and besmirch them with walnuts, celery and mayonnaise? Disgusting.

It wasn’t until many years later that I realized Waldorf salad was enjoyed by many people and in fact was a recipe so beloved that folks had been making it since 1893, when it was created by Oscar Tschirky, the maître d’hôtel of New York City’s Waldorf Astoria. Tschirky used only apples, celery and mayonnaise; other enterprising chefs later added the grapes and walnuts that now make a classic Waldorf salad.

I suppose it’s a fine piece of poetic justice that I now love celery and walnuts as much as my grandmother did. Here in my 50s, I think Waldorf salad is delicious, even if I do continue to dislike mayonnaise generally. In the case of Waldorf salad, I’ll gladly make an exception.

This week, when everyone is busy planning get-togethers, I thought I would suggest this thoroughly American salad as a perfect light (or light-ish, if you discount the mayo) side dish for the heavier elements of many holiday meals. Its crispy-crunchiness and mildly salty sweetness make it a good foil for roast meats and starchy stuffings. I’m not disparaging meat and stuffing — I love them both — but it’s refreshing to have a bit of contrast on your plate.

What makes it Christmas Waldorf salad? Why, the addition of bright red dried cranberries, of course. They contribute not only a tart flavor but also a pleasantly chewy element. What’s more, the salad couldn’t be easier to make, leaving you plenty of time to concentrate on your other, more complicated recipes — your turduckens, boeuf en croutes, crown lamb roasts and deep-fried geese, or whatever your traditional entrée may be. This recipe makes enough to feed a hungry holiday crowd.

Get out a big serving bowl. Chop up three large, firm, sweet apples such as Fuji (you’ll want to avoid McIntosh, Gala and Red Delicious, which can be soft and somewhat mealy) into 1-inch chunks. Slice red grapes in half, enough to generously fill one cup. Slice green grapes in half, enough to generously fill 1 cup. Slice enough celery to fill 1 cup. Toast 1 cup of walnut pieces by turning a pan on medium-high and stirring with 1-2 teaspoons butter and a teaspoon of brown sugar. Add walnuts to fruit, along with 1 cup dried cranberries. Orange-infused Craisins are quite nice, if you can find them.

Next, drop in ¹/3 cup mayonnaise and ¹/3 cup plain Greek yogurt. The yogurt is not a “classic” ingredient, but I like it because it adds a little tang to the richness of the mayonnaise. Add ¼ teaspoon salt and a tablespoon of fresh orange zest. You wouldn’t believe what a difference that orange zest makes; it takes the salad to a wholly superior level of yumminess. But why stop there? Add 2 or 3 dashes of powdered ginger (completely optional for all you ginger-haters out there). Last but not least, if you’d like your Waldorf salad to teeter over the edge into sweetness, stir in a teaspoon or two of brown sugar. The apples, grapes and walnuts are already sweet, so you might decide to simply let them shine without the additional sugar (and of course you can skip toasting your walnuts in sugar, too).

I made this Waldorf salad for our office potluck, but before I put cling-wrap on the bowl, I sat down and ate a big serving all by myself. It tasted so delicious, with such contrasting textures and vibrant flavors. Why isn’t Waldorf salad always made with cranberries and orange zest? Why did I waste so much time hating this fantastic side dish? Somewhere out there, beyond space and time, Grandma is happily chuckling to herself. And probably chomping on a celery stick.

Monika Spykerman: 360-735-4556; monika.spykerman@columbian.com; instagram.com/monikasplayfulpantry/

Christmas Waldorf Salad

3 large, firm, sweet apples, such as Fuji

1 cup sliced celery

1 cup halved red grapes

1 cup halved green grapes

1 cup walnut pieces, pan-toasted with 1 teaspoon each butter and brown sugar

1 cup dried cranberries

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon fresh orange zest

2-3 dashes powdered ginger (optional)

1-2 teaspoons brown sugar (optional)

Mix all ingredients together in large bowl. Serve. Wait for compliments. Bask in glory.