The Healing Art of Salad Making

A blog post about salad? On a therapy website?

Yes.

I love salad. I eat it pretty much every day. And not because it’s “healthy” or because I’m depriving myself of something more exciting or satisfying. The kind of salad I make is exciting, and it is definitely satisfying. And creating such salad is an excellent opportunity to slow down, be mindful, and appreciate the bountiful miracles of nature — in this case, vegetables! 

For a simple side salad (like the one pictured above), all you need is some lettuce and two or three toppings. For a heartier, more dynamic salad experience, I recommend the following elements:

  • at least two different types of leafy greens (I often use green or red leaf lettuce, combined with arugula or baby spinach) 
  • cabbage (green or purple)
  • some type of protein (I love hardboiled eggs, but if you want meat, chicken is good, or some kind of plant-based chicken substitute or something soy-based like tempeh) 
  • pickled onions (I was given an easy recipe a couple summers ago — see below — and any salad seems tragic without them now), high quality marinated olives, or peperoncini 
  • avocado 
  • tomatoes 
  • carrot and/or red bell pepper and/or cucumber 
  • cheese (my go-to’s are feta and goat)
  • nuts (sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, or slivered almonds) 
  • homemade vinaigrette dressing

Let’s look at each of these precious elements separately and get specific about how to work with them.

Leafy Greens

I remember being at my good friend’s bachelorette beach weekend celebration a few years back, and all of us were in the kitchen preparing dinner together. One friend, Anne, handed another friend, Nicole, a head of green leaf lettuce and asked her to clean it. Nicole stared down at the lettuce in her hands, perplexed. I watched, amused. She turned to the sink and started running water awkwardly over the leaves, looking very uncomfortable. Anne laughed. “Not like that,” she teased. She pointed to the colander on the counter and said, “Use this. And rip it.” She started tearing at the leaves, many at one time, dropping them into the colander. Lightbulbs went off in Nicole’s head. Now she knew. 

Of course, a salad spinner is preferred to a colander. If you’re planning to make salad on even a semi-regular basis, invest in a good spinner. They’re not that expensive, and they double as a storage container for your clean, dry lettuce. I first rip the dirty lettuce leaves into big chunks, clean them, spin them dry at least twice, dumping the water after each spin, and later rip them into smaller pieces when preparing my salad. I also rip arugula and spinach (usually pre-washed) into smaller pieces. Indeed, the size and cut of each salad element is of utmost importance. You should theoretically be able to get every element into a single, manageable bite — a miniature bouquet of vegetables.

Cabbage

When it comes to cutting the cabbage, you’ll want to do so with great precision, aiming for paper-thin. To this end, you’ll need an excellent knife, and that knife will need to be very sharp. I find that an eight-inch chef’s knife meets all of my chopping, slicing, and mincing needs. When cleaning the head of cabbage, I sometimes end up removing the outermost leaf, but not always. Then I’ll cut off a small portion of the cabbage, lay it flat-side-down on my cutting board (you’ll want a full-sized cutting board; the little ones are bullshit), and start slicing. If you’re unskilled in slicing vegetables, cabbage is actually a great one to practice on and find your favorite method. It’s got a nice give to it, and the sound the knife makes when slicing through it is quite pleasing.

Protein

If you’re using hardboiled eggs for protein, slice a peeled egg lengthwise down the middle, then width-wise three or four times. If you’re eating an entire egg in your salad, do the same thing with the other half. Or you can save the other half for your next salad. You can leave the cut-up egg intact by transferring it on your chef’s knife to the side of your salad. Then you will have the choice of later mixing it in, letting the cooked yolk interact with the vinegar in the salad dressing in really amazing ways, or discretely incorporating it for bites of your choosing. 

And if you don’t know how to hard-boil an egg, it’s easy: Just carefully place one or more eggs in a medium-sized saucepan, cover them with water by at least an inch, put them on the stove burner, cover the pot, and bring the water to a boil over high heat. The second that water starts boiling, turn the burner off, but leave the pot on the burner for 15 minutes. Then pour off the hot water and run the eggs under some cold water before leaving them to cool enough for peeling. To peel an egg, first bang it on the countertop so it cracks a lot. Those cracks will give you starting places for removing the shell. There’s a thin inner membrane that’s good to break, giving you access to the shiny-smooth egg white beneath, and ensuring a smoother peeling process. If you end up with big chunks of egg white sticking to the shell, fear not: shit happens. You can’t win ’em all.

Pickled Onions

Pickled onions are my absolute favorite salad element of all time! If you’re not a fan, you can use something else that lends your salad a comparable acidic jolt — peperoncini is good; olives are always welcome. But who am I kidding? Nothing compares to pickled onions. And you may as well make them yourself. My former step-father’s current wife blessed me two years ago with two different recipes — one for white onions and one for red — and I alternate between them. My refrigerator is rarely ever bereft of pickled onions, and it is never bereft for long.

Pickled White Onions

  • 1 medium-large white onion, cut in half and sliced paper thin
  • 1 cup white vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 + 1/2 teaspoons salt
      • First mix the vinegar, salt and sugar so everything dissolves, and then stir in the onion. Let it sit covered in the fridge for a couple hours before serving. They’ll keep for at least a couple weeks in the fridge.

Pickled Red Onions

  • 1 medium-large red onion, cut in half and sliced paper thin
  • 1 cup white vinegar
  • 1/4 cup lime juice (using fresh limes)
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon salt
      • First mix the vinegar, lime juice, salt and sugar so everything dissolves, and then stir in the onion. Let it sit covered in the fridge for at least a couple hours before serving, maybe stirring once. They’ll keep for at least a couple weeks in the fridge.

If I had to pick a favorite of these two, I’d pick the red ones. Their flavor is not only more complex than the white, but they’re also PINK!!! Combine them with some red leaf lettuce, sliced pink radishes, purple cabbage, maybe some goat cheese crumbles dyed neon by the red onion brine, and you’ve got yourself a work of art! However, the white onion recipe is slightly easier (no limes) and it’s just nice to switch things up, no?

Avocado

Like most produce, avocados can be a gamble. (Remember that Seinfeld episode with Kramer and the cantaloupe?) When choosing one at the store, you want to make sure there aren’t any air bubbles beneath the skin, as that’s a sure sign of bruising or decay. The meat of the avocado should give slightly beneath the gentle pressure of your thumb. A hard avocado is no good, unless you know you won’t be eating it for a few days. To cut the avocado, carefully insert your chef’s knife into the outer skin and cut it in half lengthwise, slowly rolling it across your cutting board to accommodate the pit. Twist the halves in opposite directions to separate. Behold. Is your avocado a soft, bright green throughout? Then you are winning! Have a mini-celebration. A perfect avocado is a true gift. Are there some brown spots here and there? Just remove them with a spoon or the tip of your knife, and chalk it up.

To extract the pit, steady the avocado half with one hand, making sure your fingers are tucked safely away, and hack into the pit with your chef’s knife, just hard enough so it breaks the surface and stays put. Then you can twist the avocado and lift the pit out on the knife. Just be careful, for obvious reasons, when removing the pit from the knife. I then run the knife through the avocado meat to create a grid, then use my thumb to scrape the resulting cubes out, either adding them to my salad or leaving them on my cutting board to add later.

Tomatoes

When it comes to tomatoes, I prefer to use the grape or cherry variety, cutting each one into halves or sometimes fourths. It’s tedious but easy enough and worth the extra effort (recall the vegetable bouquet). And you don’t have to worry about biting into a whole tomato and squirting juice everywhere.

Carrots

Method gets especially crucial when it comes to carrots. At least for me, because I like mine matchstick form. Yes, I could buy the pre-matchsticked carrots in the bag, but they always look so sad and pale, and to buy them would be an act of self-deprivation, because I want to chop the carrots. I want to interact with them.

So here’s what you do: wash your carrot. Peel it if you want; I usually don’t, because that takes away a lot more carrot than necessary and feels wasteful. Next, cut off a two-inch log of carrot, and then cut that log in half lengthwise. Then you’ll turn the log on its side so the flat part is facing your left (or non-dominant) hand. Holding onto it very carefully — can you be careful without feeling stressed? — you’ll slice the log in half again lengthwise. This takes practice; don’t cut yourself. Now turn the cut log flat-side-down on the cutting board and slice it thinly, creating two skinny strips of carrot with each slice. Some pieces will be significantly wider than matchsticks, which is fine. Or if you’re in the zone and have nothing better to do (as if there’s anything better to do!), you can cut those pieces thinner, one or two or more at a time.

If you need more carrot, cut another two-inch log and repeat this process, possibly turning the cut log on its side and slicing it into three slabs instead of two, as the carrot gets thicker toward the bottom. Once you get the hang of this process, it only takes a couple minutes. 

Pepper and Cucumber

If you’re using a red bell pepper (or green or yellow or orange — any/all will do), first cut it in half (after washing it), and rip out the inner seedy, spongy membrane. Slice it paper thin. If you’re using cucumber: clean it, maybe peel it (your call), and cut off a small portion for your salad. Slice that portion in half lengthwise. Then slice each of the resulting half-log in half lengthwise, and slice those — again quite thinly — into small triangles.

Assembly

Up to this point, my typical method is to leave all these salad toppings on the cutting board. Once they’re all prepared, I add them to the bed of greens. Then I add the pickled onion, crumbled goat or feta cheese, and nuts (toasted pepitas are my favorite). This leaves the crowning glory: homemade vinaigrette dressing. 

Homemade Salad Dressing

Just like the pickled onions, I have two main dressing recipes that I alternate between, and one or the other of them is pretty much always in my fridge.

Classic Vinaigrette

  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Balsamic Vinaigrette

  • 1 garlic clove, minced*
  • 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons dijon mustard
  • 1/2 cup (or a bit less) olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

*When mincing garlic, I always crush the clove (apologies to Anthony Bourdain) with the flat side of my chef’s knife in order to more easily remove its papery skin. Then I thinly slice the flattened clove and set about mincing from there. 

Combine all dressing ingredients in a glass jar with a lid (I save empty jam and honey jars for this purpose) and shake vigorously. If you don’t have any jars, whisk ingredients together in a bowl or large cup. These dressings will keep for at least a couple weeks in the fridge.

Mindfulness

You might be thinking, “This sounds like a lot of work for salad. You expect me to do all this chopping and shredding and mincing on a regular basis?” No, I have no such expectations. But I will say that you could chop certain things ahead of time in bulk (namely the cabbage and carrots), and if you actually don’t enjoy salad (even when done right), then it probably won’t be worth this type of effort for you. If you do enjoy salad prepared this way, however, I’d encourage you to approach the work of it as a chance to practice mindfulness and gratitude. The mechanization of modern life has robbed us of many repetitive tasks that actually feed our souls and calm our minds and make us feel, well, human.

So give your full attention to the task at hand. As Buddhist monk, bread baker, and cook Edward Espe Brown says in classic Zen fashion, “When you cut the carrots, cut the carrots.” (I highly recommend the documentary in which he stars, called How to Cook Your Life.) As your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your chosen focus, without judgment. If a given thought is at all painful, respond with compassion, perhaps saying internally, “May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live with ease.” 

Also, check in regularly with what’s happening in your body as you work. How’s your posture? What’s your breathing like? Feel the connection of your feet on the floor. Lift up tall through your center channel. Lift the corners of your mouth a little. Relax your jaw. Are you rushing? What’s the hurry? I believe that the majority of people who don’t enjoy cooking, feel that way because they always rush themselves when cooking, or they see the steps in a recipe as drudgery, as means to an end, as something to just get through in order to enjoy the resulting meal. These people are missing the point.

We are fed by cooking (or in this case, by carefully preparing raw foods) in more ways than the obvious one. So slow down whenever possible, and give thanks for all that the earth provides, and for all that your hands can do with the help of a good, sharp knife.

Present Moment Processes

In every blog post thus far, I have focused a lot on the past by discussing first memories, life stories, and genograms. Indeed, exploring past experiences and seeing how they affect the present is an important aspect of psychotherapy. Such explorations can also be more comfortable for certain individuals who are new to therapy or a particular therapist. Talking about the past can be more intellectual, and therefore less vulnerable feeling, than exploring the embodied, unpredictable present with a virtual stranger. But I cannot emphasize enough the extent to which mindful contact with the present moment facilitates true healing. For many people, the therapy session provides this kind of contact for the first time, and is a practice ground for mindfulness.

Resisting the Here-and-Now

One widely accepted definition of mindfulness is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s. He describes it as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” So I invite you to ask yourself this question: To what extent do I really pay attention to how I am feeling in the present moment?

More often than not, most of us instantly react to an emotion, usually in order to get rid of it, or sometimes (if it’s “good”) to ensure it won’t go away. Rarely do we take the time to see it and feel it for what it is. We blame others for “making us” have a certain emotion, and we lash out at them in aggressive or passive-aggressive ways, without ever turning towards our pain to see what it needs from us. We subconsciously believe, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way,” thereby judging our emotional experience and essentially invalidating it. Some people go through their entire lives like this. And the scariest part is that they don’t even realize they’re doing it.

Ways to Practice Presence

Various therapeutic modalities facilitate in-session present moment processing. My three favorites are Contemplative Psychotherapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and the Hakomi Method. All of these approaches involve facing our defenses or resistances head-on and experiencing firsthand how conditioned we are to avoid the tenderness and expansiveness of the present moment.

Contemplative Psychotherapy

Contemplative Psychotherapy is grounded in Buddhist philosophy and also incorporates psychodynamic and humanist counseling theories. For all of 2016 I trained intensively in this modality, and the most important skill I learned was how to sit with clients in their pain, without trying to guide them out of it and into the next moment. Again and again, I was amazed by how subtly I could steer the conversation away from suffering and toward problem-solving or rationalizing. Sometimes I would latch on to a certain piece of content in a client’s narrative, when really what needed attention was their process. I was not meaning to do this, but in watching session footage week after week, I became more conscious of my tendency to guide clients away from painful material.

Into the Fire

Most of us do this sort of thing with ourselves and our loved ones all the time. When someone cries we usually say, “Don’t cry. Everything will be okay.” Or we ask how we can make them feel better. But usually what feels most nourishing in times of distress is to have someone simply acknowledge our pain. They might say something like, “I see that you are suffering, and I am here. Tell me where it hurts. Tell me what it feels like.” With this type of inquiry, we feel seen and understood. It validates our experience and begins a process of true healing.

I still receive biweekly supervision in the contemplative approach to counseling and have become more adept (with a lot of room to grow!) at guiding clients “into the fire” of their own pain. Together we explore its nuances and uncover its sacred messages. We track when the urge to turn away from it takes over, and we bring the focus back to the experience at hand. Too often we are told to “move on,” “get over it,” “let it go.” But if we can just stay with our experience and let it be, our understanding of it will deepen and it will become less frightening. Less fear means more clarity and a deeper trust in our own brilliant sanity.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

ACT (pronounced “act”) is a hardcore behavioral therapy whose ultimate goal is greater psychological flexibility. It focuses on strengthening six different domains: values, committed action, self-as-context, cognitive defusion, acceptance, and contact with the present moment. The last of these domains is obviously most relevant to the current discussion.

Sunset Mind

One rule of thumb for many ACT therapists is “When in doubt, first get centered!” Becoming more in tune with their present moment experience ensures that they will not be acting from an unconscious, problem-solving mode of mind with clients. Rather, they will be utilizing what ACT refers to as a “sunset” mode of mind. When you look at a sunset (or gaze at a painting or listen to a nice piece of music, etc.), you are not trying to fix it. You are simply noticing and appreciating.

Therapists can foster the sunset mode of mind in-session with clients by inviting them to focus attention on their breath and other bodily sensations. Notice what areas are tight or relaxed, hot or cold, tired or energized. Addressing each of the senses can also encourage real presence: “Tell me what you’re hearing right now. What do you smell? How does the pillow feel against your arm?” From this centered and embodied place, we can approach problem-solving in a more mindful way, suspending judgment of our experience. Or we might realize that problem-solving won’t even help in this particular situation. Sometimes all we can really do is acknowledge that life has wounded us, and go about tending to that wound.

Slowing Down

Another ACT technique involves slowing down the pace of the session. Sometimes clients come in with a long list of worries and a palpable sense of urgency to address them all at once. The sooner we can eliminate those worries, the sooner they can feel better. But life will always give us things to worry about. So rushing through the worries at hand just means we’re rushing towards the ones awaiting us. At some point it all becomes the same experience: worry.

ACT therapists can help clients see their worry for what it is (not what it says it is — a problem that must be eradicated) by picking one item from the worry list and saying it very slowly, in a very gentle tone: “I… won’t… be… able… to… meet… my… deadline.” They will do this a few times, tracking with each repetition what is going on somatically for the client, and inviting them to breathe into those sensations and simply notice any tensions that arise.   

The Hakomi Method

“Hakomi” is a Hopi Indian word meaning, “How do you stand in relation to these many realms?” Like ACT and Contemplative Psychotherapy, this method uses a lot of somatic (body-based) interventions to facilitate a deeper connection to the present moment. Its founder, Ron Kurtz, developed some ingenious ways to help clients stay with their difficult experiences and tap into the body’s innate wisdom. Two of my favorite Hakomi techniques are verbal probes and “taking over.”

Nourishing Words

Verbal probes are a great way to experience profound, conscious contact with our own defense mechanisms. Such mechanisms typically operate on an unconscious level, where they are more likely to control us. In my counseling practice, I see a lot of defenses arise in the realm of self-compassion. People resist the concept of offering themselves compassion because they believe it is selfish. Other people have it way worse and they should therefore suck it up and be grateful, damnit. They equate self-compassion to self-pity and wallowing.

If I sense that these beliefs are active in a client, I will invite them to get centered. Plant both feet on the floor and tune into your breath. I will ask them to simply notice what happens in their minds and bodies when I say something like: “Your pain is real and deserves loving attention.” Most people are surprised by the reactions they observe themselves having to such a statement! They become aware of a physical aversion to it. Voices in their head immediately start yelling in protest. People realize that on some level they’ve actually been resisting what they need in order to heal themselves. This awareness alone is often enough to shift things dramatically and catalyze the healing process. 

Supporting the Defense 

“Taking over” is a technique I sometimes use in conjunction with verbal probes. It works when a discreet somatic response arises to something I’ve just said. A common example is when clients report their shoulders tightening. In this case, “taking over” would involve my physically squeezing their shoulders up for them as I repeat the same verbal probe that initiated the tight sensation. Or clients can exaggerate that tightness themselves by bringing their shoulders up to their ears. They can give themselves a similar experience by using their arms to represent the wall that they feel coming up in response to a certain probe. With the defense thusly supported physically, their psyches are freed up to receive information in a less defended way. They can then take in the nourishment of my words. And they can contact the vulnerable part of themselves that believes it needs protection. 

Accepting What Is

In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle says that we have three options for dealing with a given situation. We can accept it, attempt to change it, or attempt to get out of it altogether. Any other response is just resistance, and resisting what is, according to Tolle, is simply insane. This makes sense if you really think about it.

At various points in our lives we will all be faced with situations we’d like to escape or change but cannot. In those moments we have one option: acceptance. This does not equate to settling, giving up, or being happy with a given scenario. It just means we’ve stopped resisting. On some level, however subtle or energetic, we’ve relaxed into it. Instead of clinging to the rocks while the waves crash down upon us, we’ve loosened our grip and learned to ride the waves. We can say without judgment and without taking it personally, “This is how it feels to be alive right now.”

The interventions used in Contemplative Psychotherapy, ACT, and the Hakomi Method are just a few among many that can assist us in cultivating mindfulness and acceptance. Both skills are necessary for contacting the present moment in a nonjudgmental way. Of course, one can cultivate presence at home via meditation, yoga (these YWA videos are my favorite), and bringing bare attention to activities like cooking and washing dishes. With practice we see that in refusing to accept what’s happening right now, beneath all the defenses and distractions, we’re resisting life itself.

Resources

Hayes, S.C., Stroshal, K.D., Wilson, K.G. (2012). Acceptance and commitment therapy: The process and practice of mindful change (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Tolle, E. (1999). The power of now: A guide to spiritual enlightenment. Novato, CA: Namaste Publishing and New World Library.

Weiss, H., Johanson, G., Monda, L. (eds.). (2015). Hakomi Mindfulness-Centered Somatic Psychotherapy: A comprehensive guide to theory and practice. New York, NY: Norton Publishing.