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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.

Fear Itself

Back in March, when it became obvious that COVID would be impacting our lives for months or more to come, I decided to do my best to live in accordance with F.D.R.’s maxim, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Instead of being scared, I wanted to be calm, brave, accepting, and helpful. But in April, when mask-refusing protestors swarmed the Raleigh streets with a “no fear” rallying cry, I revisited Roosevelt’s famous words. I needed to get more precise in my interpretation of them — an interpretation that did not equate to being angry and reckless, as it seemed to do with these protesters.

F.D.R.’s condemnation of “fear itself” is deceptively complex. Fear itself actually isn’t something we should fear at all. It’s a perfectly human emotion to have, especially in times of war and pandemic. So I like to think that Roosevelt was referring more specifically to unconscious, exiled, repressed, and otherwise un-responded-to fear, and the ways it can control us — the ways it keeps us from trusting ourselves, one another, and the universe. 

Fear of sickness, death, poverty, hunger, and protracted isolation is an essential part of human life. But how do we respond to the fear? Usually, we don’t. And this lack of response is a fearful thing, indeed. For when we don’t respond to an emotion, we have no choice but to react from it: in the case of fear, to freeze, to fight, to flee.

So: you’re afraid of getting sick, afraid of dying. See if you can contact that fear right now in your psyche, perhaps even in your body. Imagine the fear is a young child seeking comfort. Take responsibility for it. See that the root of that word is response. 

Don’t attempt to make the child’s fear go away. That will only create shame because it sends the message that the emotion isn’t valid, and all emotions are valid. They might not be logical, but you can bet they have a damn good reason for being there. To make them go away would be entirely beside the point. All you have to do is acknowledge the discomfort. Simply let your fear-child know you care, and that you’re not going anywhere. Be careful not to say too much. Let the fear talk so you can understand it better. What’s it made of? What about it, exactly, is so unbearable? It needs a little love, a little kindness? What’s so hard about that?

There are different ways of responding to your own discomfort with loving-kindness. You might start with a little mantra. When you recognize that you’re scared, you can say to yourself, “May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live with ease.” You might take a few deep, mindful breaths. You might take a contemplative walk. You might lie on the floor for a few minutes. You might chop vegetables. You might call a friend. You might do yoga. You might cry. You might bake bread or write a poem.

Or…you can go on not responding. You can even claim to have no fear. And you can project your unacknowledged fear onto others, who then become responsible for it. Who then become just one more thing to flee from or fight, without so much as a mask to protect you. 

How to Deal with Climate Change

Blue ocean events. Wet bulb temperatures. Coral reef extinction. Global dimming. Food shortages. Floods. Fires. Hypercanes. These and other terms comprise the terrifying language of climate change, a source of major grief and anxiety for those of us who are paying attention. We feel powerless to stop the negative feedback loops already set in motion by centuries of shortsightedness, greed, and a rampant obsession with convenience and “progress.” We feel angry toward the generations of people who came before us and did nothing to prevent what now appears to be an imminent catastrophe. And our hearts break for the generations to come whose lives will be little more than a sweaty, scary struggle to survive — if those generations are even given the chance to exist.

So, what are we supposed to do? In many ways, the instinct to do something is what got us into this mess. Our fear of sitting still and doing nothing, of doing “boring” or repetitive things, or even just doing one thing at a time, has spawned some our most debilitating inventions. And the systems in place that maintain the ceaseless production of all that we have come to “need” are so massive and complex that I doubt the average citizen can effect the kind of change that’s required, no matter how much they vote, protest, reduce, reuse, and/or recycle. Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t do those things. On the contrary, we should all continue to act in ways that uphold our deepest values, because that is how we self-actualize and make the most out of the time we have left.

Facing a problem as overwhelming as the current climate crisis, many of us feel like a deer in headlights. We’re stuck in a freeze response, knowing we cannot flee (where would we go, if not planet Earth?), and not knowing whom to fight. Even if there were a discreet enemy to take outside and show who’s boss, maybe we’re not the fighting types. Some people are inclined toward activism, confident in their ability to wield the weapons of politics and policy. Others are not. And those in the latter category waste a lot of energy on guilt-ridden hand-wringing, thinking they should be able to go against their nature. Meanwhile, they neglect the actions more suited to their temperaments and specific talents, the fulfillment of which could give more meaning to their lives and better equip them to instill meaning in the lives of others. 

Saint Francois de Sales, a mystical writer from the 16th and 17th centuries known for his goodness, patience, and mildness, said that our requirement as humans is a “faithful fulfillment of the merest trifle given us to do, rather than the most ardent aspiration to things to which we are not called.” He also said that the “dignity and difficulty” of an action only affect what’s termed its “accidental worth, but all its essential worth comes from love alone.” What does it mean to act with love? This is the question we must ask ourselves, the question we must embody every day. The answer will vary from person to person (and possibly from day to day), but in most cases, love imbues activities with a quality of being freely chosen, as opposed to compulsory or nonconsensual. When at all possible, if you cannot do something with love, don’t do it. As for the “merest trifle given us to do,” therein lies our freedom from the fear-borne shackles of climate change. 

“More, more, more” has been our species’ response to the nagging belief that we are not enough — which we usually translate as not having enough and not doing enough. In thinking we should do everything (and all at once, no less!), we accomplish nothing. It may feel like a trifle, in the grand scheme of things, to do the dishes, fold laundry, pick up a piece of trash from the street, write a blog about eco-grief, etc., etc. But if we can approach these things as the tasks we have been given (i.e., as gifts), and do our best to fulfill them faithfully (i.e., with trust in their goodness and importance), then they will assume a sacred quality. With practice, we can approach all of life in this way, and thusly in touch with our most authentic selves, we can effectively pursue our values in accordance with our natural strengths. From that place, we can respond with expertise to the demands of the present moment, which is exactly what the climate crisis asks of us.

There’s only so much you can do. And what you can do will differ from what I can do. Maybe what we end up focusing on has nothing to do with climate change at all, at least on the surface. Regardless of the direction in which we channel our unique efforts, we must detach from the outcome of those efforts. We must do what would feel wrong not to do, with whatever tools we have been given. And all along we must be grateful. Each time I find my mind conjuring apocalyptic scenes in which everything I take for granted is suddenly, violently ripped away, I give thanks for the peace and beauty that still abound. Gratitude is the sweetest antidote to grief.

Mindful Cooking: Brown Rice

In my ideal world, we would all have schedules that allowed us to prioritize cooking. The preparation and sharing of fresh, flavorful, nutritious food would not be a perfunctory chore, but the primary activity on which all other activities centered. In the actual world, I’ll have to be content with inspiring a handful of people to cook just a little more often. That’s what I hope this blog series will do.

I myself have not always enjoyed cooking. I was twenty-five when I realized how satisfying it was to follow a recipe and end up with a beautiful, delicious meal. With this realization came another: I was capable of many great things. All I needed was the right ingredients, the proper tools, and some very precise guidance. Because I could learn how to cook, I could learn how to knit, how to draw (kind of), how to play guitar and write songs, how to be a radio DJ, a psychotherapist, a yoga instructor, and how to write a screenplay. 

Learning how to cook not only boosted my confidence in acquiring other skills, but also — and more importantly — taught me how to be mindful. Cooking gives me the time and space to be present with my Self. Few activities are more meaningful and life-affirming.

I’ve chosen brown rice as the first Mindful Cooking recipe because it’s so essential, and so simple. The opportunity for mindfulness is only about a minute long here, so make the most of it!

Here’s what you’ll need:

a fine mesh strainer

a small pot with a lid 

a cup of long-grain brown rice

2 cups of water

a teaspoon of olive oil 

a half-teaspoon of salt

Instructions

First, rinse the rice in a fine mesh strainer. Here’s your chance to be mindful. Don’t blast the water out of the tap; let it flow relatively slowly for a solid minute as you move the rice around with your fingers. Give all of your attention to the rice, the water, and your fingers. Also notice what’s happening in your neck, back, and shoulders. Notice how you’re breathing.

Turn off the water and let the rice drain for a moment, tipping the strainer in a few different directions until no more water drips from the bottom. 

Transfer the rice to the pot and add the water, oil, and salt. (I like to keep my salt in a small cup for easy measuring.) Stir everything with a fork, lid it, and place it over high heat. Bring it to a boil, then turn the heat down to low. Simmer on low (covered) for 45 minutes. 

While the rice cooks you can take a load off, or you can work on other complementary recipes, like roasted butternut squash or fresh salsa [coming soon].

Remove from heat and keep covered for 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork and serve.

I make at least one pot of this brown rice every week. It’s great in burritos (or burrito bowls) and as a side with salmon and veggies. It’s also a nice addition to certain soups and chilis.