A blog post about salad? On a therapy website?
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
- 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.
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.
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.
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 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 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.
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.