’m not a fan of restrictive diets. To my mind the healthiest way to eat is omnivorously, unless there’s a physiological necessity to avoid certain foods. I subscribe to author Michael Pollen’s simple but solidly researched credo: eat food, not too much, mostly plants.
And I do like vegetables, a lot. Saladish, by chef Ilene Rosen with the help of food writer Donna Gelb, is full of refreshing and interesting ideas for A Crunchier, Grainer, Herbier, Heartier, Tastier Way with Vegetables. Rosen doesn’t preach or try and limit our dietary choices but, by taking an inventive approach to the use of vegetables and rethinking the notion of salad, presents an opportunity to broaden them.
Rosen is both a chef and owner of a specialty food store in Brooklyn, New York. Saladish draws on her previous 15-year experience as savoury chef at City Bakery, a legendary eatery in the Flatiron district. Given free reign in the kitchen and close proximity to The Union Square Greenmarket, Chinatown and an international range of grocery stores, Rosen let her creativity fly. With a focus on fresh produce and hearty grains and beans, and unfettered by culinary conventions, she developed recipes she describes as “like a salad, yet so much more.” Many, but not all, are vegetarian (animal products appear here and there in small amounts, used primarily as seasoning), some are substantial enough to make a meal, others are designed to be used in combination with other salads, or to serve as sides.
You’ll need to do some specialist shopping before you start cooking. Rosen relies on a global pantry of full-flavoured ingredients to provide the zing that garnered her City Bakery salad bar a cult following. A pantry chapter outlines key ingredients, both familiar (vinegars, oils, beans…) and less so (yuzu kosho, gochugaru, schichimi togarashi…) and sourcing information is provided in the back of the book. I was able to round up everything I needed for the first five recipes I planned to test, with trips to an Asian supermarket, a Middle Eastern grocery and my local branch of Bulk Barn.
You’ll also need to read the recipe all the way through and plan your cooking, as many dishes involve one or more sub-recipes. Sweet Potatoes and Chickpeas, Bhel Puri Style, for example, required me to make a tamarind dressing and a fresh onion and herb chutney, in addition to roasting sweet potatoes, toasting coconut and assembling the salad. The effort was worthwhile, the end result coming together in a satisfying and delicious harmony of textures and tastes. The raw onion chutney was too harsh for my liking — next time I’ll soak the onions in water to reduce their bite – but other than that, this recipe is a keeper. I served it to carnivores as a main course, with nary a squeak about the lack of meat. The leftovers tasted even better the next day.
The recipes in Saladish are arranged by season, making use of vegetables that are at their best when locally sourced, but most of the dishes can also be made year-round. Clever combinations of ingredients and the use of boldly flavoured condiments will brighten even supermarket produce if that’s all you have access to at certain times of year.
In a chapter called The Saladish Manifesto, Rosen explains the key principles at work in her dishes, stressing the importance of fresh ingredients and building contrast in texture (toothsome, fluffy, crunchy, crisp, hefty) and flavour (richness, sharpness, sweetness, saltiness, spiciness). Once you’ve grasped these fundamentals, you have a template for developing your own creative dishes. Rosen has a seemingly innate ability to find quirky combinations that have a natural complementarity, ingredient relationships that had me wondering – why didn’t anyone else think of that? Sections titled Choose Your Style give suggestions for altering the flavour profile of a dish (such as kale salad, roasted Japanese eggplants, mini tomatoes, Brussels sprouts) by swapping out some components. Taking these variations into account, along with instructions for making many condiments, pickles, dips and dressings, Saladish contains many more than the 85 recipes promised.
After the quite complex Sweet Potato recipe, Toasty Broccoli with Curry Leaves and Coconut was simple to prepare. Fresh curry leaves are fried in vegetable oil until crisp, and set aside. The flavoured oil is then use to fry the coconut chips and season the broccoli before it is roasted in the oven. Toasted chips and curry leaves come back as a garnish. A clever recipe – easy peasy and really tasty. I’ll save you bother of weighing out half an ounce of curry leaves – a loosely packed cup is what you’ll need.
A salad of Israeli couscous shot through with sautéed alliums (spring onion, leek, garlic scape), scattered with cashews and doused with a watercress dressing was an unusual but delicious way to showcase these harbingers of spring. I know what I’ll do when ramps show up in my garden. I also learned from this recipe that toasting the couscous helps the grains stay firm once they are dressed. There are tips like this that will make you a better cook, sprinkled throughout Saladish.
Another measuring niggle with the recipe for Vietnamese-Style Tofu Salad. The tofu soaks in a spicy marinade that calls for mirin, sambal oelek, rice vinegar, tamari, honey and 4 1/2 teaspoons of vegetable oil. The difference a half teaspoon of oil makes in a marinade is negligible. Silly measurements like this are often the result of scaling down a catering-size recipe purely by the numbers. But the tofu – roasted in a hot oven until crisp-edged — and tossed with a homemade pickle of carrot and daikon, was delicious.
One of the reasons I love to cook is that there is always something new to learn. Like Yotam Ottolenghi, Rosen has changed the way I think about salads and vegetables, bringing them in from the sidelines and making them the main focus of vibrant, healthy meals. While Ottolenghi draws on his Middle Eastern heritage for inspiration, Rosen goes wherever flavour is to be found. The ingredients for Tofu Shirataki Noodles with Thai Basil Pesto are waiting in my fridge. I’m planning to cook this book from start to finish.