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Salad Freak

by Jess Damuck (Abrams, 2022)

Salad freak? Not quite — but I am salad fan. Sadly though, my salads tend to be haphazard affairs, thrown together from whatever is in the crisper drawer of the fridge. I don’t like bottled dressings, so I am stuck in an oil and vinegar rut. I badly need to up my salad game.

Enter Jess Damuck, whose salads are anything but lame. They are, in her own words, intentional – made with consideration and plated with care. Salad, she says, “shouldn’t get stuck being an afterthought.”

Fresh out of culinary school, Damuck worked as an intern for Martha Stewart Living, with one of her duties making office lunches for Martha. Coming up with dishes that were light, healthy and delicious led her to create a whole gamut of salads based on whatever was available in the greenmarket at a particular time of year. There are more than a hundred recipes in the book, some as simple as shredded carrots with a sprightly vinaigrette, others, such as Lamb Meatballs with Cucumbers and Herbs and Panko Crusted Chicken Salad, are substantial enough to be a meal in themselves.

Damuck’s definition of a salad is broad – there are breakfast salads, side salads and salads designed to be the main event. Not many involve lettuce. Citrus and chicories star in winter salads, spring brings asparagus and peas, summer features peaches, melons, zucchini, tomatoes, and fall squash, kale and cabbage. And all of them are gorgeously plated and photographed (see the book cover – not the images in this review, which are mine.

Damuck urges us to see salad prep as a form of mindfulness – paying attention to the colour and quality of ingredients, and handling each with care. She offers a list of pantry items to have on hand (a selection of different vinegars, oils, condiments, etc) and in the fridge (fresh herbs, citrus, dairy), plus a few essential tools (salad spinner, julienne peeler, microplane, etc) that will make the work easier. There is a section on choosing, washing and storing fresh produce, and even a playlist to listen to in the kitchen.

I began testing recipes with the very simple Carrots for Lauryn, which calls for just four ingredients, plus salt and pepper. It is the lemon-grainy mustard dressing that lifts this salad up, and the julienne peeler produced a very pretty tangle of carrots. I used mint instead of parsley, which in my garden was still too tiny to pick, and I think almost any soft herb would work just as well. This is a company-worthy salad you can make at a moment’s notice.

Two more very easy salads also punched above their weight. Simple Egg Salad with Lots of Dill is elevated not only by the generous use of fresh dill, but also by the trick of discarding two whites from the eight hardboiled eggs called for. This renders the salad luxuriously creamy without the need to dilute the eggy flavour with more mayo.

Mandarins and Cream – billed as breakfast, a side salad or a decadent snack – is an inspired paring of sweet citrus with creamy, slightly salty burrata (cream-filled fresh mozzarella) providing the dairy component. Topped with drizzle of fruity olive oil this is so good it deserves to be eaten on its own. New Year’s Eve Citrus, Avocado and Little Radish Salad, with its vibrant mix of colours and contrasting textures, is both stunning to look at and delightful to eat.

Moving on to more involved recipes, Roasted Cauliflower with Almonds, Anchovies and Herbs was deemed delicious by my tasters. The recipe is included here and I recommend that you do add the optional dates. The little bit of sweetness rounds out the flavour profile of the salad perfectly. And this is one you can make ahead — handy if you are entertaining.

BLT Salad deconstructs the much-loved sandwich, with baby potatoes cloaked in a creamy dressing taking the place of bread and mayo. Here we also learn a neat way to cook bacon — Snoop Dogg style. Snoop is a friend of Martha’s and apparently no slouch in the kitchen. Damuck recounts how shocked she was seeing him dump a whole pound of bacon into a skillet and cook it all at once, just swirling it occasionally with a pair of tongs. Drained on a plate lined with paper towel, the bacon sizzled in its own fat is super crispy and curly. Like Damuck, from here on I don’t plan to cook it any other way.

California Wedge is an updated version of the steakhouse classic with feta replacing blue cheese and instead of the usual ranch, a green goddess dressing takes it in a fresh new direction. With just one head of iceberg and Damuck’s clever recipe (more Snoop-style bacon!), I made a satisfying light dinner for four on a night when it was too hot to cook and all we wanted to eat was something crisp, cool and refreshing.

Salad Freak is a secret weapon. With it you can whip up something simple that will add pizzazz to a weeknight meal, or make a salad that is the meal itself, or spend time creating something really special for when you want to impress. Damuck shows how a few tweaks can make all the difference in presentation, making food look fabulous with a minimum of fuss. She stresses the importance of making your own dressings, even if it is just by adding fresh lemon juice to mayonnaise. At the back of the book there is a handy index of dressings organized by style (tangy, creamy, briny, floral, herbaceous, etc) plus a formula for making your own from a mix and match menu of acids, oils and extras. There are recipes for making your own ricotta, focaccia, chili crisp, pickles and other finishing touches. So once you get the knack for making salads the Damuck way, you can riff and become your own kind of Freak, with confidence and style.


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