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Featured on the cover of Jess Damuck’s new cookbook, Salad Monster, is a plate of satsuma mandarin segments topped with gooey burrata and yellow-green olive oil. For the average cook, a jumble of fruit and cheese may not be considered a salad, but for Damuck, it epitomizes what a salad should be.
Like Plato contemplating the chair or the table, Damuck spent years wondering what makes a salad a salad. His conclusion? There are no hard and fast rules: salad for breakfast, lunch and dinner is fair game; the same goes for salad-topped pizzas, egg salad sandwiches, and gazpacho. We sat down with Damuck to find out how she broke free from salad orthodoxy and how we could do the same.
FLAVOR: You write, “It’s easy to get lost making a salad if you indulge in it. Explain.
Damuck: I experience as much culinary exhaustion as everyone else. But if I can prepare something from the fridge, it will be better than ordering takeout. When I follow my own advice and slow down for a minute, you know, to wash a head of lettuce and walk away, I notice how beautiful the vegetables look. I enjoy more what I eat. I’ve always looked for the right meditation or yoga practice, but if I prepare and eat mindfully, it can be soothing and relaxing enough.
In the book, you share styling tips that really make salads stand out on the plate. Which ones do you keep coming back to?
One of the best tips I’ve ever received on food styling came from Jonathan Lovekin, who photographed all of Ottolenghi’s books. He saw me nervously busying myself with the food trying to make it perfect, and he said, “Stand back! And he was right: however food falls, that’s how it usually looks best.
I also think a lot about shapes and colors in a salad. I choose them deliberately. But beyond the visuals, there’s the mouthfeel, there’s the texture. Think about how you want to cut each ingredient. If a cucumber is sliced at an angle it might look great, but maybe what you want is more of a crunch.
Other details that only take a second but make all the difference are having plenty of fresh herbs on hand to garnish and add freshness, and pouring a little dressing down the side of the bowl. . I can’t help it – it looks so much prettier than a blob.
Which salad ingredients are you raving about right now?
I recently went to the Gem restaurant in New York. The chef, Flynn McGarry, is 23 years old and he made like four dishes with lovage. Lovage! No highly skilled chef in their 50s would do something like this: lovage has a super intense celery flavor and doesn’t go with everything. But it was great to rediscover, and I’ve been using the leafy green grass a lot since that meal.
Crispy chili and salsa macha have also made their way into everything I eat lately, and tomatoes have been no exception. Heat, heat and crunch take veggies to the next level.
Are there any essential tools every cook should have on hand when preparing a salad?
People always ask me, “Do I really need a salad spinner?” And the answer is yes. Sometimes I find it relaxing to wash the lettuce, but there’s not a lot of time in the day. The dressing does not adhere to wet sheets.
Another thing I’ve come to love is the OXO Product Keeper. I try to wash lettuces and greens as soon as I get home from the farmer’s market, and they last forever in this stuff. It also prevents things from being crushed, which often happens in my packed fridge.
Finally, I often use my Japanese mandolin. It is ideal for making cucumber matchsticks or carrot ribbons. It can be scary at first, but you don’t have to go fast. Build trust and familiarity first. You’ll probably cut your finger at some point, but don’t be afraid to go back and use it again.
You made your debut in the restaurant world under the direction of Martha Stewart. How was it?
As an intern, I was responsible for preparing Martha’s lunch. It was quite stressful. I called it the three hour salad because I spent half my day figuring out what to do. She wanted “clean”, fresh food and something different every day. Everything has become a salad. My brain has become a filing cabinet of his preferences. I’ve always loved hyperlocal and seasonal food, but this idea of a complete one-bowl meal really took off around this time. I ate his leftovers and felt good, healthy.
Are there aspects of Martha’s vision that you have chosen to reject or deviate from?
Perfection is Martha’s style. Specific porcelain for each event. Cookies cut to precise dimensions. I had to let go of that level of attention to detail. It wasn’t like home but more like a wedding – beautiful, special, amazing – but not comfortable. People don’t feel comfortable with three forks next to their plate. So instead of worrying about those things, I think about other details: the playlist, the lighting, the right mix of people. It is not an aspiration. It’s true.
Last question. Imagine flying economy class and being confronted with that dreaded plastic container full of iceberg lettuce. The dressing is a packet of ranch squirt. What are you doing?
Oh shit. First, I guess I would ask if they have olive oil and vinegar. I don’t do it all the time, but I like to cook my own meals or at least keep some good sea salt in my bag. It makes everything taste better. I try not to be too snobbish, but one thing I avoid at all costs is orange polystyrene tomatoes. I’d put that aside, because it’s a crime against humanity, and I’d eat the salad, I guess. Sometimes you’re just hungry!