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Die, Vegetables, Die!

My mother is a fantastic writer and editor, types 90 words a minute with her eyes closed, can sew, and play piano, and sing Handel’s Messiah, and is not the greatest cook. There have been two culinary masterpieces in her cooking repertoire. One was fresh baked bread (which was from a New York Times cookbook recipe), loaves of which came from the oven squat and dense like a sumo wrestler hunched to take you down, but which were still delicious when hot and slathered with butter. The second was—and still is—what I think of when I think of comfort: potato-onion soup. My mother’s recipe was basically this: cut up potatoes and onions and put in a pot of water to boil. Add butter and salt and serve. When you are sick, this is possibly the greatest thing ever, especially when placed on a tray and put on your chest mere inches from your mouth and nose so you can slurp up the broth and fumes with little effort. Over the years as my foodie genes matured I altered and elevated the recipe, adding different kinds of onions, reducing the butter, adding a dash of milk and herbs.  Mom was good with butter. Note the absence of green stuff.

My earliest memory of Mom’s vegetable cooking involved cans of peas and carrots, cooked to within an inch of their lives so that they both turned a grey-green hue and the only way to tell the difference between them was that the peas were the round ones, the carrots blunt-edged cubes.  My mom grew up in an orphanage in Tennessee in the 1940’s in an era just following the Great Depression, and although they had a garden, parboiling was not a skill utilized by cooks feeding a hundred kids; quantity was revered over quality. Mom learned at an early age, I think, that cooking is a punishment for food—that you needed to teach those dang veggies who was boss, and reduce them to mush, and get as much out of them as you can. She told me that every meal at the orphanage consisted of a side of stewed tomatoes, and to this day she can’t eat spaghetti because marinara sauce reminds her of those meals. When she speaks of her kitchen duties at the orphanage I would picture those amazing, ripe tomatoes (likely deliciously sweet when raw, farmed without pesticides)—bushels and bushels of them—which she and some other kids would have to cut up into great vats which would be put on burners to boil, and I mourn. Oddly, I have loved tomatoes since birth.

Tomatoes, as my mom used them when feeding me, were the decoration on a bowl of greens, with a carrot cut up into coins. I thought this was what a salad was growing up—boring, boring, boring.  It was a dish served with “You have to” preceding it. And the only lettuce she served was green leaf lettuce. When I was old enough to insist, I demanded iceberg—the Styrofoam of lettuce—crunchy and flavorless so as not to impede the flavor of dressing I doused over it. As with all veggies, I thought sauce was key—dressing, cheese, hollandaise—anything fattening. I did not even try to detect the flavor of the vegetables when growing up; I didn’t think there was any point. This was the 1970’s, and if Mom was making cooked veggies, they were generally boiled, and either came from a can or—miracle of miracles—frozen “fresh,” so that you could murder them of any flavor at home. Frozen broccoli was boiled until limp and dead, the florets floating atop the cooking water in surrender. A rectangular block of mustard greens, dumped in a pot, the ice letting off steaming tendrils as it melted down. Once during a canned food drive at school I was shocked and horrified to realize we had almost twenty cans of wax beans in the cabinet, labels showing a legume colored like aged parchment. Why, I asked her, did we have so many wax beans? There was a sale, of course. The orphanage had taught Mom well: You were supposed to eat vegetables, and it was supposed to be painful. They were like medicine. Hold your nose and don’t look and swallow!

So I’m not surprised it took me many years to broaden my definition of what a salad was (and to understand that almost no vegetable deserves to be boiled to stew) and to learn to confront my fear of strange greens in the grocery aisle, to look them in the eye with all their stiff leaves and crannies and their bitterness and strengths, and to—finally, fall in love. To love arugula’s peppery flavor, romaine’s crunch, endive’s pale haughtiness, and finally—to fall deeply and darkly for kale. I am grateful to great restaurants for helping me become the salad maker I am today; I stole and modified left and right, and have gone so far beyond that bowl of lettuce with the carrot coins that my Writer’s group designated me as “salad bringer” many years back.

Here are a few salad favorites. Note the iceberg has missed the boat.


Grapefruit and Greens with Goat Cheese Dressing


4 cups maché (or watercress, or spinach, or arugula…)

1 grapefruit, segments removed, juice squeezed from pith (see note)

½ cup thinly sliced red onion

½ cup olive oil

2 Tbsp red wine vinegar

1 tsp dried thyme

2 Tbsp soft goat cheese

Fresh ground black pepper


            Take the grapefruit and, using a serrated knife, cut the bottom and top ends off. Sit the grapefruit on one flat end and carefully slice off the rind until you have a glistening ball of fruit. Working over a small bowl, take the knife and slip it between the segments and the membranes, working your way around until each segment has been freed and dropped into your bowl.

            In a separate small dish, squeeze any remaining juice from the grapefruit; this will be the base for your dressing. (Remember that with vinaigrettes you can always adjust taste and consistency to suit your palate, and since the amount of juice may vary you may need to add or subtract vinegar or olive oil.) Add the olive oil, vinegar, dried thyme and goat cheese and whisk with a small fork until the goat cheese has broken down. Salt and pepper to taste.

            Slice your red onion thinly, then toss with greens and some of the dressing (start with about half—you can always add more, but it’s hard to undress a salad that’s been dunked). Add the grapefruit segments, and toss again. Eat!



Kale and Beet Salad with Miso-Harissa Dressing

Thanks to Liz Miller Gershfeld, who served a version of this to me and I could not. Stop. Craving it! She did hers without the currents, and used lemon juice in the dressing—I’ve also added orange juice because I love the flavor with beets. I think any citrus would work well—try lime. I use red miso, but try white too.  Try adding pieces of citrus fruit, different color beets, or use grapefruit instead of orange. The whole point is to experiment so you can get comfortable whipping up a great salad without a recipe. Take it from me: make this salad and people will go: Kale? Really? Can I have the recipe?

1-2 bunches curly kale, washed (See Kale Prep)

4 beets, roasted and sliced (see Beet Prep)

¼ cup slivered or sliced almonds, roasted or raw

¼ cup dried currants or raisins

Optional- ½ cup orange segments or canned mandarin oranges, drained


1 Tbsp Red Miso Paste

1 scant Tbsp Harrisa paste (Get this at a Middle Eastern grocery—look for the cans that say it’s from Tunisia, which ensures it’s made with Pili Pili peppers, and be warned—it can be pretty spicy and a little goes a long way.)

1/3 cup fresh squeezed orange juice and lemon juice (about half an orange, 1 lemon)

1/3 cup-1/2 cup olive oil


Fresh ground Black Pepper


         Combine miso paste, harrissa paste, juices and olive oil and whisk until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste and adjust oil/juice ratio to taste.

         Take your cleaned, dried kale and tear into pieces. Place into large prep bowl. If the fibrous stem makes you nervous, just rip free the leafy parts and ditch the stem. Add about 1/3 or half of the dressing to the bowl and, with clean hands, massage the dressing into the kale. Don’t be afraid to squeeze and rub—really, kale can handle it, and the more you massage, the softer it gets. Enjoy the bonding time, and work out your aggressions for 3-5 minutes until the leaves feel softer and look shiny.

         Add the sliced beets, half the almonds and currants and a bit more dressing—if needed—then toss. Sprinkle remaining almonds and currants on top and serve.

Beet Prep: Clean and scrub your beets but leave skins on; wrap in foil and roast in a 375 degree oven for about 45 minutes. Let cool in the foil for about twenty minutes, then remove foil. Beets should still be warm, but not too hot too handle. At this point just squeeze the skins and you can slip them right off, then slice.

Kale Prep:  Yes, kale requires a bit of attention. Some folks are really anal about washing it due to the nooks and crannies that may hold dirt and e coli. I’m more the type of person who thinks we don’t eat enough dirt, so I mainly inspect and wash as needed. If you are not like me, I suggest running leaves under cold water and rubbing near the stems with your fingers, then lay on paper towels to dry and even rub with paper towels to ensure all the water is out. Or buy prepped kale, but here’s the thing—kale is cheap as heck if you do your own washing.

            Here’s the other thing about kale. Kale is chock full of fiber, which is great for you, but makes it a bit tougher than many greens, so most kale salads either require you to massage the kale with a bit of citrus dressing, or lightly stir fry it. Take your pick here. I’ll give instructions for the massage to keep this meal a raw one, but if you want to keep your hands clean, very lightly oil a wok or large skillet with canola oil and heat to medium-low, then add torn pieces of cleaned kale and gently stir fry until kale is shiny and slightly wilted, about five minutes. Let cool then add dressing and ingredients. Both methods yield a delicious and healthy meal.

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