When someone says salad, your first thought is probably a bunch of leaves, like lettuce or spinach or kale, plus some other stuff, and a dressing. Here’s the thing about the word “salad”: it means nothing. It doesn’t mean something cold; it doesn’t mean something raw; it doesn’t mean something with lots of different ingredients; it doesn’t mean something vegetable-based; and it CERTAINLY doesn’t mean a pile of leaves.
Leaves, even the stronger-tasting ones, are filler. No one has ever once thought, “Dang, this salad is good, but it’d be more good with more lettuce in it.” This idea of a leafy salad is perpetuated by make-your-own-salad joints that ask you to pick which kind of leaves you want. Do you want the spinach? How about the baby spring mix? Have you ever said “no leaves, thanks?” THIS WILL FLUMMOX MOST SALAD-MAKERS.
But there are a lot of reasons to ban leaves from salads! They go bad quickly, forcing you to consistently throw out half of each bag of salad greens you buy; they wilt even once they’re in the salad; they cannot be kept as leftovers, ever, since they rapidly turn into slimy organic compost. Also, making your salad consist of anywhere from thirty to sixty per cent leaves really limits your creativity. So let us forgo leaves. Let us not require our salads to rely on our least-favorite ingredient. Let us shape our own salad destiny.
Here are some good leaf-free summer salads.
1. Some version of a som tam salad.
Som tam is a Thai salad consisting of green, unripe papaya as its base. Other essential ingredients include peanuts and a lime/fish sauce dressing. Here is a good recipe. But it, like all salad recipes, is flexible. If you can’t find green papaya (I usually cannot!), you can substitute pretty much anything that’s crunchy and mild. Cucumber, zucchini, summer squash, sugar snap peas, and green beans all work very well when raw or very lightly cooked. You can substitute brown sugar for palm sugar, sambal oelek for fresh chili, and omit the dried shrimp if you can’t find any. The dressing — savory from the fish sauce, tart from the lime juice, sweet from the sugar, and spicy from the chili — is PERFECT. It can be hard to go back to vinaigrettes after you’ve made it. Note: this can also be done as a stir-fry (AKA “hot salad”): stir-fry some garlic, ginger, scallions, and chili in the bottom of a wok, add peanuts, then add in whatever (non-cucumber/mango) vegetable you’re using. Top with the same dressing.
2. Israeli salad
Israeli salad can and should only be made in the summertime, when you can get good tomatoes. Do not make this with bad tomatoes! If you do you’ll eat it and be like “IDK that was fine, I guess.” At its core, it is very simple: chopped tomato, cucumber, red onion, and parsley, with lemon juice and olive oil. But you can add lots of things to it: chickpeas for protein or feta cheese for salt and creaminess or bits of toasted pita chips for more crunch are both very good. This recipe recommends adding sumac. I’ve never done that, but sumac is good as heck; maybe I’ll try it and maybe you should too.
3. Non-leaf Caesar salad
Caesar salad is, like, really delicious, if it’s done right. That anchovy-mustardy-lemony dressing is pretty amazing. So don’t ruin it by dumping it on some dumb Romaine lettuce that can never really appreciate its charms. Caesars are great with pretty much any raw vegetable, but right now is asparagus season, so let’s do that! Here’s a good recipe.
4. Potato salad
I like the supermarket jugs of near-mashed mayo-y picnic salads as much as anyone, and I appreciate that potato salad has no leaves, but I think — as with coleslaw — that a vinegar-based dressing makes for a better, more refreshing, less-likely-to-make-you-feel-like-you’re-gonna-ralph salad than mayonnaise. Mark Bittman has a good recipe for a potato salad with a mustard vinaigrette, which I have tried and which is excellent. This salad is also good with pickled red onion/shallot.
5. Celeriac remoulade
This is a Jurassic-era French recipe, the kind of thing Julia Child would make and that I feel like you’d have a hard time finding in Paris today. I first had it in Montreal, where they still serve a lot of these old-ass uncool French dishes, and MAN IT IS DELICIOUS. Celeriac, or celery root, is the, um, root of the celery plant. It looks like a dumb idiot gnarled cancerous root system, but if you cut away all that nonsense and peel it, it turns out to be this fragrant delicious root vegetable that’s reminiscent of, but not quite like, celery. Celeriac remoulade calls for raw, grated celeriac, plus a very sour mayonnaise (the sourness coming from mustard and lemon juice). It’s kind of like French coleslaw! Here’s a good recipe.
6. Fruit salad
I LOVE FRUIT SALAD. Never ever buy a fruit salad. Always make your own fruit salad. If you make your own fruit salad, you will never again eat cantaloupe or honeydew with the flavor and texture of a raw Idaho potato. You are garbage, prepackaged fruit salad melon! Get in the garbage! Anyway, the key to fruit salad is to not be lazy. Don’t put a segment of orange or grapefruit in there with the pith or skin still on it. Supreme your citrus. Do not put whole strawberries in there; trim and slice them. Fruit salad should have a dressing, and it should have fresh herbs, like chopped-up basil and/or mint. Always. It’s also good to squeeze a little bit of lime juice and maybe some honey over the top to add some extra kick. As for ingredients, I don’t care, add literally whatever you want, but try to have a variety of flavors and textures. If you have something sweet and soft, like a banana, try to add something crunchy and tart, like a Granny Smith apple. Also, avocado is a fruit. Add it to fruit salad! Especially if you have grapefruit in there too.
7. Chana chaat
Chana chaat is an Indian chickpea salad, although I don’t think they refer to it as a salad? it seems like a salad to me. Anyway, chana chaat is basically chickpeas with a dressing, often with tamarind. This recipe is pretty good, although obviously you can use canned chickpeas and cumin powder (instead of toasting and grinding whole cumin seeds). Sure, it’d be better if you made your own chaat masala spice blend with whole spices and sure it’d be better if you used asafoetida (a spice which smells like actual poop), but, like, you don’t need to. Mostly this salad is about the chickpeas and the tamarind dressing, which is spicy and sour and sweet all at once. (Tamarind paste can be found in Indian and Mexican markets or Whole Foods, obvs.) I’d recommend adding a few things to this recipe (not leaves!), like sliced radish or cucumber or carrot or cauliflower for some crunch, and maybe some boiled potatoes because potatoes are good.
Armed with these recipes you can go forth and ENJOY your salad, rather than just eating it because it’s salad and you’re supposed to eat it to look thin and beautiful even though it looks and tastes like something you raked up. Eat good salads! Leave Leaves Behind!
Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer/editor who lives in Brooklyn. He has serious opinions about the MTV Real World/Road Rules Challenge.