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Featured on the cover of Jess Damuck’s buzzy new cookbook, Salad Freak, is a plate of satsuma mandarin segments topped with oozy burrata and yellow-green olive oil. To the ordinary cook, a jumble of fruit and cheese may not register as salad—but to Damuck, it epitomizes what salad should be.
Like Plato contemplating the chair or the table, Damuck has spent years asking herself what makes a salad a salad. Her conclusion? There are no hard-and-fast rules: Salad for breakfast, lunch, and dinner is fair game; so are salad-topped pizzas, egg salad sandwiches, and gazpacho. We sat down with Damuck to learn how she freed herself from salad orthodoxy—and how the rest of us might do the same.
SAVEUR: You write, “It’s easy to get lost in making a salad if you let yourself.” Explain.
Damuck: I experience cooking burnout as much as everybody else. But If i can throw something together from the fridge, it’s going to feel 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 zone out, I notice how beautiful the vegetables are. I appreciate what I’m eating more. I’ve been searching forever for the right meditation or yoga practice, but if I prepare and eat my food mindfully, that can be soothing and relaxing enough.
In the book, you share styling tips that make salads really pop on the plate. What are a few you keep coming back to?
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received about food styling came from Jonathan Lovekin, who shot all of Ottolenghi’s books. He saw I was nervously fussing with the food trying to get it to look perfect, and he said, “Back away!” And he was right: However the food falls, that’s how it’s usually prettiest.
I also think a lot about shapes and colors in a salad. I choose these deliberately. But beyond visuals, there’s mouthfeel, there’s texture. Think about how you want to cut each ingredient. If a cucumber is sliced on the bias, it may look great, but maybe what you want is more of a crunch.
Other details that only take a second but make a world of difference are having plenty of fresh herbs on hand to garnish and add freshness, and swooshing a bit of dressing around the side of the bowl. I can’t help it—it looks so much nicer than a blob.
What salad ingredients are you stoked about right now?
I recently went to Gem restaurant in New York City. The chef, Flynn McGarry, is 23, and he made, like, four dishes with lovage. Lovage! No highly trained, 50-something chef would do something like that: 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 green, leafy herb a lot since that meal.
Chili crisp and salsa macha have also made their way onto everything I’m eating lately, and tomatoes have not escaped that. The heat and warmth and crunch take vegetables to the next level.
Are there essential tools every cook should have on hand for salad making?
People always ask me, “Do I really need a salad spinner?” And the answer is yes. I find washing lettuce relaxing sometimes, but there’s only so much time in the day. Dressing won’t adhere to wet leaves.
Another thing I’ve come to love is the OXO produce keeper. I try to wash lettuces and greens as soon as I’m home from the farmers market, and they last forever in that thing. It also keeps stuff from getting squished, which happens a lot in my packed fridge.
Lastly, I use my Japanese mandolin often. It’s great for making cucumber matchsticks or carrot ribbons. It can be scary at first, but you don’t have to go fast. Build up confidence and familiarity first. You’ll probably slice your finger at some point, but don’t be afraid to go back and use it again.
You cut your teeth in the food world working under Martha Stewart. What was that like?
As an intern, I was responsible for making Martha lunch. It was pretty stressful. I called it the three-hour salad because I’d spend half my day figuring out what to make. She wanted “clean,” fresh food, and something different every day. Everything became a salad. My brain became a filing cabinet of her preferences. I always enjoyed hyperlocal and seasonal food, but this idea of a one-bowl complete meal really developed during that time. I was eating her leftovers—and feeling great, feeling healthy.
Are there aspects of Martha’s vision that you chose to reject or deviate from?
Perfection is Martha’s style. Specific china for every event. Cookies cut to precise dimensions. I had to let go of that level of attention to detail. It didn’t feel like home but rather like a wedding—beautiful, special, amazing—but not comfortable. People don’t feel cozy with three forks beside their plate. So instead of worrying about those things, I think about other details: the playlist, the lighting, the right mix of people. It’s not aspirational. It’s real.
Last question. Imagine you’re flying economy and you’re faced with that dreaded plastic container filled with iceberg lettuce. The dressing is a squirt packet of ranch. What do you do?
Oh jeez. First off, I guess I’d ask if they have any olive oil and vinegar. I don’t do it all the time, but I like to pack my own meals or at the very least keep some good sea salt in my bag. It makes anything taste better. I try not to be too much of a snob, but one thing I avoid at all costs is the orange-styrofoam tomato. I’d push that to the side, because it’s a crime against humanity, and eat the salad, I guess. Sometimes you’re just hungry!