TO JESS DAMUCK, salad is neither an accompaniment nor an afterthought — and it’s certainly never a boring concession to a restrictive diet. For this dynamic chef, food editor, and stylist, salad is the main event. And Damuck knows how to make salads that deliver on taste and visual appeal. She studied at the French Culinary Institute and worked for years in the test kitchens and on the TV sets of “Martha Stewart Living,” and went on to style for Chrissy Teigen’s “Cravings” and every major food publication.
In her new book “Salad Freak,” Damuck presents 100 recipes for the dish she can’t live without. And though she writes in her introduction that the title started as a joke, Damuck, who lives and works in New York and Los Angeles, also waxes emotional about the acquisition of a salad’s ingredients. She writes earnestly of wandering the farmers’ market for inspiration, “tears building behind my eyes because of the sheer beauty of the gentle blush and deep purple hues of the fleeting winter chicories, gasping at the first sight of bright Sungold tomatoes and remembering their sweetness, eating an entire paper bag full of fresh peas before I get home—that all makes sense to me.”
It makes perfect sense to me too — I buy a second paper bag of peas to reserve for cooking only, and my best friend teases me about my penchant for “night salad,” a cherished midnight snack of raw baby kale or tatsoi doused in ume vinegar. So it is with eager anticipation that I welcomed this book. The breadth of recipes within — in other words, Damuck’s expansive take on what salad can be — is delightful. The book is not devoted to a particular diet. It isn’t vegetarian or vegan, for example, but it is a cheerfully vegetable-forward volume that extols the pleasures of relatively clean eating. And the photography is mouthwatering.
For the aspiring salad freak, the building blocks of a good salad are laid out in detail: the vinegars, oils, beans, grains, seeds, nuts, spices, citrus, and dairy products you ought to consider keeping on hand. Damuck sprinkles tips throughout too, like a reminder to buy avocado oil (a great neutral oil for dressings) in small bottles, as it goes rancid quickly. She moves on to an overview of the best kitchen tools for salad success, and even includes a short section on “Music to Make Salads By,” complete with a list of albums she loves to cook to and a QR code that brings the reader to Damuck’s Spotify account, where she posts monthly playlists. (I’m listening to “MARCH 2022: Salad Freakin’” while I write this.)
Finally, the reader arrives at the salads, divided by season, and they start with a bang: pretty winter salads with orange or grapefruit, like “Citrus Breakfast Salad With Spicy Chile Granola,” a recipe Damuck invented on a solo writing retreat in California’s Russian River Valley. It can be made with blood oranges, mandarins, or Cara Cara oranges — my favorites — and is topped with a dollop of sheep’s milk yogurt. Other recipes include a crispy panko-crusted chicken salad topped with cabbage, scallions, mandarins, and mint, and dressed with a “citrusy ginger vinaigrette”; a “Caesar Salad Pizza” topped with escarole, garlic, lemon, parmesan, and boquerones; and an “Immunity Salad,” a combination of spinach, fennel, and grapefruit dotted with medallions of roasted beets and sweet potatoes.
The other seasons are equally tantalizing. Spring brings “Roasted Salmon With Pistachios and Pea Tendrils,” “Lamb Meatballs With Cucumber and Herbs,” and “Martha’s Mango and Mozzarella With Young Lettuces.” (Yes, that Martha.) Summer boasts beautiful surprises, like “Rhubarb and Strawberries With Toasted Buckwheat and Salted Honeycomb” (accompanied by one of the most stunning images in the book, which is really saying something), “Yellow Gazpacho” (“the salad of soups”), and “Simply Tomatoes and Nasturtiums.” And fall delivers comfort in the form of “Roasted Grapes, Endive, and Ricotta Salata,” a “Kale Caesar,” “Kabocha Squash With Herbs and Cabbage,” and many more.
Each chapter is a celebration of the bounty of the season. And many of the recipes are straightforward — a reminder that cooking needn’t be fussy when you’re working with quality, in-season ingredients. To me, the best part of “Salad Freak” (besides the actual recipes, obviously) is Damuck’s gentle insistence on the joy of preparing food with intention. In a food-media landscape that is competitive, bright, and loud, that prioritizes tricks, workarounds, and “hacks,” it is rewarding to encounter a chef who embraces the care required to make fresh, balanced, nourishing dishes. Damuck does not promise that it’s always simple or that her recipes will take under 30 minutes (although some will), but rather that cooking, preparing, and assembling a meal can be a kind of mindfulness practice: salad as self-care. That, too, makes sense to me.
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Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a writer and editor based in Oakland, California. She is the author of “Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.
Linda Pugliese Photographer
Linda Pugliese is a travel, food, and still life photographer based in New York City. Her work has been published internationally in magazines, catalogs, advertisements, and books. Originally from Annapolis, Maryland, Linda grew up surrounded by sailboats, shorelines, and crabs covered in Old Bay seasoning. She is happiest living out of a suitcase in the mountains near the sea.