Let me get the obvious out of the way: you are not going to win friends, neighbors with whom you share airspace or small children over with cabbage casserole. It’s beige and gray with traces of drab green. It’s cooked forever, or until whatever vim and vigor may have initially been in the leaves has departed. At best, it’s akin to unstuffed cabbage, which means that it will be comfort food to some but torture to others.
Sara Jenkins is famous for making the Italian roasted pork street food known as porchetta trendy in New York. She’s also known for her way with pasta (and has a new book out with her famed food writer mom celebrating it). She’s had turns at a handful of great Italian restaurants in New York, earning them stars and accolades and has written at length for The Atlantic about Italian food. And almost all I ever want to talk about here? Her salads.
I first discovered the peculiar subcategory of chopped raw vegetables called “health salads” some 14 years ago when a friend introduced me to the many wonders of the prepared foods aisle at Zabar’s. Even then, I found the idea of one type of salad being labeled “healthy” while my other favorite in the same refrigerator case, the Mediterranean Pepper Salad with Feta and Olives was, I don’t know, something akin to a heart attack on a cracker, somewhat eye-rolling but I now realize that it was the coleslaw-like salad’s mayo-free dressing that designated it such a lofty nutritional status.
Last week was not my week in the kitchen, friends. I had great, ambitious designs on a rhubarb meringue tart that would be pink and pretty with a scalloped tart-shell edge and a meringue that looked like piped roses that had toasted petal tips. But as the week went on and as various really non-torments in the greater definition of the word but nonetheless tormenting to me mounted — thin curds, too thick curds, beige (you know, the color of pink rhubarb + multiple yolks) curd, slumped tart shells, wet meringues, useless broilers, blowtorches so close to empty, they emit the useless wisps of sleepy dragons, refill canister AWOL — my enjoyment of the project plummeted. But, because I’d like to teach my kid one day that he should follow through and finish what he started, I did, and lo, it was good, you know? Maybe I’m just not a meringue pie person and I forgot? None of this matters because the finished pie slid off the plate flopping face-down into the open fridge as I tried to put it away and then, as I crouched on the floor in front of the open fridge scooping fistfuls of meringue and curd into a garbage bag and questioning my life choices, my son walked in and asked what I was making for dinner.
Prior to November, what I knew of stuffed cabbage rolls were limited to the Jewish/Eastern European variety, which I make the way my mother-in-law does. I hadn’t given it further thought because as far as I was concerned, it was never broken, and needed little improvement, and when there’s little room for me to tinker in the kitchen, I quickly lose interest. But if I had, it might have occurred to me that cabbage, being one of the ultimate peasant foods, has probably been wrapped around meat that’s been ground and then stretched (always budget-minded, those peasants) with other ingredients and cooked in a sauce in a zillion different ways over the centuries. And oh, the fun we might have been having this whole time.
The inspiration for this slaw is a mango salad I order way too often from a local Thai place in hopes to offset the inevitable damage from the pad Thai I order with it. It has strips of mango, slivers of red pepper, red onion and mint, large toasted cashews and a spicy dressing with a lot of lime in it. It’s always a surprise; sometimes the mango is underripe and sour (which I understand to be more traditional) and sometimes it’s sweet and almost overripe. The best part is that the salad tastes good no matter how the mango arrived that day.
I know that on the surface, peering in from your side of the computer screen, this looks like a pile of shredded cabbage, a poorly lit one (look, it was late, okay?). But from my site, from my seat right here, this is pretty much the best thing ever, a yearly event I like to call First Slaw of the Season.