Given my druthers, a word I’ve been looking for an excuse to type in a sentence for at least eight years, I would never choose a salad with lettuce in it over one that’s mostly shaved or shredded raw vegetables. I mean, lettuce — the dewy, freshly-plucked-from-the-earth stuff that spends a couple months a year gracing local farmer’s markets — can be absolutely delicious, but nine times out of ten, the same word is used to refer to that packaged stuff that doesn’t taste like a whole lot. And can we talk for just a second about that prematurely rotten red leaf that no bag of mesclun is ever without? Clearly I have spent an unnatural amount of time thinking about this. But in a world filled with avocado cup salads, broccoli slaw, butternut squash, carrot salads with harissa, feta and mint or tahini and crisped chickpeas, chopped salads with lime, sunflower seeds and radishes, crushed peas with sesame dressing and fennel with blood oranges* I’ve found little reason to worship solely at the salad altar of baby field greens.
Ever since I made one of my favorite salads to date, the broccoli slaw, I have wanted to make a cauliflower slaw companion for it, and I know this because I have listed it no less than five times on my sprawling To Cook list. I knew that I wanted it to be “mayo-free,” with a “sharp lemony dressing.” I knew that I wanted it to have “tiny dried currants” in it, and that maybe I’d soak/plump them in the dressing for a while so they added more than just sweetness. I knew that, like the broccoli slaw, it should have well-toasted almonds in it, and that I didn’t mind if it had capers in it, especially if they were crispy. But I couldn’t figure out the structure — I was convinced that cauliflower, shaved thinly, would be nothing but a pile of rubble, but not in a charming way. And then a couple months ago a cauliflower salad appeared on the menu of my favorite restaurant, Barbuto in the West Village (which also brought us this kale salad), and to my delight, it turned out to have many elements of the cauliflower slaw I’d been dreaming about — theirs with raisins, hazelnuts and a unholy helping of olive oil — and the cauliflower had been shaved thin on an adjustable-blade slicer and it was perfect. Sure, there was some rubble but there was an equal amount of nicely intact slices and all I wanted to go home and make it the very next second.
And then I moved. And then I went on vacation. And then my son started kindergarten. And then we had two birthday parties for him in one weekend. And, if you’re one of those people that can still get creative, wholesome meals on the table even when life is very, very busy, I envy you. I want you to teach me your ways. But for me, this meant, as usual, that there was a significant lag between idea and action and that I’m kicking myself for taking so long to get this in my belly. This salad is bright, crisp, a little sharp, sometimes punchy-sweet and never, ever soft, leafy or boring. It’s perfect work lunch fodder and please, don’t make the mistake I did and only make one batch of it. It won’t last. Make two. Plan ahead. Share some with me, maybe? I’m fresh out already.
* and that’s just from the A-F in the salad archives. If you’re looking for more inspiration, there are 100 more salad recipes in the archives (here you go) so I guess Homer Simpson was wrong when he said “You don’t win friends with salad!”
Events: My Events page is woefully out of date (soon to be remedied) but there are events coming up that might be fun to stop by if you’re around and want to say hi.
- This Sunday, 9/21 I will be in Toronto for the day, demo-ing three recipes from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook at the Word on the Street Festival. I’ll in an Onstage Conversation with CBC host Gill Deacon at 3:30 p.m., but the event goes from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The event is free. It’s in Queens Park Circle; much more information on their website.
- Saturday, 10/18 I will be participating in the Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival on a panel about blogging and social media with Faith Durand (The Kitchn) and Joy Wilson (Joy the Baker) at 5:15 p.m. in The Grand Tasting Room. This is a ticketed event. More details over here.
- Wednesday, 10/22 At 7 p.m., Melissa Clark (New York Times) and I will be talking to Leonard Lopate (WNYC) about how to write a cookbook as part of his Locavores series. It will be at The Greene Space, 44 Charlton Street, and it’s a ticketed event. More details over here.
One year ago: Fudgy Chocolate Sheet Cake
Two years ago: Crackly Banana Bread
Three years ago: Apple and Honey Challah
Four years ago: Skirt Steak Salad with Arugula and Blue Cheese
Five years ago: Chocolate Pudding Pie and Roasted Tomatoes and Cipolline
Six years ago: The Baked Brownie, Spiced Up and Braised Romano Beans
Seven years ago: Tortilla de Patatas
Crispy fried capers are one of my favorite garnishes, ever. They are way more interesting than bacon bits — yes, I said it. When you drop capers (that you’ve patted out on paper towels as best as possible) in a little puddle of oil, magical things happen — their layers curl out and crisp, like the world’s tiniest blooming onion. Like all fried, crunchy things, they don’t keep long under the weight of dressing; I recommend adding them only right before serving. I usually use brined capers for this, but both brined and salt-packed will work.
Although I love and prefer this salad exactly the way it is, I don’t think it would be bad with substitutions, whether you make them due to personal preferences or just what you have around. Raisins or another dried fruit would probably work for the currants; other briny things like chopped green olives or even cornichon could probably work instead of capers (don’t bother frying them), almonds could be swapped with any nut that you prefer, just toast them well, etc.
Makes about 3 cups which, for us, is never enough. 3 cups will be 2 large portions or 4 petite ones.
1/2 cup thinly sliced almonds
Juice of half a lemon (about 1 tablespoon), plus more to taste
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt or table salt, then more to taste
3 tablespoons (30 grams) dried currants
5 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for frying
2 tablespoons (about 25 grams) brined or salt-packed capers
oil for frying
1 small, compact-looking head of cauliflower (about 1 1/4 pounds)
Freshly ground black pepper
3 scallions, thinly sliced (use green and white parts)
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley (optional, mostly for color)
Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Spread almonds on a tray and toast them until they’re a deep golden color, tossing them once or twice to ensure even cooking. This will take 10 to 14 minutes. Set aside to cool.**
Meanwhile, place lemon juice, vinegar and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a small bowl. Add currants; set aside and let them soak while you prepare the other ingredients.
If using brined capers, drain and spread them on paper towels until most of their moisture has wicked out, about 5 minutes. If using salt-packed capers, soak them in water for 10 minutes to remove the saltiness, then drain, rinse and pat dry on paper towels. Pour a 1/2-inch of olive oil or another oil that you prefer to fry in in a small skillet or saucepan. Heat it over medium-high. When hot enough that a droplet of water added to the oil hisses, carefully add the capers and step back — they’re going to sputter a bit for the first 10 seconds. Once it’s safe to get closer, give them a stir. Depending on how dry they were, it can take 1 to 2 minutes for them to get lightly golden at the edges and then crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon. Drain on paper towels.
Trim cauliflower leaves and cut head into quarters. Using an adjustable-blade slicer (this is mine; it takes up very little room) to cut cauliflower, stem and florets, into 1/4-inch slices. Add to a large bowl.
Scoop currants from vinegar mixture with a slotted spoon and add to bowl with cauliflower, along with almonds, capers, scallions and parsley. Slowly whisk 5 tablespoons olive oil into remaining vinegar mixture in a thin stream. Add several turns of freshly ground black pepper. Pour over cauliflower and other ingredients and turn gently to coat all pieces. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding more lemon juice, salt or pepper to taste. Dig in!
** P.S. I really tried to avoid this pesky oven step by toasting mine in a skillet, the one I’d use to fry the capers in a few minutes. Twice, I failed because the little bits got black and smoky before the larger ones toasted, no matter how much I kept them moving. I’m pretty sure I could do better in the future, but I was running out of almonds. If you trust your pan-toasting skills, feel free to cook the almonds there instead.