Shockingly good salad–and it’s raw!

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I’ve been craving salads lately. It’s getting warmer, beautiful greens and vegetables are coming into the markets, and frankly, now that I’m 30, my body is no longer able to absorb with metabolic abandon everything I throw into my mouth.

A simple salad of bright, flavorful greens dressed in a perfect vinaigrette and nothing else is a beautiful thing, and I’m lucky to have access to farmers’ markets with greens that are fresher and tastier than anything in supermarkets, even the Coop. But five minutes after a big bowl of the best greens ever, I’m usually still hungry.

So for one-dish meals, I normally rely on salads that have greens as a base, but are loaded up with nuts, cheese, and tangy-sweet vegetables or fruits. I might add an anchovy or two, some canned tuna, or a hard-boiled egg, but I never make those monstrous salads you see at overly expensive chains, with fried chicken and corn and tortilla chips and enough food to feed a small village. Roasted beets take a lot of time on a Sunday afternoon but no work and keep well in the fridge. My sister taught me how to “supreme” oranges and grapefruit, cutting the north and south poles of skin off, and then cutting away at the skin in strips to remove the pith, leaving only the sweet flesh. In the winter, pomegranate seeds go in almost everything, and sometimes thin, small slices of apple or pear. I’m partial to little cubes of semi-hard cheese, like halloumi or ricotta salata, that add bites of salty flavor, and I always have pine nuts, walnuts, pistachios, or some combination in my freezer. I’m not philosophically opposed to bottled dressing, but I never buy it since I’ve had some nasty surprises and it’s so easy to make a vinaigrette.

My overall goal is to balance the flavors I love best: some peppery notes, a little sweetness, a little tartness, some creamy texture, and good old salt. Every once in awhile, I end up with a not-so-harmonious melange, but I usually avoid that by sticking to ingredients that make regional sense.

So I was really surprised when I saw the ingredient list for Fennel, Avocado, and Mint Salad with Pistachio-Caper Dressing on Chow, from the chef at Pure Food and Wine, one of those crazy raw food places. In addition to all the ingredients in the name of the salad itself, the recipe calls for a good amount of sun-dried tomatoes, lemon zest, and chopped parsley. It was maybe vaguely Mediterranean, except what were the avocados doing there? It was a combination I’d never considered, even though almost every one of the ingredients is a staple in my kitchen. (Well, I didn’t have pistachio oil but I did have walnut.)

It felt more labor-intensive than my usual salads, but it wasn’t really. I had to boil some water in my kettle to reconstitute the sun-dried tomatoes, but while they were soaking, I didn’t chop much more than I normally do. It was almost 9:30 at night, and I was starving, but I wanted to try to plate it in layers as recommended, even though I was the only one to whom it would be presented. So in between bites of leftover pita and Moroccan-style hummus, I carefully laid a layer of thinly sliced avocado in a radiant circle. I piled on some thinly sliced fennel tossed with the sun-dried tomatoes and lemon-caper-nut vinaigrette, followed by a clumsy sprinkling of chopped mint and parsley. How are you supposed to sprinkle herbs with damp, avocado-stained fingers? Again, avocado, fennel, herbs; avocado, fennel, herbs.

Finally, I ate it. Wow. Lemony tart, with the sweetness of sun-dried tomatoes, the crunch of fennel, the fragrance of the mint and parsley, the brine of the capers, the creaminess of the avocado, everything I want in a salad and more. And even better, unlike soggy green salads, the leftovers were almost as good the next day.

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