When I was a kid, salads only meant one thing: iceberg lettuce torn into shreds, chopped-up tomatoes, croutons from a Marie Callender’s bag, and a glug of dressing from a bottle. Mostly, we liked ranch dressing, but sometimes there was a bottle of Italian dressing with viscous bits floating in it. A few times, there was overly sweet French dressing.
(I know folks who grew up in Italy and France. They must have been so confused to come to the States for the first time and find these plastic bottles ascribing these abominations to their countries.)
I don’t blame my parents. That’s what everyone ate as salads in Southern California in the 70s and 80s. As soon as I write that, I know it’s not true. There must have been some families eating artichoke hearts, butter lettuce, and homemade vinaigrette. My dear friend Sharon, who grew up in South Dakota, ate curries and unusual casseroles, thanks to the recipes her mom ripped out of the pages of Gourmet. So I know that quite a few people must have been eating interesting salads in the 1970s. It just wasn’t me.
For years I had this feeling of obligation about salads, based on the paltry selections offered me and the lack of taste in those pale tomatoes and watery lettuce. Salads are healthy. Salads are what you eat when you want to lose weight. Sharon and I used to convince ourselves, in our late teens, that bowls of lettuce without any dressing actually tasted good. We were lying to ourselves. We ate those salads out of desperation to change our bodies by denying ourselves flavor.
Thankfully, I’m not in my late teens anymore. Flavor is my first consideration when it comes to food now. And I eat a salad for lunch nearly every day.
What I didn’t know thirty years ago is that “salad” can mean warm brown rice, sauteed chard, sunflower seeds, goat cheese, and green goddess dressing made with yogurt and fresh herbs. Salad can also mean tomatoes so ripe they yield to the fork easily and ooze juice you must sop up with bread. Salad can be endive, radicchio, and sliced pears, tumbled on top of roasted sweet potato. Salad can mean burrata or buckwheat groats or red leaf lettuce or roasted chickpeas or collard greens or pickled ginger or mustard greens or warm tahini or dollops of yogurt or bright red pomegranate seeds.
I certainly didn’t know, until I met Danny, that a salad could be warm quinoa, slices of hard-boiled eggs, ribbons of kale, pine nuts, and carrot-coriander vinaigrette.
I’m so glad I know more now than I did in 1972.
When we ran out of the tahini dressing we had been living on for weeks, Danny disappeared into the kitchen. I heard the sound of our juicer splaying out juice. I walked in to see him pushing carrots through the juicer. “Something for us to drink?” I asked him.
“Nope,” he said, pushing down another carrot. “Vinaigrette.”
Danny first made this carrot vinaigrette at a restaurant in Colorado, where they served this with butter lettuce, fried carrots, blue cheese croutons and fried goat cheese. Turns out it’s delicious. (Of course.) By reducing the carrot juice, Danny created something with an intense carrot taste, cut by the bite of coriander. Adding champagne vinegar and a bit of fruity olive oil, he made a dressing we wanted to spoon onto everything that week. We put it over yellow rice, roasted chicken, wilted kale, and even in cheese quesadillas. This one’s a keeper.
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
2 cups fresh carrot juice
1 medium shallot, peeled and sliced thin
1/4 cup champagne vinegar
3/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
salt and pepper
Toasting the coriander seeds. Set a small pot on medium heat. Add the coriander seeds. Toast the seeds, tossing them around in the pot frequently, until the smell of the coriander releases itself, about 5 minutes.
Reducing the carrot juice. Pour in the carrot juice and the shallot. Cook until the carrot juice is reduced down to about 1/4 cup, about 15 to 20 minutes. (You might want to brush the sides of the pot with a pastry brush once in awhile, to prevent the sugars in the carrot juice from burning.) Add the champagne vinegar to the carrot juice and give it a stir.
Finishing the vinaigrette. Pour the liquid in the pot into a blender. Blend on medium speed. Slowly, drizzle in the olive oil until the oil is fully incorporated into the dressing, about 2 minutes. Add the cilantro and blend until it’s mixed into the dressing. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Makes about 1 1/4 cups carrot vinaigrette.
This should keep in a jar in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Use it on all the salads you make and it will disappear before you have to worry about it.
This is our girl. Our Lucy girl.
Lucy turned four this summer, a summer of laughter and splashing in the pool every day, a summer of long days playing in the yard, evenings at the beach, and reading every book I could find for her in a heady hungry devouring of words and stories. This summer, she started singing nearly every hour, standing at the edge of the deck, gesticulating to an imagined crowd, belting out songs from The Sound of Music.
This summer, she found her will even more strongly than before. She whines sometimes, finds a way to push our buttons until we have to walk away to find more patience, and crawls up into our laps with instant contrition. In my mind, I repeat: “I want my daughter to be a strong woman in this world. I want my daughter to be a strong woman in this world.” But man! Anyone who tells you that parenting is a breeze has probably never been a parent.
We adore this girl, who is now four. She is the light of our lives.
This summer, she graduated from preschool.
I have to explain — she’s not going to kindergarten. Yet. She loves to imagine that she’s going now. “I will go on the big yellow school bus to kindergarten, Mama!” Her uncle teaches at the school, her cousin will be in the fifth grade —— this makes her giddy to go. But not yet, my love. You’re growing up fast enough.
Instead, the preschool from where she graduated was an unusual place. She began there a couple of years ago. It’s a Montessori-style school, designed for babies of 9 months old until they are 2. After only a few months at this extraordinary school, Lucy had to graduate. However, her wonderful teacher decided to offer an afternoon class, meant for 2 to 3-year-olds. She just loved this little clutch of kids too much to let them go, yet.
Lucy spent two afternoons a week in a garden that bloomed with cardoons in summer.
Lucy learned to identify cardoons and chard in the garden, but those meant far less to her than these goofy, lovely kids do.
Lu loves people. She squeals with delight when she finds a friend in one of the grocery aisles. After a few moments of studying intently, she opens her eyes wide and smiles at the new person talking to us. This girl listens to every conversation around her.
Lucy’s teacher told us a story one afternoon, after school. The little blonde girl in that photo above hit a hormonal, just-turned-three fit of deep emotion. She threw herself on the stairs and sobbed. She told her teacher she needed some private time to feel sad. Lucy, however, went over to her friend, put a hand on her shoulder, and said, “Take a deep breath. Take a deep breath. You’ll feel better.” Her friend ran up to us, as soon as she heard the story. “Lucy helped me to calm down! She helped me to feel calm.”
It’s amazing to me when I hear about people pushing flashcards on their toddlers, making them memorize Mozart melodies, or angling them into the right playgroups that are feeders for the private schools that lead to Harvard. How is any of that important?
That story of Lucy reminding her friend to breathe made the entire preschool experience worth it for me.
And there was art, bright paints flung onto a piece of plywood in the sunlight. I watched a group of those kids one afternoon, giggling with each other, then quieting down as they swirled paints with their fingers and found some place of focused concentration.
Lucy’s going to miss this space.
More, she’s going to miss this woman, this incredible woman of true compassion. She is one of the best teachers I’ve ever met.
When Danny and I went to observe her teach a small group of students, when we were considering the school for Lu, we sat on the edge of the couch, almost moved to tears. We watched as she went up to two children, having a normal tug-of-war over a toy, and gently lay her hand on each shoulder. “Gregory,” she said, “What is Fin’s body telling you about how he’s feeling right now?“
The boy tugging hardest relaxed his hand. “He’s sad.“
“Yes,” she said. “He is sad. How would you feel if he was treating you this way? Could you let him play with the toy for 2 more minutes? And then he can give it to you.“
The antagonism disappeared into the cool air.
Danny and I have been emulating that conversation with Lu ever since.
It’s astonishing to me now, to think how much Lucy knows at 4. Much of what she has learned from the world has came through the gentle voice of this woman.
And from these two children.
These are two of Lucy’s dearest friends. They have been walking through the woods, jumping on trampolines, playing dress-up, and running full tilt together since they had just learned to walk.
That’s one of the reasons we live where we do. Kids grow up together. They know each other. Barring anything unforeseen, these three will go through every grade together until they graduate.
Lucy’s teacher? She’s married to an incredible man whom I taught when he was a junior in high school. Life keeps doubling back on itself on this lovely island. I can’t wait to see these kids as juniors in high school.
(When they are 16 and going to high school together? I’ll ask them to duplicate this photograph.)
A couple of weeks ago, we gathered together, all the parents and children who are part of this school. As always, at celebrations and commemorations, there was food. It’s what brings us around the table, the center point of any party.
I couldn’t eat any, sadly. That potato salad should have been gluten-free. It might have been. But since I didn’t know the first thing about how that food was prepared, and because those wooden spoons can trap gluten, I decided not to risk it. Getting sick made that potluck lunch less appealing.
Besides, I wasn’t there for the food.
We were gathered there to watch these three leave the nest.
They stood on a little wooden beam, balancing and smiling with each other. They sang a song about the three little birds finding their wings and flying away. And then they each took turns, jumping as high into the air as they could.
As I watched them there, I kept thinking about the first week of Lucy’s life. She lay in a plastic isolette, a breathing tube and feeding tube shoved in, her hands strapped down to the bed by soft cuffs. (At two days old, she was strong and willful enough to pull her breathing tube out by herself.) Machines beeped wildly. There was no fresh air anywhere. We stood over her, watching, talking to her, willing her to breathe, please.
What would we have given then to see her here? Her at 4, giggling, strong, surrounded by friends who love her, willful and kind, and flying on to the next part of her life?
Anything. We would have given up anything but her.
Congratulations on your graduation, sweet Lucy girl. Keep breathing. Keep loving.
POTATO-GREEN BEAN SALAD WITH ANCHOVY VINAIGRETTE
Tell you the truth, sometimes my best meals come from the ones I can’t eat. Whenever I go to a party or a restaurant, and see food I can’t share with Danny or Lucy, I come home determined to make it myself. After that party, I said to Danny, “Hey, can we make a potato salad with green beans? And really big-tasting vinaigrette, like one with anchovies?”
“You bet,” he said.
And here it is.
2 pounds red potatoes
1 pound fresh green beans, trimmed and cut in half
1 dozen anchovies
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons champagne vinegar
1 tablespoon mustard seed
pinch each kosher salt and cracked black pepper
9 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh chives, finely chopped
Cooking the potatoes. Cut each potato into quarters. Put the potatoes into a large pot and cover with cold water. Add enough salt to make it taste like the ocean. Put the pot on high heat. Bring the water to a boil and cook the potatoes until you can run a knife through them easily, about 15 minutes. Add the green beans and let them cook for 3 minutes. Drain the potatoes and green beans and let them cool.
Making the vinaigrette. Put 6 of the anchovies into a blender. Add the mustard, mustard seeds, vinegar, and salt and pepper. Blend until the anchovies are pureed. With the blender running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil until the vinaigrette has emulsified. Taste the vinaigrette. Season with more salt and pepper, if needed.
Finishing the salad. Chop the remaining anchovies and toss them with the potatoes and green beans. Add the chives. Dress the salad with some of the vinaigrette. Toss the salad. If you need more vinaigrette, add some here. Otherwise, save the remaining vinaigrette for another salad.
Season with salt and pepper.