Every now and again, I get into these funks, where as much my body is desperately telling me to increase my greens intake, I just can’t. Salad can be so ho-hum. But why? I begin to ask myself, “What exactly defines a salad?” I decided to think outside the iceberg—in fact, outside the realm of leafy greens entirely—and instead opted for something way outside the norm: fruits, chilis, and garlic. Oh, my!
Salads are definitely the most polarizing black sheep of the culinary world. Almost everyone I know has a love-hate relationship with salad. Many restaurants spend lots of time looking for ways to reinvent the potentially boring, been-there-done-that salad. The art behind salad-making is that you have to be incredibly detailed if you want to make something special out of something so unbelievably unoriginal. And with this in mind, I venture to the grocery store.
Standing in front of the leafy display of greens at the store, I’m simultaneously overwhelmed and uninspired, which is saying a lot because that rarely ever happens to me. Grocery shopping happens to be a favorite pastime for me that often extends well over an hour to my peers’ dismay. I reach for the kale, but recoil. Not today. Arugula, perhaps? Not in the mood. Then something a little nutty happens: I decide to cut my losses and just grab some bananas and peanut butter and call it a day. Then I saw it: the papaya. Now, given this week’s expedition to Ayara Thai, you already know my stance on papayas. In their ripe state, I gag, but when green, firm, and unripe, I adore. Like a seven-year-old with a jigsaw puzzle, it all comes together. I’ll make a papaya salad. It’s honestly perfect because it solves my “you’re feeling unhealthy, so eat a salad, darn it!” dilemma, and it gives me some inspiration.
Green papaya (unripe, regular papaya) can potentially be difficult to find, so just look for the firmest papaya at the store. The one I grabbed was actually starting to turn a little pink, so it was a tad sweeter than the traditional green variety, which was fine by me. I simply shredded it and tossed in some carrots, diced tomato, sliced snap peas, and a homemade sweet-and-spicy Thai-inspired dressing. Voila! It’s not quite a fruit salad, but not quite a vegetable salad. Most importantly, there’s definitely no lettuce in sight!
When making lettuce-free salads, the trick lies in the dressing and the bite size. The dressing should be incredibly flavorful because you’ll be somewhat marinating whatever the contents are. For the papaya salad, I made a bold dressing with lots of fish sauce, brown sugar, crushed garlic, Thai basil, and green chilies. You could also do something similar with high-quality olive oil, fresh lemon juice, minced Kalamata olives, and mint. Or garlic, sesame oil, canola oil, rice vinegar, agave, and miso. Really, the dressing ideas are endless. But there is one thing you should always do: while you’re mixing your dressing together, season with salt and taste multiple times. You don’t want your fruits and veggies to taste horrible because of your dressing.
Next, think about the cut size of the salad. With the papaya salad, everything was either shredded or sliced thinly. You want to make sure that when you’re chomping on your salad, all the components fit on the fork at the same time. You don’t want whole green beans alongside shucked corn kernels. Make sense? Yes? So, cut everything uniformly.
Whether you dabble with the papaya salad idea or carve out your own anti-salad path, definitely take a whack at it. Fruit salads are awesome, but also think about the grains: faro, bulgur wheat, or even orzo! Fruits, grains, and other vegetables serve as lovely bases for what will most definitely be a standout, sassy, sans-lettuce salad.