We’ve decided to spend as much time as humanly possible at the beach this summer, which has led to my other new favorite habit: grabbing a few cookbooks I’ve been meaning to go through and reading them en route. In the fleeting moments when the kids have limited their bickering in the backseat and the traffic isn’t too terrible, when I’ve been away from my laptop and the kitchen for enough hours that I’m ready to absorb new inspiration, I find myself more open-minded and curious to try new recipes than I am, understandably, in the thick of deadlines and or hangry o’clock, approximately 6:15pm when dinner is nowhere near done.
Two weekends ago it was Saladish, a cookbook from Ilene Rosen, who is the chef and co-owner of R&D Foods in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn and previously did a 15-year stint as the savory chef at City Bakery, creating a salad bar with a cult following. This book is a natural progression. “All of the food I really like to eat and make is saladish,” she says in the intro, something I immediately related to. To me, salads are meals and meals can be salads, and only a fraction of them really need leafy greens. Layers of grains or roasted or raw shaved vegetables plus something pickled or punchy and something crunchy and herby and a good vinaigrette; I ate lunch 15 minutes ago and I literally made myself hungry again typing that.
I struggled a little as the book continued because I kept running into ingredients I didn’t keep around, pappadum, green garlic, makrut lime leaves, Chinese preserved cabbage, pea greens, and honestly, this is barely the tip of the iceberg. There wasn’t a recipe that didn’t have something that required an extra grocery run (easy for me to get in NYC, but still, I am lazy, and even when I overcome it, I know you guys would appreciate me finding alternatives) but wait, come back. You see, the sun was shining in the windows, little puffs of popcorn clouds dotted a blazingly blue sky, the shore towns were approaching, and I decided to stop being such a curmudgeon and look beyond these sticking points, which in many places are merely accents or extras. And here, at the base of each recipe, I found a dozen things I couldn’t wait to make.
There is so much innovation and inspiration in this book, it would be a shame to miss it over a few shopping hurdles, especially if you’re looking to shake up your salad game. Salads are inherently flexible, tinkering is encouraged; if you can’t get or don’t want to track anything you see here down, make the parts that call to you. This is what I did and it wasn’t three days before I’d made the roasted and pickled cauliflower salad, fell in love with the charred summer squash salad (when you see it, you’ll understand), plotted a dinner with the Vietnamese-style tofu salad at the center very soon, and another with a grainy potato-cucumber salad, and told two people about the “I heart fennel” salad, an unapologetic fronds-to-bulb love letter to the unpopular (but not with me) vegetable.
This watermelon salad, an updated take on classic watermelon and feta, is, as promised, nothing like the book’s version, which includes chysantemum leaves and shiso. I was so enamored with the toasted pepitas, matchsticks of ricotta salata (which is softer and a little mellower than feta), and triangles of watermelon (she includes a cutting guide for this, and many other, vegetables; I have utter confidence in my ability to cut up fruits and vegetables and still learned a few tricks). Fancy leaves? Nah, I used a thinly sliced cucumber; it holds up better in a salad anyway. Olive oil, sea salt, and many grinds of black pepper finish it and the result is so simple but so refreshing, an instant new classic for us I didn’t know I was looking for. Which, after all, is the point of a great cookbook, right?
Watermelon Cucumber Salad
A couple notes: All of the amounts listed here are what I used, but consider them loosely and adjust to taste. I don’t think anyone is buying watermelon by the ounce, but rather grabbing what their store or market has. On a flavor note: I love this ingredient combination (watermelon and cucumber and salty, crunchy accents) so much, if you’re feeling creative, here are a few more directions do go with it: 1. Add some fresh slivered mint leaves and or razor-thin slivers of red onion. 2. Add the chile-lime flavors we use in this melon salad, or 3. I am eager to make this with a Indian chaat flavor vibe; if you can find chat masala spice packets, I promise it will be absolutely glorious sprinkled over this salad at the end. (This is my go-to brand.)
- About 1/4 a large seedless watermelon or 1 small (mini) watermelon
- 2 small (Perisan-style) seedless cucumber, thinly sliced
- 8 ounces ricotta salata, cut into matchsticks
- 1/4 cup toasted, salted pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds)
- Olive oil, for drizzling
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepperr
For small watermelon, halve it and then place each half cut side down and cut each half into 8 pie-like slices. Remove the rinds from each and cut each wedge into 1/2-inch thick triangles. For a larger watermelon, cut it into smaller wedges, remove the rinds, and cut into 1/2-inch thick triangles.On a large platter, scatter a thick layer of watermelon triangles, followed by a thinner scattering of cucumbers, ricotta salata matchsticks and pepitas. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Repeat this rustic layering and seasoning until your ingredients are used up, finishing with an extra generous drizzle of olive oil. Eat at once!