Salads have a bad reputation, and I understand why. Let’s be honest: salad is, to many people, the food of punishment. You ate too many slices of pie over the holidays, so now it’s time to face a few weeks of salad while you get the house back in order. Faced with limp pieces of lettuce, sad slices of random vegetables, and some terrible bottled salad dressing, I wouldn’t be excited about eating salad either, if that was the way I had to face it. Luckily, I don’t consider salad a last resort, and that is why I can look at it as an opportunity to really build something that is more enticing than disciplinary.
My first order of business with a salad is always texture. I like lots of satisfying crunch, so I try to use a variety of sturdier greens whenever possible. Then I turn to a variation in flavors, aiming to end up with a nice mix of tart, sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter elements all thrown together. In this salad, super crisp napa cabbage gets combined with crunchy, tart Granny Smith apples and zesty fresh mint, then topped with savory toasted cashews. The third building block of a salad, the dressing—in this case, a super spicy chile and garlic dressing with lots of fresh lime juice—ties everything together, making each bite a fantastic mix of different flavors and sensations.
Sometimes I think there is an art to building a salad. While it is certainly not the type of art that would warrant a solo gallery show or a major grant, you are at least awarded the opportunity to eat your work of art when you are done with it, and that, to me, is pretty much the best prize there is.
Napa Cabbage and Green Apple Salad with Cashews
There are a lot of great textures going on in this salad, but I think you could get away with adding even more. Adding a cup or two of finely shredded or chopped purple cabbage would provide a lovely burst of color and flavor, and, if it’s in season, a handful of finely chopped fennel ribs would be borderline magical in here. Also, a note on the dressing: it is hot. I like a lot of spiciness, so I used an entire super hot chile pepper (ribs, seeds, and all), but, if you are not as tolerant of spiciness, you could certainly use just half of a chile, ribs and seeds removed.
1 serrano chile
1 large garlic clove
1 teaspoon Vietnamese fish sauce
¼ cup unseasoned rice vinegar
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
pinch of sea salt
pinch of sugar
4 cups finely shredded napa cabbage
1 small Granny Smith apple, cored, then cut into thin matchsticks
¼ cup roughly torn mint leaves
1 cup toasted cashews
Using a microplane zester or a fine grater, very finely grate the chile pepper and garlic into a small bowl. Alternately, you could use a mortar and pestle to pound the chile and garlic together. Using the back of a spoon, mash the chile and garlic together until they form a bit of a paste. Add the fish sauce, vinegar, lime juice, salt, and sugar, then whisk to combine.
In a large bowl, combine the cabbage, apple slices, and mint. Pour over the dressing and toss to combine. Add the toasted cashews. Taste for seasoning. You may decide you want more salt (some fish sauces are much saltier than others, so personal judgment is in order here). If you do add more salt, sprinkle it on sparingly, then toss thoroughly to combine.
Serves 4 as a side dish, 2 as a main dish.