Weekend Meditation: Intuitive Cooking and the Perfect Salad

Intuitive cooking (or cooking by feel, as we say here in The Kitchn) is not so very esoteric. I believe it has a lot to do with practice. By that I mean both the activity of repeating something over and over until it becomes second nature, as well as the care and attention and awareness you bring to that activity.So, somewhat counter-intuitively, learning how to cook intuitively often begins with a recipe. Choose something that you really enjoy and set about making it as often as you can. Soon you will begin to understand what makes that recipe work and what doesn’t. You will begin to train your mind and palate and hands to work together.

If you pay attention, the ingredients will tell you what to do with them. (No salad-whisperer jokes, please!) What I mean is that you will begin to discover how to respond to the particular: This tomato’s sweetness can use an extra pinch of salt, this potato is dry and will need more butter.

You will likely make lots of interesting mistakes. This is good. Sometimes a mistake can lead to a more interesting place. Trust, an essential cooking-by-feel ingredient, is often born of making a mistake and discovering that it didn’t kill you. Human beings have been cooking since...well, forever. It's a fundamental instinct that is accessed through this trust. It also helps if you're having fun along the way.

The following recipe taught me all of this and more. And like anything that's worth keeping around, it continues to teach me. I’ve been making The Prefect Salad for almost 20 years now, ever since I borrowed the uber-hippie Dairy Hollow House Cookbook from my local library and stumbled upon the “recipe.” As I recall, author Cresent Dragonwagon devotes several pages to the minute details of this method, which she dubbed The Salad. I took it up, loved the results and over the years have made my own adjustments and changes. Here’s my latest version.

The Perfect Salad, a quintessential cooking-by-feel recipe

Yeild: Dinner for one, or side salad for two

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The Greens: Choose fresh, seasonal lettuces and other salad greens (arugula, chicories, dandelion, etc.) Tear into bite sized pieces and wash them well. And, equally importantly, dry them well. Use a salad spinner, or a pillowcase, and whirl off as much water as possible. Then gently roll the greens in a clean tea towel and store in the refrigerator until you are ready to use them.

Seriously, the greens must be perfectly clean and dry.

The Oil: I usually use a good olive oil, but a nut oil is good, or a combination of the two.

The Bowl: Should be big enough to easily toss your salad greens.

The Vinegar: Up to you. Balsamic will be a little on the sweet side; Sherry and Banyuls a little less so. I prefer any of those three. Or a lemon, halved and any seeds picked out, ready for squeezing.

The Garlic: Finely chopped. Or microplaned. Or beyond.

The Salt and The Pepper: So many salts these days. It’s up to you how fussy you want to be. I use Maldon, because sometimes I'm feeling a little posh. Pepper is freshly ground.

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The Extras: What's in your garden? What's in your refrigerator right now? Today, it was a hard boiled egg, pine nuts, fresh peas and a spring onion. A few sprigs of fresh oregano from "my garden." I would have wanted a thinly sliced radish but I was fresh out.

The Method: Pour a glug of olive oil into the bowl. Add a small cove of garlic, well chopped or whatever, a few pinches of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Sometimes I let the garlic sit in the oil to infuse it a little. Actually, you can leave it in there for a couple of hours if you want.

If you’re inclined to add mustard to your salad dressing, now is the time to do it. A small plop is a good start.

Add about three nice handfuls of the extremely well washed and meticulously dried salad greens. Toss gently with one hand, keeping the other hand dry and ready for the next steps. I thoroughly enjoy getting my hand right in there and believe this is a classic, if not obvious, cooking-by-feel experience. You want to sense if there is enough oil to lightly coat all the leaves. Sprinkle on a little more if needed, or add a few more salad greens if it feels like too much.

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With your non-oily hand, reach for the vinegar, or lemon, and sprinkle on a few drops. Toss gently. Taste. What does it need? More sour, more salt, more pepper? Add and adjust accordingly. Gently toss in any of the extras that you want dressed. (Example: peas, oregano, spring onion.)

Scatter the salad on a plate or platter. I like to a finish salad this way so there are no “sinkers”, that is, all those extras that just sink to the bottom of the bowl. Now you can add the extras that are garnishes: pine nuts, egg.

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If all goes well, you should have a perfectly dressed salad. There will be no pools of dressing on the bottom of the bowl or limp, soggy greens. Or disappointingly dry and flavorless ones either. Just a nice coating of garlicky olive oil balanced by the tang of vinegar, brought forth by the salt and enlivened by the pepper.

There are many variations on this mix-in-the-bowl method, including tossing the greens with the vinegar first, macerating the garlic in the vinegar instead of in the oil, salting the salad not the oil, salting the vinegar, etc. I’ve tried them all and this version works for me.

I hope you discover the one that works for you.

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