Long before eateries like Sweetgreen and Just Salad took urban areas by storm, there was Ilene Rosen at City Bakery.
For fifteen years, she served as the savory chef of that institution, cultivating a following that mourned her departure to R&D Foods, a specialty grocery store featuring her prepared foods.
So can a food cookbook capture the gestalt of a bowl of crunchy, herby, colorful nutrition? In her new cookbook Saladish, Rosen certainly tries. The cookbook is full of tips, like adding sliced or diced red onion to listless dishes or the importance of the element of surprise, like a sprinkle of nigella seeds mixed in the arugula.
But what Ilene Rosen consider a salad, like her Black Rice with Pea Greens, isn’t necessarily what the rest of the world would consider a salad. She’s had a role in expanding the definition of salad from just vegetables scattered into a plate to something more filling, more broad, more (dare we say it?) salad-ish than just salad.
I visited Rosen in her store cum restaurant, R&D Foods, to talk to her about why hot food is overrated, how she recommends making salad, and her role in broadening the definition of what’s considered a salad.
Shira Feder: You mentioned in the introduction that in presenting the salad you should let the pieces fall where they may, to preserve the “this just happened” look. This seems to run counter to the common opinion of fixing food just-so, to make it Instagram-ready. Do you people are fixating on presentation more than taste these days?
Ilene Rosen: Well, I think things falling where they do is a specific style of presentation. I think presentation is incredibly important, and it just depends on one’s aesthetic, and I’m more of a rustic kind of cook and I like things to look as they are.
Sometimes making things look natural takes a bit of work! I don’t know if presentation is valued more than taste, but it’s definitely what happens before you taste…
What do you think the human eye finds so appealing about a salad?
I think it’s color, it’s texture, there’s just so many different variations of things that grow outside, whether they’re leaves or roots or drupes…
The uninitiated to a ‘Saladish’ way of life tend to see salad as a side dish, and not as a main. Do you think that perception is changing?
I think it already has changed. I think there are always some that are slow to get on the bandwagon and I don’t necessarily mean it’s for every day, every meal, every person. It’s definitely how I eat all the time, because the definition of it is so broad…
You experiment a lot with salads, and I think you’ve broadened the definition of what salad can refer to. How do you define salad?
Temperature is one of the aspects of it. I think, for me, hot food has always been overrated and trying to serve a meal with all these different components that all have to be hot and made served separately, and I always wondered why. And hot food was never personally important so I then made it less important to everyone else.
I think room temperature food you can taste more than anything which is hot or cold. I think it’s scientifically proven that there’s a wider range of things you can perceive on your taste buds when something isn’t piping hot or ice cold. I think that tends to make one think it can be considered a salad or saladish.
What do you recommend stocking up on for summertime salads?
The best thing to do is go to the green market, or the farmer’s market, and not have something in mind, because it might not be there that day. Just purchase what’s winking at you, what’s calling your name, go home and figure out later what you’re going to make.
Shira Feder lives for a good salad. She’s at firstname.lastname@example.org and @shirafeder