Salads scare me.
Don’t get me wrong: I love vegetables, I have a garden, I don’t eat meat; but until recently, given the choice between preparing a salad for dinner and… pretty much anything else, I would have chosen anything else.
I’m stymied by dressings, confounded by croutons, and despite my best creative efforts, always seem to rely on the same old salad staples. Lettuce and tomatoes and carrots, oh my.
The idea of salads, however, has always been enticing: healthy, fresh, simple, inexpensive. How could a vegetarian resist?
I couldn’t. I signed up for the Summer Salads class offered by the Co-op, at the newly remodeled test kitchen. Guilty admission: I’ve been a member of the Co-op for 5 years, and have never taken a cooking class. And it’s not because I’ve mastered the art (though I can see the Co-op from my backyard).
Oh, I’ve been tempted by the Co-op’s classes before: chocolate and wine-tasting, ice-cream and cheese-making- but those were all sessions I knew I would enjoy. Besides, it’s not hard to engage students when you have samples of alcohol. Keeping a class enthusiastic about mixing and dressing raw vegetables? That takes skill.
Salad school started on a late summer afternoon, and I headed with a grumbling stomach to the olive and terra cotta cottage that houses the Co-op test kitchen. A long kitchen (stocked with a 5-burner gas stove, two ovens, wide countertops, and a shiny stainless steel hood) dominates the west wall; the remainder of the room is an airy section for students (as many as 24) with butcher-block table tops and woven chairs.
The interior is painted in shades of sand and sage, and cerulean ceramic dishes decorate the cabinets, but the focal point of the space is the large central refrigerator. It’s a swoon-worthy grass-colored behemoth with chrome handles and retro detailing. I ogle it for a second, jot down the brand (Elmira Northstar) and take a seat at the front.
Our instructor for the evening is Julie Cross, the Education Coordinator for the Co-op; her assistant is Julie Loke. Julie Cross bounces merrily from student to student, greeting the regulars with hugs, welcoming the newcomers, and fetching everyone iced tea and recipe hand-outs. There’s a homey, friendly atmosphere that reminds me of a summer dinner party.
We start the class with Fennel & Apple Salad with Pecans & Gorgonzola. Julie bustles through the kitchen, chopping apples and toasting pecans on a flat iron griddle. She hands us a frond of fennel to sniff. “You’ll notice my careful measuring”, she jokes, tossing a casual handful of sliced fennel into a gleaming silver bowl. As we pass around the frond, Julie prepares the rosemary-mustard dressing. “Don’t be afraid to use bottled dressing,” she says with a shrug, “If making dressing is a barrier for you, just buy some- you can always add a little cumin to spice it up”. She plucks the griddle from the stove, tosses in the pecans, crumbles the gorgonzola, and drizzles on the dressing. Julie’s assistant dishes up the salad, and we dig in. It’s tasty- and not a carrot or tomato in sight! I vow to use fennel in every salad I make.
We’re 20 minutes into the class, and Julie’s preparing the second salad, Five Pepper Potatoes, a dish whose star is Szechwan peppercorns. A few brave participants (myself included) taste the kernels and savor the odd tingle. By the time the numbness fades, the salad is ready (it’s warm and zesty), and we’re moving on to the next recipe.
Julie keeps up a steady stream of cheerful culinary chatter as she buzzes through the remaining three salads: Quinoa and Corn Salad with Pumpkin Seeds; Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato Salad (like the sandwich, but with soy); and Pan Asian Salmon Salad (a medley of herbs, bean sprouts, teriyaki sauce and nut butter- who knew?).
We finish around 8:15, stuffed, content, and toting leftovers. Throughout the course of the night, Julie has shown a fearless zeal for cooking, and encouraged us to try new ingredients, recipes, and techniques. In fact, empowerment in the kitchen seems to be the underlying theme of her class, and I think it’s rubbing off on me. I walk home in the dark, feeling confident, energized and inspired- nothing can scare me. Not even a salad.