Salad Freaks Unite—Our Cookbook Is Finally Here

In “Salad Freak,” Jess Damuck shares how anything can be a salad. Not like regular salads. Cool salads.

March 29, 2022
Photo by Linda Pugliese

Too often, salads are the “sad” meal option: limp lettuce, tasteless dressing, underripe vegetables. And sometimes they’re those giant fast-casual salads, buckets of kale chopped within an inch of its life, topped with a scoop of quinoa, barely more appealing than the former. Jess Damuck, a food stylist and recipe developer, is out to change our perception of salad. Her new cookbook, Salad Freak: Recipes to Feed a Healthy Obsession, is all about, as she writes in the introduction, salad becoming “something of its own art form.” She explains that, in many ways, anything can be a salad. There are recipes to make a salad for any meal of the day, as something to accompany other dishes, or to be the main event—and even some that are sort of secret salads, like Caesar Salad Pizza, Yellow Gazpacho, and Carrot & Saffron Socca. “A salad can be a side dish, but it shouldn’t get stuck being an afterthought,” Damuck writes. “I eat salads first thing in the morning too—whether it’s a big bowl of citrus or thick, juicy slices of tomato—why not?”

Salad Freak is organized by the seasons: As those who’ve eaten chopped tomatoes from a salad bar in December (so, everyone?) will know, produce typically tastes best during the time of year it grows naturally. Sure, winter isn’t necessarily the best time to make a fruit salad with strawberries, just as a roasted kabocha squash salad in mid-June isn’t ideal; but chicories and citrus in January, or fresh peas in peak spring? Yes, please!

We chatted with Damuck about the two Passover salad recipes she shared with us—one actually didn’t make it into the book!—as well as the importance of making your own salad dressing and vegetable-slicing instructions in recipes (it matters!), and everything else that makes her a salad freak.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

REBECCA FIRKSER: Can you tell me about the inspiration behind Salad Freak?

JESS DAMUCK: I owe a lot of it to Martha Stewart. As a food editor there, and spending a lot of time with her, I've cooked a lot of meals for her. Notoriously, you'd ask her what she was in the mood for, and she'd say, ‘I'm in the mood for something light and fresh and truly delicious.’ And I love that. It was such an opportunity to learn how to home in on cooking seasonally and with the freshest available ingredients, and not doing too much to them. Like I say in the book, I call it ‘taking the raw off.’ When you're working with produce that's so fresh and in its peak season, you actually don't need to add crazy amounts of fat or sugar or all these other flavor bombs that we come to rely on for shortcuts for flavor. Stewart has been such a huge inspiration, and it was such a playground to be able to have access to amazing ingredients and have to come up with new ideas constantly, and wanting to really impress her, too.

I started just taking all the scraps home and surviving off those scraps and making my own meals. And slowly but surely, everything I make came to be a kind of a salad. I just love to eat as many vegetables as possible with a little bit of protein. And I think in the book, I really stretch the definition of a salad. It's not just going to Sweetgreen and getting a huge bowl of kale, it's anytime you're eating in that style of just ‘light, fresh, and truly delicious.’

And I am such a freak myself, I just want everybody else to eat the same way. I have so many friends who are like, ‘Oh, we don't eat fruits and vegetables.’ And I'm like, ‘Well, first of all, I don't understand how you're alive. But second of all, you're really missing out because they're so good.’ And I think one of my biggest accomplishments in the past few years has been convincing my parents that they should make their own salad dressing. It took 10 years for them to be like, ‘You know what? You're right, it's not that hard.’

RF: I really like the concept of ‘anything can be a salad,’ because it's kind of true. It doesn't have to be lettuce with stuff on top of it.

JD: There's a surprisingly small amount of salads with lettuce in my book.

RF: Your love for seasonal cooking really comes through in the book. Do you have a go-to salad for every season?

JD: It's so funny, one of the salads that I make the most often has lettuce. There's a Little Gem salad with a creamy lemon dressing and whatever sort of herbs I happen to have around. [​Editors’ note: If you’re looking for this recipe in Salad Freak, it’s Little Gem With Creamy Dressing, Hazelnuts & Petals.] The dressing is two ingredients: jarred mayo and lemon juice, and it's so good. I love that one because it's really adaptable to whatever else you have on hand. In the summer, definitely throw some tomatoes and cucumbers on there. It's so easy and crunchy and fresh.

I didn't even realize until I read it in a review that the book has six recipes with peas. So I obviously really like peas. They just feel like the most spring ingredient to me. I like experimenting with different kinds: raw English peas, sugar snap peas, whatever.

In the winter it's definitely chicories and citrus. Especially when I'm in New York in the winter. It's funny because I think that people who are new to cooking seasonally don't realize that citrus is such a winter thing. And it is such a gift. Such a bite of sunshine when we all really, really need it.

And the fall, I think I have this recipe called Sheet Pan Salad, which is where I just put a bunch of roasted vegetables and chicken sausage on a sheet pan. And I actually eat that probably four times a week.

RF: We’re sharing your Matzo Fattoush recipe, which I'm so excited about. Can you tell me about the inspiration there?

JD: Well, all of my boyfriends have always been Jewish, and I am not Jewish. But I love Passover and Hanukkah; I think they're the two best food holidays that exist. I have this amazing cookbook of my boyfriend's family recipes. It's a whole new world to me, and I think it's so exciting. And I love putting a twist on something, but not too much that will rock the boat. I want it to feel like my version of a recipe that feels fresh and really nice on the table, but I don't want to step on any toes or anything.

RF: Don't make any bubbes mad, so to speak.

JD: Yeah, exactly. I felt, obviously, that a salad is a good entry point—I mean, who doesn't love fattoush? It's the most delicious thing. And I hate to see any matzo go to waste. If you have a few sheets leftover in a box, even if they're pretty stale, you can just toast them up and they're delicious in this salad.

RF: We’re also sharing another recipe of yours that isn’t in the book, but would be great for Passover, Natural Wine Charoset. Can you tell me about that one?

JD: I wanted to cook a kosher Passover a few years ago, and I went on a mission to find natural kosher wine. It wasn't the easiest thing. I reached out to Alice Feiring, who is the natural-wine expert. And she luckily had been doing this research for a really long time. She's like, ‘There's one good one. You can order it at It's made in Upstate New York, and it's actually a really delicious wine. Use it for everything. Serve it on the table, cook your brisket in it, go for it.’

On normal days, I try to cook with a wine that I would drink. It doesn't have to be the most delicious wine, but I just didn't want to make charoset with Manischewitz. I'm not a super-sweet sugary person. I love the idea of charoset, but I want to make it feel me without shaking things up too much again. Toasted walnuts are the most delicious thing, but there's nothing worse than soggy nuts. I think I just want to deconstruct the dish and make it in a way that feels like every ingredient is shining. And that means using wine that tastes good; making sure the nuts are still toasty when it's served, not totally mushy and weird; making it a little sweet with some nice spices; and using apples that have good flavor, too.

RF: You have such a visual perspective given your background as a food stylist. Do you have tips for home cooks when they're composing salads?

JD: I tried to give a lot of tips in the book. I put in every step of prepping the ingredients, because I don't know that everybody really understands what ‘slice on a bias’ means or why it's important. I wanted to give people as many tools as possible to be able to make the recipe they cook look like the photo, because that is such a huge part of life now. I want people to feel really proud of what they're making. And so many of these ingredients are so beautiful anyway. But if I call for something that is a little bit fussy, I'd also like the readers to understand why I'm doing that.

With salads, it not only has to do with the visual, but it also has a lot to do with texture. In all the citrus salads, sometimes I want them cut as a wheel, but sometimes I like them supremed. And it's not only because it's beautiful, but it's really delicious that way. I think supreming citrus is something that anytime I teach someone how to do that, it truly blows their mind. And once you start doing it at home, I think that it becomes habit.

I do have so many tricks to make it easier, too. Like the julienne peeler is something I almost didn't want to share in the book. [Food stylist and recipe developer] Sam Seneviratne was actually the one to introduce me to it. I feel like it's a secret thing, but it does make the most beautiful julienned carrots, which a person with even the best knife skills in the world could never do. And little things, too, like putting your radishes or carrots in an ice bath for a few minutes—that's what they're doing at restaurants and that's why those vegetables are so crunchy and cold and amazing. It’s another little thing that changes the appearance and the taste so much that isn't always written into the recipe.

What are your favorite things to put in salad? Sound off in the comments!

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Rebecca Firkser is the assigning editor at Food52. She used to wear many hats in the food media world: food writer, editor, assistant food stylist, recipe tester (sometimes in the F52 test kitchen!), recipe developer. These days, you can keep your eye out for her monthly budget recipe column, Nickel & Dine. Rebecca tests all recipes with Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Follow her on Instagram @rebeccafirkser.