The art of slicing carrots and arranging greens
I didn’t marry my husband for his salad-making ability, although it was one of the things my mother pointed out to his advantage during his first trip to the US many Christmas’s ago.
In the middle of the pre-Christmas dinner hubbub, Radek wandered into the kitchen where the female family members were gathered and asked if he could do something. I don’t know if Mom was trying to test her houseguest from the Czech Republic, or if in her haste, she said the first thing that popped into her mind, “Why don’t you make the salad?”
She dumped the ingredients on the kitchen counter. Without asking for instruction, Radek set to work. He rinsed the bagged lettuce and arranged it in an oblong wooden bowl. Then he chopped carrots and cucumbers. He sliced strawberries and alternated them with blueberries in a symmetrical pattern on the top of the greens. Next, he added spring onions and crumbled feta cheese. He topped the lot with toasted slivered almonds. It was a salad worthy of a picture. In a family that appreciated the details, he made his mark.
Flash forward fourteen years later.
Radek picked my mother up at the airport and dropped her off at our house. I was waiting in bed, recovering from knee surgery. “There’s a small salad in the fridge,” he called out over his shoulder as he headed back to work. Mom went into the kitchen and came back carrying a plate wrapped in plastic foil. “Is this what he meant? It does look like one of Radek’s salads. It looks almost too pretty to eat.”
In the art of food preparation – making salads, decorating birthday cakes, rolling out sushi – as well as other aspects of domestic life that require detail work – repairing chain links on a mountain bike, trimming children’s toenails or gluing hundreds of crepe feathers onto cardboard angel’s wings – my husband is the master.
I am lucky to have him. Working alongside “the master,” however, is enough to drive any sane person crazy, at least if the person’s standards in the kitchen tend toward the “good enough” to move on and get something else done. While waiting for him to finish mowing and trimming the lawn, I’ve been known to feed and bath the children and feed myself, plus fold a load of laundry, having learned from experience what “just give me 5 more minutes” really means.
Five-year old Samuel put it into a kid’s perspective. One night when Radek was getting ready to bake, Sam asked, “Mommy, can’t you make the muffins, not Daddy?” When I asked him why, he replied, “Well, Daddy never wants me to help because I make things messy. And then he has more work to do from me.”
Unlike my baking style, which welcomes help from little hands but is apt to leave a trail of flour and drippy batter, my husband is precise. He likes to cook from a recipe, preferably one that’s gotten good reviews. He isn’t big on substituting ingredients to the point that he’d rather go without than improvise.
In other aspects of life, though, my husband is laid-back. He is the one who lets eight-year old Oliver whittle in the backyard with his pocketknife. He thinks Anna Lee, at 11, is old enough to walk alone from school to the city library and wait for us there. And he has no problem with Sam driving the electric 4-wheeler in circles through the field near our house as long as he’s wearing a helmet. When Sam had his first spill with the 4-wheeler, overturning both the vehicle and himself, Radek watched from a distance until Sam picked himself up, dusted off and righted the 4-wheeler.
Ask Radek if you can help him make a salad, however, and you’ll see another side of the man all together. Pre-dinner conversations at our house run like this:
Him: Would you like chicken or egg on the salad, baby?
Me: What about both? Or we’ve got some goat cheese in the fridge? We could have that too.
Him: Goat cheese doesn’t really go. I don’t think we need it. We’ve already got grilled veggies and asparagus, so how about chicken?
In our house, making a salad requires prewashing, then spinning the greens to dry, chopping the cold vegetables and finally sautéing or grilling some extras (mushrooms, peppers or a piece of meat). Our typical base consists of arugula, baby greens or field greens. Often, we mix the three. When I can find it, we use fresh spinach. We don’t use pre-cut baby carrots or already washed apple slices not because we don’t want to, but because they aren’t available at our local grocery.
How I cut an onion (which knife I use and how large I slice the pieces) used to be a bone of contention in our marriage. It was right up there with how I repeatedly forgot to say “si” and “se” in the conjugation of certain Czech reflexive verbs (Don’t ask me which ones, please.)
My husband’s desire for a salad to be agreeably presented runs over into his general feeling on how one should present oneself to the world (which includes using correct Czech grammar to the very best of your ability). Why would you offer your guests or your family a salad made from ingredients that have been thrown together, when you could take your time and choose to do it right?
If a salad ever needs spiffing up, however, Radek turns to me for help. My special dressing is a combination of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic, mustard, honey and lemon juice. It is the antithesis of his perfectly prepared salad. There are no set proportions. Radek wouldn’t try to replicate it because it doesn’t come with instructions.
In the same way that my husband has a feel for placing julienned carrot wedges alongside marinated artichokes or boiled eggs, I like to think that I have a sense of how much sweetness or tartness the dressing needs to complement the salad.
In truth, I make more of the salads for our dinners than he does, mainly because I’m finished with work sooner. And, I have a confession to make. He’s rubbed off on me. While I’d like to proclaim that I’m still of the “good enough” camp, when it comes to salad making, I now like mine to look pretty too.
Mom and I ate every bite of the salad that Radek left for us. We appreciated the presentation, the colors and the flavor. We both knew it tasted even better because we hadn’t had to make it ourselves.
Perhaps, the only thing better than knowing how to make a gourmet salad, is finding someone to appreciate it.