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I’VE SAID IT MORE THAN ONCE: you don’t really need a recipe to make a salad. Ya throw some stuff in a bowl, squeeze a lemon over it, drizzle some olive oil, gobble it up.
And yet, here we are, every week: talking about recipes for salads.
Because if you’re like me, recipes are part of a constant, lifelong treasure hunt. They’re inspiring— pushing us beyond our culinary comfort zones and preventing us from eating the same boring crap over and over. They’re reassuring: just follow a few steps and—presto-chango—you have something completely new to eat. And is there anything more satisfying than sharing a great one?
Plus, our recipe collections become our scrapbooks, travelogues, and diaries—the culinary records of our lives. Losing just one of our favorites can feel like losing a friend.
So, imagine an entire city and its vivid culture being robbed of its recipes. That’s what happened to the people of New Orleans back in 2005, on top of all the tragic devastation Hurricane Katrina visited upon them.
Luckily, recipe-loving New Orleanians had Judy Walker, who at the time was the food editor of The Times-Picayune (and had held similar positions at such dailies as the Arizona Republic and the Tulsa World). Just a few months after Katrina struck, when people were barely beginning to consider all they’d lost, Walker started receiving letters from people asking for help replacing for their lost recipes— for Tasso shrimp, la galette des rois (king cake), crawfish-and-corn chowder, Natchitoches meat pies, and bourbon sauce, among so many other distinctive dishes. Collecting these “washed away” recipes, as Walker refers to them, became a huge project with international reach, which she and the food writer Marcelle Bienvenu turned it into the book Cooking up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from the Times-Picayune of New Orleans. You can read about how it happened in this piece by Kim Severson of the NYTimes.
“That was really the highlight of my career,” Walker says of the James Beard Award nominated treasure, which was reissued in hardback in 2015. “It’s become one of the modern classics. I’m still autographing it for people who give it as wedding gifts and other presents.”
I consider Walker a modern food hero. So naturally I wanted to get a salad from her.
Initially, she going to give me the recipe for the traditional olive salad that goes on New Orleans’ legendary muffuletta sandwich. “But you can buy that in jars,” she said. “A lot of people just use it like a salad dressing— it’s got all that vinegar in it. I’m there for that. I mean, I would eat that on a wedge, or just dump it on lettuce with some shaved parmesan. Delicious.”
(I wish I had that salad right now.)
Otherwise, Walker pointed out, the City of New Orleans doesn’t really have what you’d call a strong salad tradition.
At home, she says, “People have always eaten fresh vegetables. We have two growing seasons, so you can grow fresh lettuce here almost year-round and your herbs will get huge.” And at restaurants, rather than an iconic New Orleans salad, people will order greens topped with shrimp or fried oysters or Creole tomatoes (“They’re grown in the rich alluvial soils along the Mississippi River in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes”), or the salads of the many cuisines represented in New Orleans: Vietnamese, French, Italian, Mexican, and on and on.
Still, I was a little (okay, completely) taken aback when Walker told me point-blank that she is not a “salad person.” She grew up in Arkansas, and, like a lot of the over-40 crowd (myself included), she had salads that can best be described as nondescript (aka the iceberg salad). “My mother had me make the salad at dinner time because she was busy making other things. I don’t even remember what kinds I would make.”
But as we talked and talked, it eventually became apparent that Walker is a salad person—she just isn’t a leafy green salad person.
(A lot of people tell me they aren’t salad people, because they think I’m after a typical dish that looks like the salad emoji. People also think that the Department of Salad is a diet site. Which is fine. But neither thing is true.)
Walker likes the “toppings” or “additions” to a bowl of greens, without the greens. “I’m retired. I like salads that make good leftovers that you can eat for several days,” she told me, pointing out that she considers Steve Sando’s carrot and lentil from the Department of Salad to be of this ilk. We both agreed that lettuce is definitely the most, um, ephemeral part of most salads.
Which reminded her of a fantastic-sounding lettuce-less number. “My girlfriend Becky makes it; it’s from a local place called Jamila’s Café—it’s Tunisian, made with carrots and tuna, and it’s absolutely delicious.” Walker gave me the recipe for it; I’ll be sharing it later on.
And I’m thrilled to announce that all of our talk about lettuce-less salads also led Walker to recall her favorite shrimp salad. “Oh my gosh, it’s really good!” she said. “You can make it with shrimp or, of course, crawfish, like we do down here. And you serve it in an avocado or a Creole tomato.”
I’m going to share that recipe with you today. It’s spicy and sweet and cool—and creamy, with the avocado. Satisfying and absolutely delicious. It will make you think of New Orleans. But because I’m exhausted (apparently, according to some of the biggest bossypants on Twitter, you’re not supposed to say you’re exhausted, but I am), I’m saving the Tunisian salad that Walker shared with me for the midweek newsletter, which goes to paid subscribers.
*RECIPE: Judy Walker’s Spicy New Orleans Shrimp (or Crawfish) Salad
Makes 4-6 servings
Walker’s instructions dictate that you “make this only with Louisiana seafood!” I did not, for obvious access reasons. I used shrimp, and it made me extremely happy. I imagine it would be quite spectacular with crawfish, though. I used the full amount of cayenne and dry mustard; it was a just the right spice level for me. I used sweet gherkins, roughly chopped, and next time I make it I’m going to add an extra tablespoon, at least. Walker continues: “Frozen crawfish tails are almost all precooked; throw shrimp into boiling water seasoned with salt, crab boil and a lemon half. The second any pink stars to show on the shrimp, turn off heat. Let sit in seasoned water until cooked through completely, then drain and chill immediately.”
1 pound cooked peeled crawfish tails or shrimp
2 hard-cooked eggs, chopped
2 small sweet pickles, chopped (about 2 tablespoons; I am going to add one extra next time)
½ cup mayonnaise (I used slightly less)
1 tablespoon dry mustard
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cayenne (or less to taste)
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Combine all ingredients in order listed and blend well. Taste and correct seasoning. (I refrigerated it overnight before serving)
Serve on a bed of lettuce, in tomatoes, in avocados, or in a soft hot dog bun.
TWO EXTREMELY LOVELY salad-adjacent books that the boys in the lab and I are enjoying very much right now, by two wonderful writers from across the pond: Rhapsody in Green: A Novelist, an Obsession, a Laughably Small Excuse for a Vegetable Garden, by Charlotte Mendelson (who is also The New Yorker magazine’s gardening columnist), and Herb: A Cook's Companion, by food and gardening expert Mark Diacano. That’s really all we have to say: we love and recommend both books!
THAT’S IT! We’re done here! Later this week, for our paid subscribers, we’ll have that Tunisian carrot and tuna salad from Judy Walker; can’t wait to share it. Plus, a salady surprise or two. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to share the Department of Salad: Official Bulletin with your friends and loved ones who deserve it!