Someone once told me that the intended glory of a chopped salad is that you can eat it with a spoon. This sounds silly and I wasn’t able to verify it it, but I did glean that a “chopped salad” is derivative of classic, component-based salads like the Cobb or Nicoise. In the past several years, it’s evolved into a bastard child of those, something no longer tied to lineage or ingredients but to method: hacking up a bowl of lettuce and toppings with a mezzaluna, assembly-line style, at one of its namesake franchises here in the Northeast. Enthusiasm for the chopped salad has since waned a bit, but there were strong opinions on this subject during its heyday.
My friend Emily, a terrific, exacting cook, believes that salad should be a minimalist affair—perfectly dressed, made mostly from just good lettuce and one of her excellent homemade vinaigrettes—and I know firsthand that this is a wonderful way to eat salad. I still vividly remember the salad that followed a heavy, decadent brunch I had ten or so years ago with another friend, Kathryn, at The Spotted Pig here in New York. At the end of our meal, Kathryn asked for “just a salad” and what came was a mound of arugula that was in its just-picked prime, dressed with nothing but olive oil, lemon juice, flakes of salt, and studs of cracked pepper, and it was a revelation. I can’t recall anything else we ate that day.
But because I’m a salad-as-a-meal kind of guy, I’ve long made salads from much more than just greens, such as any of the ones from my favorite Feast issue. Today’s recipe is one that’s felt right for the season, even though it doesn’t exactly highlight the early-summer produce. But radishes are very good right now, and you can still get springy, tender lettuce at the farmers markets in the Northeast; in a month or so that will have surrendered to the heat. More importantly, though, this is a refreshing dish, one to combat a balmy afternoon or evening, and I love the contrasts of flavors and textures—the succulent grapefruit segments alongside the crunch of radishes, cucumbers, and almonds, all against a backdrop of good, crisp lettuce and fragrant, torn leaves of basil and mint.
If I were to make some rules about chopped salad, they would be this: The idea with “chopping” here is that it gets you the right amount of each component in every bite. Almonds or hazelnuts shouldn’t be minced to dust, they should be cut in half. It’s not right to thinly shave the radish, slice the cucumber into rounds, or crumble up the feta with your hands—no, the goal is nicely cut chunks. Dress it carefully. Salads like this that have wet elements, like grapefruit, can easily get laden by the dressing, so use a light hand with the viniagrette and taste as you go. And lastly, eat it with a fork. This is salad, not soup.
Chopped Salad with Grapefruit, Feta, Almonds, Herbs, and Crunchy Vegetables
Makes 2 big servings, 4 small ones
1 large or 2 small grapefruit
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons whole-grain mustard
1/4 teaspoon fine-grain salt
1 head butter leaf, Boston, or other crisp lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces
4 radishes, cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch chunks
1 seeded Kircumber cucumber or 2 Persian cucumbers, quartered lengthwise and chopped into 1/4- to 1/2-inch chunks
1/4 cup cubed feta (about 1/4-inch dice)
1/4 cup almonds or hazelnuts, toasted and halved
1/2 cup loosely packed torn mint leaves
1/2 cup loosely packed torn basil leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Supreme the grapefruit: Trim off enough of the top and bottom ends of the grapefruit(s) to reveal the fruit inside, and then set it upright on a cutting board. Using a sharp chef’s knife, trim off all the peel and pith in strips by making downward cuts, working all the way around the fruit, being sure to remove all of the bitter pith. Now hold the peeled citrus over a bowl to collect juices, and using the sharp knife (or a serrated one works well), cut away all the fruit from the membranes, making clean slices into each segment of the grapefruit, collecting all the fruit and juices in the bowl and discarding all the seeds. Squeeze out all the juice from the carcass-like membrane of the fruit into the bowl; discard the membrane.
2. Measure out 2 tablespoons of the grapefruit juice into a small bowl or jar. Add the olive oil, red wine vinegar, mustard, and salt, then whisk to combine, or lid the jar tightly and shake until emulsified.
3. Just before serving, place the lettuce, radishes, cucumber, feta, almonds, mint, basil, and several grinds of black pepper in a serving bowl. Pick out the grapefruit segments and add them to the salad, cutting or tearing them in half or thirds to make bite-sized pieces. Leave the collected grapefruit juice behind (the cook gets to slurp that up as a treat). Drizzle with about two-thirds of the dressing, then gently toss the salad with your hands. Taste, adding a sprinkle of salt and/or additional dressing as necessary. Serve immediately.