I remember it so clearly: the day my perspective on salads was enunciated aloud. It wasn’t by me. I’d had mixed, un-uttered feelings about salads for years, but it wasn’t until the year after I’d graduated from college, as I watched one of my roommates adding spinach, and then sliced tomatoes, and then garbanzo beans, and then hunks of cheese, and one or two (or five) other ingredients to a big red bowl – one of those bowls with the spout on one side for easy pouring, and a rubber bottom so it wouldn’t slide around the counter – and she looked up at me watching and said “I like my salads with a lot of stuff in them.”
Yes. That was right. That was why the salads my dad liked to pair with pasta – lettuce, a few tomatoes, maybe a sliver of cucumber or three, and the occasional crouton – didn’t seem worth it to me. That was why the house salad at innumerable restaurants was a chore to crunch through rather than a pleasure (I’d rather have had another basket of bread). There was a whole course for that sort of thing? Boring. Bring on the entree.
But salads are – can be! – exciting, if we are mindful of my roommate’s assertion. They just need a lot of stuff in them. And at this time of the summer, when all I want for dinner is a big salad, or something charred and fragrant off the grill, it seems the right moment to combine the two for a salad so stuffed with, well, stuff, that it needs no entree to help it along. It is no side; no first course. It is the main event. And this main event has found its way to our table an embarrassing number of times in the past few months.
I took guacamole as my inspiration, and chunked up all the ingredients necessary there – tomatoes, onion, cilantro, a whisper of jalapeno, if spicy suits you, and of course a mound of buttery, creamy cubes of avocado. Lime and garlic found their way in as part of a dressing, the brisk acidity and bite of raw garlic tempered a bit with a drizzle of honey. Because it’s grilling season, I couldn’t help but add some corn on the cob, grilled whole, then kernels lopped off to find their sweet, charred way into the mix. Since the grill was on anyway, the logical thing to do was to grill up a hunk of flank or skirt steak, liberally rubbed with spices, and slice it thin to lay across the top of all that veg. And then, because why not, a generous crumbling of queso fresco. Deconstructed guacamole. Steak. Corn. Cheese. Stuff.
This sounds like a salad only tangentially. I haven’t even mentioned crisp romaine, or toothsome kale, or fresh, grassy spinach. The thing is, as Mark Bittman taught me, the greens part of the salad is neither the starring role, nor (stay with me here) even necessary! Though I did end up including a greens foundation here (I chose cabbage because it stays crisp, and because it’s the green I like most in tacos – you could easily swap it out for lettuce of any sort, or even spinach if you prefer), the salad is bolstered by it, not overwhelmed with it. Any odd forkful is going to include a mix of vegetables, not a pile of cabbage with the occasional tomato you had to hunt around for.
If you’ve got a grill, this salad is executable without even looking at your oven or your stove. It is fresh and light, but still substantial, it carries a pleasant citrus bite but is creamy from the avocado and the cheese, and it makes a big bowlful. The steak is flavorful and slightly spicy; I’ve included my seasoning blend here, but you can use any mixture of spices you like – this is another tasty one. N. and I found ourselves fighting over the last succulent pieces as we went back for seconds. And though the salad stands alone just fine, as noted above, if you simply have to char a few corn tortillas over the grill at the last minute to serve in place of bread or chips on the side, I doubt anyone would argue. Because you, my friend, just won summer.
Guacamole Steak Salad
For the steak:
1 pound skirt steak
1 teaspoon salt
pinch of cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
zest of 1 lime
1 tablespoon olive oil or vegetable oil
For the corn:
2 ears corn, husks and silk removed, stalk end still in place
salt and pepper for sprinkling
a few teaspoons olive oil to drizzle or spray over the corn
For the salad:
8-12 ounces thinly sliced cabbage shreds
16 ounces cherry tomatoes, quartered, OR 4 medium tomatoes, cored and cubed
8-10 green onions, roots removed, thinly sliced
2 avocados, pitted, peeled, and cubed
6 ounces crumbled queso fresco
½ cup packed chopped cilantro, from one bunch
For the dressing:
¼ cup lime juice (estimate 2-3 limes)
2-4 cloves garlic, very finely minced
2 teaspoons honey
⅓ – ½ cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat your grill to high. While it heats, we’ll prep the steak and the corn. Spread the steak out on a flat surface (I just unwrap it and leave it on the butcher paper wrapping it came in to save on dishes). Place the salt, the cayenne, and the other spices in a small bowl and combine with a fork. Add the lime zest and the olive oil and mix again – it will have the consistency of wet sand.
- Scoop up half the sandy spice mixture you’ve created and rub it over one side of the steak. Be liberal in your application, and don’t be too gentle about it either – really massage it into the surface of the steak. Flip the steak over and repeat the process with the remaining half of the spice mixture, then set the steak aside to drink up some flavor.
- Now we’ll prep the corn. Remove all husks and silk, but leave the stalk end on – it makes cutting the kernels off later on a bit easier because you have a built-in handle. Coat the corn with a drizzle or a few sprays of olive oil, being sure you get it on all sides of the ear. Sprinkle on salt and pepper as well, again, being sure all sides get seasoned.
- Place the seasoned corn directly on the grates of the grill, and grill over high, direct heat for about 8 minutes, turning every few minutes. Your goal is to cook it through, and create a beautiful, golden char on all sides.
- When the corn is done, set it aside to cool. In its place, flop the steak onto the grill and grill over high, direct heat for 5 minutes undisturbed. Flip it over and grill another 5 minutes, again, undisturbed. Remove to a plate or platter, cover with a layer of aluminum foil, and set aside to rest for about 10 minutes. This gives the juices time to redistribute and it allows for a bit of carryover cooking – by the time you slice it up, the steak will be medium to medium-well (skirt steak can be a bit uneven in thickness).
- While all this grilling and resting is going on, make the rest of the salad. Place the cabbage, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and queso fresco into a large bowl. You can either mix them all together, or arrange the ingredients in rows atop the cabbage like a cobb salad for pretty presentation.
- To add the corn, stand up one of the grilled ears, which should be cool enough to handle by now, with the stalk sticking up toward you. Hold the stalk firmly and, with a sharp knife, cut straight down the ear, sawing back and forth a bit to help loosen the kernels. As you remove each segment of kernels, rotate the ear a bit to line up a new segment. Add the kernels to the salad. Some will be individual; some will be in big chunks. That’s okay. They will break up as we toss the whole thing.
- To make the dressing, juice the limes and add the finely minced garlic, and the honey. Combine with a fork or a small whisk. Drizzle in the olive oil, whisking continuously, until the dressing emulsifies. Start with ⅓ cup of oil, then dunk in a chunk of tomato and give the dressing a taste to see what you think. Remember, it will taste stronger straight out of the mixing bowl than it will when you’ve tossed the entire salad with it.
- Season the dressing to your liking, adding more of the olive oil if it is too acidic for you. Add the avocados to the salad immediately before you add the dressing, to prevent browning.
- The last step here is to add the meat. Unwrap the steak from its rest and place it on a board or butcher block to slice it. Using a sharp knife, cut thin slices (no more than ¼ inch or so) against the grain at an angle. This will give you lovely tender slices. Drape the slices over the salad, down the center for a pleasing presentation.
- Serve immediately, with a side of charred corn tortillas, if desired.