over easy

Am I Cool Enough for This Salad?

Citrus, in the winter. Photo: Madeleine Aggeler

Over Easy is a weekly food column by a 20-something woman who can barely cook an egg and just wants to learn how to throw together an elegant three-course meal for her friends.

Approximately one in 10,000 people is truly, effortlessly cool. That is a statistic I just made up, but I think it sounds right. You can tell who these people are immediately by the way they float through the world like angels, but way cooler, unsullied by pedestrian questions like “How should I look/act/be?” They already know the answers — more than know them, they feel them in the marrow of their bones. They don’t follow trends, they start them. They don’t try to win your approval, they have their own. They are mostly Rihanna and Chloë Sevigny.

As one of the 9,999, I do not know the answers about how to look/act/be, which is why I didn’t know, until I was alerted by my cool co-worker, about a very cool recipe: the winter citrus salad. What? you might be thinking, or shouting angrily at your computer screen. Fruit? In the winter? Get out of here!!! I will not get out, but trust me, I felt the same way.

Winter, in my opinion, is a time for heavy, colorless meals that immediately put you to sleep, not light, colorful fruit salads that leave you feeling energized when it’s dark and cold outside. The Universe has a plan for us all, though, and shortly after I dismissed the concept, I was scrolling slack-jawed through the Instagram stories of some friends, but mostly strangers, one night, when I saw that someone had made the same winter citrus salad I had just dismissed. And it looked breezy, elegant, unexpected. Effortlessly cool. I needed to make it.

Don’t just take my word for it. “Uninspired by the produce aisle during winter?” asked Frances Kim of Martha Stewart Living. “Take another look at the citrus section!” Lauryn Tyrell, also of Martha Stewart Living, called grapefruit a “Winter Wonderfood.” After reading through a few different recipes, I decided to make Mark Bittman’s winter citrus salad from the Cooking Channel, because it was the most citrus-centric, and looked the most like the cool salad I had seen on Instagram.

Save for my dentist and my exes, I endeavor to be completely honest with absolutely everyone, which is why I must tell you that it took me two tries to get this seemingly simple salad right. I first attempted it one night when my friends came over for steaks. Bittman puts the total time for making the salad at 10 minutes, so after serving my friends their steaks, I breezed into the kitchen and started peeling a grapefruit, a navel orange, and two blood oranges. This was no small task to accomplish with our kitchen knife, which is as sharp as a cloud. At first, I cut the peel off the grapefruit and then tried to slice it into wheel segments, but ended up mashing most of it into the cutting board. I tried the same with the navel orange, with much the same outcome. As for the blood oranges, I cut them into segments first, with the peel still on, and then cut the peel off each segment. When I was finished, my pile of citrus looked limp and slimy.

I chopped up a shallot, per Bittman’s instructions, confident that it would revive the citrus, and sprinkled it over the plate, along with a little bit of salt. Then I mixed together the dressing – three tablespoons of olive oil, half a tablespoon of sherry vinegar, half a teaspoon of honey, and some lime juice. Bittman’s recipe also called for tarragon, which, I discovered by clawing through our spice shelves, we do not have. At this point, 20 minutes into my 10-minute preparation, I poured the sauce over the mushy lump of fruit and called it a day. I felt neither effortless nor cool.

Because I hadn’t accounted for how little usable citrus I ended up having after my massacre at the cutting board, the dressing was overpowering, coating the measly juice sacs in a thick layer of oil. The vinegar assaulted our taste buds and the citrus pleaded for mercy, and somewhere in all the noise, the honey whimpered. Do you remember that scene in Last Days of Disco where Chloë Sevigny says, “There’s something very sexy about Scrooge McDuck,” and you think, What am I hearing here? It was like that, but in my mouth.

The next week, I tried again, knowing the fault was not with the recipe, but with my preparation. I got another grapefruit, more oranges, and set aside plenty of time to prepare them. I went with my earlier method of cutting the citrus into segments with the peel on, which was more time consuming, but cleaner and more efficient. When that was done, I layered them on a plate, chopped up another shallot, sprinkled them with more salt than before, and prepared the dressing, for which I had purchased tarragon this time. I also used a scootch less oil. Tasting the dressing, I was happy with it, and then poured it over the citrus, and took a bite, and finally, I GOT it.

The salt mellowed out the tartness of the citrus, the tarragon added a sweet earthiness, and everything was finally in balance. I had the citrus salad on a Monday night, in my sweatpants, but it would be far better suited for a brunch, or a candlelit dinner with a few close friends, where it could serve as a refreshing side, brightening the dreary, dark winter. It was cool, but making it definitely wasn’t effortless. Then again, I’m no Rihanna. I’m no Chloë Sevigny.

My Report Card
Preparation: B-
Taste: A (when I got it right)
Effortless Coolness: B

My Overall Performance: B

Am I Cool Enough for This Salad?