It’s unlikely that anyone hoping to shed a few pounds this New Year is considering eating more health salad. Health salad, for the uninitiated, is a Jewish-deli staple consisting primarily of shredded cabbage and carrots thoroughly sloshed with a slightly sweet white-vinegar-forward dressing. (The kitchen at 2nd Ave Deli adds green peppers, celery, and chives to the mix; up at Zabar’s, the deli-case crew is partial to cucumbers.) One reason health salad is considered healthy is because, unlike its cousin coleslaw, it forgoes mayo. The reason it may not be considered healthy is guilt by association: It runs with a rough and calorific crowd, including pastrami, blintzes, potato pancakes, noodle kugel, and chopped liver. No one goes to a deli for their health, after all, let alone just to eat health salad.
An odd thing about health salad is the name itself. The fact that salads are generally understood to be healthy and nutritious is a point seemingly lost on whoever it was that coined the term. What was the thinking behind it? Maybe it was to distinguish it from the kitchen’s line of Instant Heart Attack Salads. Or maybe it was to emphasize the super-salubriousness of the dish, suggesting that it’s okay to order the kishke so long as you balance it out with a pile of shredded cabbage. Perhaps it was supposed to serve as a warning to old-school fressers and other cholesterol addicts: This is something that’s good for you; you may not like it.
That last might explain why, although health salad is traditionally served gratis in a big bowl or stainless-steel bucket and delivered to the table before you even order, it’s often neglected, if not left untouched. Which is too bad, because a good health salad is a beautiful thing — cool and crunchy and fairly invigorating. It is our homegrown version of a juice cleanse, a native New York, post-resolutions way to greet the New Year (although cabbage happens to be a cold-weather storage crop, which is why our thoughts turned to it, health salad knows no season).
Like delis themselves, health salads are on the wane. But during the pandemic, we discovered a new favorite, not at a deli but at Poulet Sans Tête, the superb four-year-old rotisserie-chicken takeout wing of West Village restaurant Left Bank. Chef Laurence Edelman put it on the menu as a nod to the diners and delis of his South Orange, New Jersey, youth, including Eppes Essen and the kosher-hot-dog spot Don’s. Edelman’s version goes heavy on the sliced cucumbers and skips the sugar, which makes for a sharper, snappier, picklier bite, enhanced by celery seed and dill. It’s as great a foil for crisp-skinned roast chicken and drippings potatoes as it would be for a pastrami on rye, and it will, as some departed deli connoisseurs of our acquaintance might have said, put hair on your chest.
Cucumber Health Salad
1/2 head green cabbage
6 Kirby cucumbers
1 large carrot
3 to 4 tablespoons kosher salt
1 bunch dill
1 tablespoon celery seed
3/4 cup distilled white vinegar
3 tablespoons water
Cut the cabbage in half again, and remove the core of each section. Using a mandoline or a knife, slice the cabbage very thin and place in large mixing bowl. Slice the cucumbers and the carrot into approximately ⅛-inch rounds and add to the bowl. Salt the cabbage, cut cucumbers, and carrot. Let sit for 30 to 60 minutes, then rinse well. Chop the dill, and add it and the remaining ingredients to the bowl. Toss well, cover, and refrigerate for at least three hours before serving. Makes two quarts. Adapted from Laurence Edelman.