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This colorful cabbage salad has evolved along with my eating habits

(Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post/Food styling by Gina Nistico for The Washington Post)

We were just having lunch when all of a sudden I realized that I had applied for a job and was already in the interview.

Joe Yonan and I were catching up, talking about projects and his plans for an upcoming leave, during which I’d be helping the Food team more. I told him that during his last leave, I missed the Weeknight Vegetarian recipe column and that we should think of ways to keep it going while he was out this time.

That’s when he asked me about my current eating habits, and I realized that I had just inadvertently volunteered. I was happy about it, really. I had passively suggested I could do something that I had actively considered asking to do; but I had been a little nervous about how to propose it.

I’m not a vegetarian. I’ve written about that before. But I have been adding more and more meatless dishes to my repertoire, driven equally as matters of health, convenience and conscience. I also enjoy them as a challenge. Like so many people, I’ve never been predisposed to liking most vegetables, and I tend to get a charge out of it when I make something that’s plant-based that I genuinely enjoy. Joe’s column has been a source for a lot of those discoveries, and recipes such as Mushroom-Walnut “Meatballs”; Sweet, Spicy and Crunchy Korean Tofu; and Spicy Sesame Chile Noodles are all on repeat in my rotation. Plus all the beans, of course.

So my desire to make sure this column didn’t go on hiatus in Joe’s absence was sort of selfish. Now I get to do the research, testing and sampling it takes to make it happen. I hope we’ll all benefit.

The dish I told Joe about over lunch was a salad that I’ve made for a few years and became my fallback through most of the pandemic. It’s a cabbage salad, which is funny because I hated cabbage when I was a kid. It’s based on a famous Wolfgang Puck creation: the Chinois chicken salad. I’ve had it at various Puck restaurants over the years, and I found that sometimes I loved it and sometimes I didn’t. At first, that confused me, but then I started paying attention. I realized that I liked the salad when the cabbage was thinly sliced, and not so much when it was cut into chunky bits. I started thinking about all the cabbage that was put in front of me when I was a kid. It was always chunky. Could I really have not hated cabbage so much as the way it was cut?

I don’t know, but I do know that no cabbage goes through my kitchen without being dispatched into slim, sturdy ribbons.

Eventually, I looked up Puck’s recipe online, and I made it. It’s great. But over the years, I’ve simplified and adapted it to my tastes. I pared down the dressing ingredient list. I changed the mango to orange. I subbed out radicchio for red cabbage. I added red onion.

I never used as much chicken as he called for, and sometime in the past couple years, I stopped putting chicken in it altogether. And I didn’t miss it. To me, this salad is about the heft of the cabbage, the cool of the lettuce, the crunch of the cashews and wonton chips, the brightness of the citrus and the umami bass note of the sesame-soy dressing.

So that’s what my eating habits are these days: things I can put together quickly with minimal cooking and even less thinking, where the inclusion of an animal protein isn’t assumed but a would-I-even-miss-it afterthought. And over the next few months, I hope I feature a recipe or two that enters your rotation on repeat.

Joe Yonan will return in May.

Get the recipe: Orange and Cashew Cabbage Salad with Sesame Dressing