The Times West Virginian

July 11, 2012

Easy and versatile

By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — There are salads that you ever-so-politely nibble on.

Not Cathy Davis’ California Tossed Salad.

It fills a large bowl to the brim. You have to grab it with tongs, lift it to your plate and, as she says it, “dive on in.”

It’s filling. It’s healthy. It’s easy to make.

And, best of all, it’s very versatile, she said.

“This recipe is just a guideline. Put in what you like. Take out what you don’t like. You could add meat. Absolutely.

“You can change anything. If you don’t like an ingredient, don’t put it in. You can also make it into different kinds of salads.”

For a little French flair, use endive, spring mix or butter lettuce, switch to bleu cheese, add broccoli or radishes, and change the dressing to plain yogurt with bleu cheese cream dressing.

For a good old red-white-and-blue American salad, use good old American iceberg lettuce; mozzarella, provolone or even Colby cheese; and frozen peas.

“Obviously you’d want to eat it right away,” she said.

She found the recipe in a newspaper article back in 1985 or ’86, when she and her husband Jim Salai were living in Florida. It had originally come from a book.

“But I’ve never run into it anywhere before. I’ve been making it since. I’ve just stylized it. It’s nice that way because you can stylize it.”

Don’t like bacon? Substitute chicken. (“But why would you?” she asked playfully.)

“This is not a good leftover salad. It’s a good we’re-gonna-eat-it-all-today salad,” she said. “It gets weepy.”

The secret is to get all the ingredients “really, really dry,” she said.

You can get the ingredients done ahead of time; just don’t mix them together until a few hours before you’re ready to serve the salad.

“I put the ingredients in baggies yesterday and built the salad this morning,” she said. “As long as you don’t put it all together. You do have to let it sit for a couple of hours. It’s better that way. Everything runs together.”

You can add protein, like shrimp, chicken, turkey. Leave out what you don’t like.

You can use different fruit other than oranges. Strawberries or peaches or even apples would be nice.

You can use different flavored yogurt. You can use any kind of creamy dressing you want.

“But not anything with oil,” she said. “It doesn’t mix well with the yogurt. If you want to use ranch, use a plain yogurt.”

No matter what you do, it’s bound to become your “please make it” dish.

“At all the teacher’s meetings and luncheons in any state I’ve ever lived in, they all wanted this salad,” Davis said.

This salad is “totally healthy. It’s low-fat yogurt, low-fat cheese. You could use egg whites or turkey bacon.

“I don’t like frozen, processed foods, but they’re a necessity now.”

They’ve lived in their home overlooking a large pond and spacious yard for about 10 years now. Both are Marion Countians born and bred, but have lived all over the country, from Florida to New York State to Colorado to Kansas and Pennsylvania.

There have been good and bad things about all those places, but no matter where they’ve roamed, they always come back to West Virginia.

Jim has a master’s in athletic training and was in sports medicine for years. He’s also run his own clinic and did arena football.

“He got burned out,” she said with a laugh.

She holds a teaching license and has been a school librarian and social studies teacher for years. This year she will teach at East Fairmont Junior High.

“We’ve been together for 35 years,” she said. “I’ve liked every place we’ve been.

“But the neatest thing I learned was that the kids are all the same. And I can tell my students that.”

She likes to be flexible, “like the salad,” she said.

Add a beverage and some crusty bread, and you’ve got a meal. And when you scoop out that first portion and heap it onto your plate, don’t count on it being neat and clean.

“Like a pie, the first piece is always the messiest,” she said, laughing.

“You’re supposed to toss it. But you just dive for it.”

You can section the oranges, but she just peels and chops, and she’s ready to go.

“I don’t care if they have membranes on them. And don’t cut the oranges over the salad. Do it over another bowl. Drain the juice off. You need to put dry pieces in the salad.

“You could use those fruit cup orange pieces, but you have to drain them very well. You don’t want the extra water, or the salad will get soupy on you.”

She rolls up the lettuce pieces in a dishtowel after they’ve drained in the colander, to avoid any unwanted moisture.

“These are just some tricks I’ve picked up over the years,” she said.

Every Wednesday through September, Take 5 wants you to take us on a picnic. Submit your summertime recipes to Debbie Wilson at 304-367-2549 or

Email Debra Minor Wilson at