That one kale salad

“Yes, but which one?”

He had a point.
The one with avocado and lemon and pepitas?  The one with pecorino and red pepper flakes and breadcrumbs?  The one with dates and almond butter and lime?  The one with…
Today, Sunday, we were charged with bringing a salad, after making plans to see friends we hadn’t seen since our wedding over a year ago.  In the intervening months, our friends’ family had grown by exactly one tiny little girl, and they had moved to a new home in the city. 

Danny requested a kale salad, which was a fine idea.  I simply responded with something like, “Cool.  Sounds good.”  To which he asked the question up top.  Which one? 

I don’t know which raw kale salad came first.  I think it was this one, addictive to this day, with lots of pecorino and a punch of garlic and red pepper flakes.  But it might have been this one, with lemon and avocado (and carrot and sunflower or pumpkin seeds or whatever you have).  But then again, it could have been one I learned how to make at work, the recipe for which I have lost track, but which involved an unlikely but equally addictive combination of dates, almond butter, tamari, lime, lime zest, and other stuff I can’t even remember. 

All of these salads have been claimed to be “gateway” salads to advance the cause of raw kale.  But when I think about it, I have not had a kale salad that has not been delicious and instantly easy to love.  Which makes me think that raw kale salad is not the thing to be feared among the uninitiated; it’s fully raw, undressed kale that is to blame for the bad rap. 

I was shopping once, pulling a bundle of lacinato (aka Tuscan, aka black, aka dinosaur) kale down from the rack, when a woman came up to me and asked what I do with the kale.  It happened that week that I had plans to make a big kale salad, though if you’ve been reading or have met me, you know that I will shove that stuff into just about anything — pretty much any soup, scrambles, under fish, next to steak, cooked down with beans, whatever.  I told the woman about my salad, and I asked her if she was buying kale too.

“I have it on my list, but it’s one of those things that I know I should buy, and I keep hearing about people making all kinds of fabulous stuff with it, but I just don’t know what to do with it.  I have tried it before, and did not care for it.”

“What did you do with it?”

“Well, I just… cut it up and ate it with some salad dressing.”

“Did you let it sit for a while to absorb the dressing?”

“No…?”

OH HONEY.  That there is your first problem.  And now I speak to all fearers of kale:

Think of a carpaccio.  Yes, beef carpaccio.  (I am going somewhere with this, just sit tight.)  It is essentially raw beef.  And what cut of beef is used in a carpaccio?  That’s right, a tenderloin.  The tenderest part of the bunch.  Do you ever see anything other than that cut used for a carpaccio?  Ribeye?  Flank?  Chuck?  God I hope not.  (If you do, it’s appropriate to get up and leave the establishment.)  For a raw application, only the tenderest cut will work.

Green, leafy salad is raw.  You may have forgotten this.  Many vegetables are delicious when eaten totally raw, but not all of them.  Vegetables in the form of leaves, furthermore, are still, above all, vegetables and are not universally appropriate for the same quick dress-and-go salad situation.  Think of your spring mix as the filet or tenderloin of salad greens. Immediately tender, tasty with very little processing or seasoning — a quick vinaigrette, and away we go.  Now think of kale like a heartier cut:  it needs a little more time in the marinade before it’s of much use to you.  But once it’s broken down appropriately — usually by the handy acids in that same vinaigrette — it is truly delicious and just as satisfying (if not more so, due to its heartiness). 

Does that help?

Somehow I made that analogy work in like one minute with the woman at the grocery store.  I don’t know how her kale turned out, but I felt good about my leafy green evangelizing.

That said, every kale salad worth making has at least three things in common:

  1. Raw kale
  2. An acidic dressing
  3. TIME

I would recommend at least a few hours between assembly and consumption, though in many cases, Danny has admitted that he prefers an overnight soak in the dressing.  I have enjoyed Publican Quality Meats‘ “marinated kale” (a cold kale salad, with more dressing than Heidi Swanson’s, and without the breadcrumbs I think [?], but very similar in flavor and addictive properties) the day after, and it’s just as delicious as Day One, which, for all I know, could very well be Day Two or even Three.

 Today’s salad was a more chilled-out, dare I say more sophisticated version of the pecorino-garlic-red pepper flake incarnation.  I love that one, but often I am alone in my adoration of such raw garlic power, and as I get older (I can’t even believe I just said that) I find I get headaches after a solid dose of the raw stuff.  This version has a shallot instead of garlic, and ricotta salata instead of pecorino — though I imagine you’d be just as successful using the latter anyway.  We ate this alongside all manner of grilled proteins, but during the week I am not shy about dishing up a huge bowl of this, maybe adding some grilled chicken or a fried egg on top, or maybe not, and calling it dinner.  The beauty of letting it hang out in the fridge is that you truly get a few days out of it, so don’t be shy about making a double or even triple batch, depending on what you’re doing.  I’ve brought this to a picnic one day, to work for lunch the next, and finished it off for breakfast the following morning. 

Get this:

  • 2 bunches lacinato/dino/black/Tuscan kale.  Red kale or green curly kale are okay in a pinch, but the texture and flavor of the lacinato kale are just so much nicer.
  • 1 medium shallot, minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon mustard powder
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/8-1/4 cup olive oil, depending on taste and how much kale you have
  • pinch of salt + pepper to taste
  • 6 oz ricotta salata, coarsely grated/shredded (I find sheep ricotta most often, but I have had the goat’s milk version and it is divine.  Grab it if you find it.)

Do this:

Do you know how to strip kale?  If you don’t, you should — it will change your world.  Grab the stem end of the kale in your left hand (if you are right-handed), pinch the end of the leaf part with your right index finger and thumb, and drag your right hand up the length of the stem to strip the tender leaf part from the thick stem.  Do this for all the kale, then lay out the leaves and chop into small, bite-sized pieces.  I have tried cutting the pieces very small in the past — almost like shredding them — and I will tell you that I don’t like it quite so much.  I like a bit more texture.  But do what feels good for you!  Get all your chopped kale in a large mixing bowl, and set it aside.

Throw that shallot, lemon juice, mustard powder, salt & pepper in a bowl, and whisk briefly to combine.  I like to let the shallot sit in the lemon for a few minutes, before adding the oil, to help tone down the shallot’s pungency.  Give that 5-10 minutes, then whisk in the olive oil.  As I noted, you may need more or less, depending on taste and how large your kale bunches were.  (You know as well as I do that sometimes you find monster bunches, and sometimes you find little petite bunches.)

Once your dressing is combined, add it to the kale, and massage/mix it together, ideally with some tongs (I find they have the best squishing/lifting/stirring capabilities).  Once the dressing has coated all the leaves, add the cheese and mix one more time.  Cover the bowl or throw the salad in whatever container you’re using to transport it somewhere, and shove it in the fridge til you need it. 

Even to me, sometimes this version of the salad sounds almost too simple and on the verge of boring.  But especially in hot weather, I find I really like its straightforwardness, and the flavor is anything but dull.  The lemon juice gives it a very nice punch — you could squeeze a little extra on when serving — and the ricotta salata is salty and soft, with a texture you don’t often find in a salad.

Tell me what you think...

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