Kale & Pecorino Salad with Pangrattato

By now, kale has been enjoying far more than 15 minutes of fame, and I’m really happy for it. It’s got everything that I adore in a salad green:  it’s hardy and keeps forever in the fridge, which means I can accidentally forget about it in the crisper, exhume it a week later, and it’s still in great shape; it also gets better as it sits with bracing vinaigrettes, yielding to a hearty softness and embracing acidity in ways that softer baby greens just can’t manage.

If you’ve poked around at all on my Instagram lately, you’ve maybe noticed that I’ve started a new (hopefully more or less permanent) habit of planning our meals for the week on Sunday nights. For desk-worthy lunches that can survive — even benefit from — a bumpy, longish commute, I have been making an addictive kale & pecorino salad lately that serves as an ingenious base for any number of lunchy modulations.

I first made this salad years and years ago, going off of a recipe from 101 Cookbooks that had itself come from a Melissa Clark tome, but I am about 70-80% sure you’ve had some version of this over kale’s years-long moment in the sun. It can easily become a kale Caesar salad by swapping out the dressing, a friend to all grain bowls by adding quinoa/farro/wheat berries/whatever, or a lively companion to some scrambled or fried eggs. I’ve gotten roomfuls of people addicted to the marinated kale from Publican Quality Meats, which is essentially this very combo of Tuscan kale, a hard Italian cheese, and a bright, garlicky dressing spiked with chili flakes, just without the breadcrumbs.

And speaking of the breadcrumbs. I’ll start by saying they’re technically optional. Especially if you are packing this as a lunch element, the breadcrumbs — pangrattato, really, but more on that in a minute — won’t hang on to their crispness as the salad melds and settles into itself. That’s part of their allure, really, a crunchy coating on otherwise softened but still textured kale leaves, not to mention another means to soak up the vivid flavors of the dressing.

So wait:  what’s this pangrattato?Why not just call it breadcrumbs?

(I’ll give you a second to silently answer that one on your own.)

What do plain breadcrumbs taste like? Here are some words that come to my mind:  Sand. Cardboard. Dead bread.

Don’t get me wrong:  breadcrumbs are a faithful workhorse in the kitchen. They bind, they fill, they bulk up, they do add texture in certain circumstances, and sometimes, yes, they add flavor.

But only — and this is key — after spending some time with a bit of fat, often some garlic and maybe herbs if you’ve got ’em, salt and pepper if you’re like me, and a quick interlude with high heat.

When you do this, guess what? You’ve made pangrattato. They’re basically seasoned breadcrumbs, and they are GOLD. Smash some super-stalebread into uneven, jagged chunks, toast in a hot pan with a liberal glug of olive oil and minced garlic, and you’ve got the Platonic ideal crouton for a soup. They’ll make you forget all about storebought croutons. (As I type this I realize I literally have not thought about storebought croutons in a decade or more.) Smash those chunks a little bit further, to the point where it’s more or less an even ratio of dust studded with pea-sized nuggets, and you’ve got pangrattato that’s at home atop mac and cheese, any gratineed vegetable, baked eggs, simple pasta, or… this salad.

Even without the pangrattato, the salad is a stunner and something I think you’ll look forward to using as a building block for all manner of weekday, weekend, holiday, and vacation lunches (and dinners, and breakfasts).

Notes:

  • To really pummel the garlic for the dressing, even without a mortar & pestle or a garlic press:  mince the clove of garlic as finely as you can with a knife. Sprinkle a bit of salt over it, then place the knife blade flat over the minced garlic. Angle the blade up just slightly, keeping pressure on the blade side, then drag slowly and firmly across the cutting board in a sort of scraping/smashing motion. Repeat until the garlic has formed a paste.
  • This salad works with almost any hard Italian cheese, but the earthiness of pecorino (sheep’s milk) cheese seems to round out the sharp lemon and garlic flavors nicely. I use pecorino stagionato most often for this, though there are other hard pecorinos out there too (ginepro is another good one). Pecorino Romano would be okay, but if you use it, cut down on the added salt as Romano can be pretty salty. Also nothing wrong with good parmigiano if you’ve got it — it’s not a sheep cheese, but let’s face it, it tastes good on and with everything, including this. Same goes for grana padano. And actually, come to think of it, I’ve also used an aged (like 12 month) Manchego on this as well, which turned out nicely. In hindsight, I could have thrown some roughly chopped marcona almonds in there too.
  • I am addicted to this salad, which means that like any addict, I will often accept it in quick-and-dirty form instead of waiting for dumb stuff like flavors marrying. Don’t be like me, let this sit for a couple of hours, if not overnight. (But after a few times doing that, you’ll be addicted too, at which point I will smile as I imagine you smearing the dressing over a raw kale leaf and just eating it as-is, dark green flecks poking out of your teeth, grinning the crazed grin of someone who has lost all shame. You’re gonna love it.)

Ingredients:

  • 2 bunches lacinato/tuscan/dinosaur/black kale (different names, same thing!)
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 4 oz hard Italian sheep’s milk cheese (pecorino), grated, divided
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • a pinch (or more) red chili pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup olive oil

Optional:  garlicky pangrattato for topping (recipe after the salad recipe)

Method:

Wash and dry the kale. (You can pat it dry with a kitchen towel or whiz it out in a salad spinner.) Then strip it by holding the end of the kale stem in your non-dominant hand, and using your dominant hand to strip the kale leaf off the stem. Make a pile of leaves and discard the stems or save them for another use. Chop the leaves to your preference — mine is somewhere past a rough chop but by no means a fine shred. This will soak in the dressing, so the idea is that you won’t need to spend an eternity chewing on a single leaf. Put the chopped kale in a large bowl.

Next, mince the garlic as finely as you can. You can do this with a mortar & pestle, a garlic press, or with the low-tech (but still very effective!) method outlined above. Add the garlic to a small bowl. Add the the lemon juice, half of the pecorino, a pinch of salt, several grinds of pepper (to taste — we use a lot), and half a pinch of chili flakes. Whisk together until the cheese has sort of broken down in the lemon juice and everything is loosely combined. Then add the olive oil, whisking again to combine.

Pour the dressing over the kale and mix using tongs or (better yet) clean hands to ensure every leaf is covered in dressing. Squeeze the kale in the tongs or in your hands, bruising and massaging it lightly. Scatter over the rest of the pecorino and mix one more time. Let sit at least one hour before serving, if not overnight. Keeps really well for about 3 days covered in the fridge.

If using the pangrattatto, mix it through the salad just before serving so it stays relatively crunchy.

You can use this salad as a catch-all base for all manner of leftovers, great for lunches.

For the pangrattato

Ingredients:

  • 2 (or more) slices of country/hearth bread, either old and stale on their own, or “staled” in a low oven until truly stale
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more as needed
  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced or grated (optional)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Method:

Make breadcrumbs out of the bread by doing one of the following:  place them in a large zip-top bag, seal up the bag, and bash the bread lightly (or not) until you’ve got mostly sturdy crumbs and a few bigger chunks, but before you’ve fully pulverized them. Unless that’s your thing! This is really free-form, people.

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat, then add the breadcrumbs. Stir occasionally until they’re uniformly crisp and golden. Add the garlic if using, stirring frequently so it doesn’t burn, and just long enough to soften the garlic and flavor the breadcrumbs. Finish with salt and pepper to taste. Use as much of this as you can, as soon as you can — this is a dream topping for everything from eggs, to pasta, to roasted vegetables and maybe a salsa verde, to, well, kale salad.

Note: since pangrattato lends itself pretty naturally to using up stale bread, you may have occasion to make a lot of it, but not eat it all at once. If you find yourself with a surplus, you can store the pangrattato in a jar or bowl at room temperature for a day or two. As long as you’re not encouraging further moisture, creating a soggy breadcrumb (ew); so don’t worry about refrigeration or airtight containers for this. 

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