Friday, October 30, 2020

Kale Salad…it’s all about the timing

For the past twenty years my work as a private chef has allowed me the luxury of cooking food and serving it right away (as opposed to catering work where one prepares food for transport and reheat).  But my new curbside pickup dinners have put me in the position of cooking food more like a caterer.  This food has to withstand packaging, transport, and reheating/finishing out of my sight.  I find this (particularly the “out of my sight” part) a bit stressful…but in the grand scheme of stressors inherent in our pandemic world, this is minor. For me, many of the pitfalls of this kind of cooking can be avoided—or at least minimized—with careful menu planning.

As I have navigated designing menus for these dinners, one of the difficulties has been salads.  I love salad—of all kinds.  Anytime I prepare a multi course meal I want to include salad.  Not only do they add something fresh and raw, they are a great source of textural and flavor counterpoint to the richer foods usually included in the entrée and/or the dessert.  Unfortunately, once lettuces have been dressed they have to be eaten straight away…making a dressed lettuce-based salad inappropriate for inclusion in a meal destined to be consumed at a later time.  By the time the dressed salad gets to its destination it will have wilted from the weight and acidity of the vinaigrette.

The obvious solution to this problem is to package the salad components and the dressing separately.
  This is a reasonable way to present the salad…and I have done it (and will do it again)…but this solution has its pitfalls too.  Salads are best when the lettuces and additions are tossed together (by hand) in a bowl so that everything will be lightly and evenly coated with just the right amount of vinaigrette.  A well dressed salad is typically not perfectly dressed after the first “toss.”  When I dress a salad, I add salt and pepper, drizzle in some vinaigrette, toss, and then taste.  At this point the salad will probably require some more attention:  Maybe more salt…or a tad more dressing…or a squeeze of lemon even.  I always add less dressing than I think I need at the first pass because an overdressed salad is soggy—and once added you can’t take it away.  (You can always add more.)  Even with a small instruction sheet that is sent home with the curbside dinners, I have no way of knowing if this is how people are dressing their salads.  I wonder if the salad ingredients are simply turned onto a plate with the entire contents of the vinaigrette container poured over.  I’m sure—because the ingredients are delicious—that when eaten this way that the salads are fine.  But they might not be as good as they could be.  And I want to serve food that is more than “fine.”  I want it to be delicious!

So far the best solution I have discovered to my salad dilemma (besides choosing an appetizer other than a salad…) is to choose greens that taste even better after the dressing has had time to sit on them and soften them a bit.  The most obvious green in this category has been green cabbage…in coleslaw. 

Growing up I didn’t think of coleslaw as salad.  I thought of it as some bizarre inedible found at almost every potluck gathering or as the obligatory accompaniment to otherwise delicious barbecue.  I don’t know when it dawned on me that it could actually be a delicious salad (Coleslaw is from the Dutch Koolsla, which translates as “cabbage salad”)…but I have probably written about this before…and have actually posted a couple of tasty recipes. I think the coleslaw I included in one of my summer dinners went over very well.  And as we head into the winter—when cabbage comes into its own—I will probably include coleslaw of some kind again.

But the salad green that has been the very best for my curbside pickup dinners has been kale.  This may cause some eye rolls or heavy sighs from people who are tired of kale.  In recent years kale has enjoyed immense popularity…and has also suffered a fall from favor that is surely a backlash due to overexposure.  And this is a shame.  I won’t get into all of the whys of kale's rise and fall here—mostly because I don’t really understand how a food suddenly become an “it” food in the first place.  I will only say that one of the main reasons that overexposed foods fall out of favor is misuse and improper preparation.  Kale has definitely suffered from both of these.  When served cooked, it is frequently undercooked (not all vegetables should be crunchy or al dente!)…and when served as a salad, often—believe it or not—it isn't dressed far enough in advance.

Kale is after all cabbage.  The Italian name for Tuscan Kale (Cavolo Nero) means black cabbage.  So it makes sense that this substantial and impervious green would taste best in a salad after it has had time to absorb the flavor…and soften from the acidity…of the dressing.  Kale salads stand up so well to the dressing that they can even be eaten as a leftover the next day.  (If you have ever tried to eat leftover dressed salad made with baby lettuce or arugula…or just about any other salad green…before, you probably don’t believe this.)  In fact, kale salads are often better the next day (depending on what else is in the salad).

As far as my dinners were concerned, I had forgotten about kale salads because I don’t tend to eat them in the warmer months (although I do make a delicious warm weather entrée-sized kale salad that involves roasted corn and Italian sausage…).  It was only when I began planning a curbside menu for the first of the cooler weather…and I saw kale back at the farmers market…that I thought about the advantages of using it for a curbside dinner.

The salad I made for the most recent dinner was a combination of the one found on the blog Smitten Kitchen…and the first kale salad I ever tasted (made by my chef friend Nancy).  I borrowed the golden raisins, walnuts, salty pecorino and garlicky toasted breadcrumbs from Smitten Kitchen…and took some crunchy, shaved celery and a fantastic Honey-Dijon vinaigrette from Nancy.  The resulting salad was really, really good:  a flavor party of contrasting tastes and textures.   After the curbside dinner I had leftovers of all the salad ingredients.  So I was able to enjoy this salad for lunch and dinner several days running (with soup…grilled cheese…quesadilla…etc.).  I never got tired of it.

One of the morals of the story here is that if you think you don’t like kale salads, it may be because you have always eaten them too soon after they have been dressed.  I suspect that if you prepared a kale salad for yourself …and then waited a half hour or so to eat it…that you would find that you really liked it.  This particular kale salad would be a great one to use as your first test case.  

  Autumn Kale Salad

100 g. (scant cup) walnuts
62 g. (mounded 1/3 cup) golden raisins
4 t. each white wine vinegar and water
1/4 c. coarse fresh bread crumbs
2 t. olive oil
1 very small clove of garlic
170 g. prepared Tuscan kale (see note)
100 g. (1 c.) thinly sliced celery
2 oz. pecorino, grated medium fine (it should have some texture)
1/2 recipe Honey-Dijon vinaigrette (below)

Spread the walnuts on a small baking sheet and place in a 350° oven and toast until they begin to take on a golden color and are fragrant—about 5 to 7 minutes.  Remove from the oven and set aside to cool (if you like, toss with a small drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt).  When the nuts are cool enough to handle, crumble coarsely by hand (or chop, if you prefer—I like the texture of hand crumbled walnuts).  Set aside. 

Place the raisins in a small saucepan with the vinegar and water.  Bring to a simmer.  Simmer gently for five minutes or so (until plump and soft—the liquid may or may not be fully absorbed…this is ok).  Set the raisins aside (don’t drain).

Place the breadcrumbs and olive oil in a small non-stick sauté pan over moderate heat.  Let the crumbs sizzle, stirring regularly with a heatproof spatula, until they are golden in color.  Remove from the heat and use a microplaner to grate the garlic over the crumbs.  Give them one last stir.  Transfer the crumbs to a plate.  Set aside.

Dress the salad:  Place the kale in a large bowl along with the walnuts, raisins (with liquid), celery and pecorino.  Season with freshly ground pepper.  Drizzle most of the vinaigrette over and toss.  Use your hands to toss the greens, massaging/rubbing the vinaigrette into the kale a bit as you toss.

Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper.  Let the salad sit for at least 10 minutes before serving.  Even better—if time allows, cover the salad, and let it sit in the fridge for 30 minutes to an hour.  When ready to serve, toss again, adding more dressing if necessary.  Mound on individual plates or in a serving bowl and scatter the toasted crumbs over all.

Serves 4 generously.


  • It would be nice if bunches of kale always weighed the same. Unfortunately this is not the case. I have purchased bunches that weighed barely four ounces…and some that were 2/3 of a pound or more. A third to a half pound seems to be mostly the norm. You will need at least a half pound untrimmed kale to get the 6 oz. (170 g) of trimmed greens needed for this salad. It is best to purchase two bunches (unless they are very large).
  • To prepare the kale, strip out the center rib. Stack the leaves and cut cross-wise in 1/2-inch ribbons. Wash well (in several changes of water) and spin dry. If not using right away, store in an airtight container with a damp paper towel.
(Adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

Honey-Dijon Vinaigrette

1 T. honey
2 t. Dijon mustard
2 T. Sherry vinegar
1 t. fresh lemon juice
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 c. olive oil

In a small bowl whisk together the honey, Dijon, Sherry vinegar, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Whisk until the salt dissolves, then slowly whisk in the olive oil until you have a nice creamy emulsion. Taste & correct the seasoning.

Printable Version


No comments: