If you ordered a “green salad” in almost any restaurant in the United States in the 1970s, they probably brought you a plate of iceberg lettuce, adorned perhaps with thin slices of cucumber and tomato. You then chose a dressing: French, Italian, Russian, or blue cheese.
And then, by sometime in the mid-1980s, Jeremiah Tower and Alice Waters came along and showed us some new salad greens: arugula, little gem and other leafy lettuces, radicchio, endive, and sometimes fresh herbs, especially chervil. Mixed altogether they were known as mesclun, and the big supermarkets began to carry prewashed mixed bags of mesclun. The introduction of mesclun on a mass scale forever changed the way we think of salad greens.
Poor iceberg lettuce lost its predominant position, at least in terms of culinary cachet, as romaine and mesclun made their way to the top of the lettuce hierarchy. Nostalgia may play a minor role, but I’m still a fan of the classic diner special of a thick wedge of iceberg, chilled almost to the freezing point, drizzled with creamy blue cheese, eaten like a steak, carved with knife and fork.
And in the unlikely event that anyone should ever accuse me of food snobbery, allow me to relay that I still have vivid memories of myself, somewhere around age 7 or so, bugging Mrs. Meyer, my babysitter, to make me a third, or fourth or fifth, sandwich that consisted of Wonder Bread, a giant pile of iceberg leaves, and a huge smear of Miracle Whip. The beginning of the road to breakaway cooking!
Nowadays I’m going for greener, more intense salads, salads that satisfy so deeply that they can be, and often are, the main component of dinner. And salads that star raw kale fit this bill nicely.
Most home cooks think that kale must be cooked, but it doesn’t; it’s absolutely delicious raw. You do have to chop it somewhat finely, however, since big pieces of kale leaves require quite a bit of chewing.
And, unlike more delicate green salads, it benefits from a “marination” in the dressing: the longer it sits in the dressing, the better, which makes it the ideal make-ahead dish.
Raw kale also seems to go best with very bold flavor contrasts: lots of vinegar for tang, plenty of dried fruit for sweet, and a healthy dusting of crispy breadcrumbs for texture. Try the version below first, then come up with your own breakaway kale salad, using ingredients you already have on hand.
Raw Kale Salad with Dried Fruit, Aged Cheese, Spiced Breadcrumbs, and Flowers
It’s pretty rare to be surprised by a salad these days, but this one just might do it. It’s a very open-ended recipe in that you can substitute far and wide and still have it come out tasting great.
You can use any kind of kale for this, but the intense dark color of black kale, also called lacinato kale and dino kale, is especially alluring.
The dried fruit can be a big mix of any fruit, but ginger, gojiberry, cranberry, and apricot play beautifully together.
The vinegar can be a combination (apple cider vinegar, rice vinegar, and a small amount of balsamic is an excellent one), or a single vinegar; the dried fruit will absorb most of it, creating little sweet-sour blasts throughout the salad.
The aged cheese, too, can be anything: a good parmesan, asiago, pecorino, aged cheddar, or–my preference–an old gouda. The flowers are optional, and purely for color, but they are a really nice addition. Don’t skip the breadcrumbs though — they give the salad a lovely and rather surprising crunch. Makes about six large servings.
- * 1 cup diced dried fruit
- * 1 cup vinegar of choice
- * 2 small-medium bunches black kale, backbones removed, then somewhat finely chopped
- * 1 small watermelon radish, sliced into matchsticks
- * 3 or 4 tablespoons fruity green olive oil
- * salt and freshly ground black pepper
- * 1/2 cup shaved aged cheese, chopped roughly
- * 1/4 cup or 1/2 cup (if you like more crunch) spiced breadcrumbs — stale bread, pulsed in a coffee grinder to produce something between traditional breadcrumbs and traditional croutons, with a little salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper added to it, then sauteed in a pan with some butter
- * 1/4 cup edible flowers (optional)
Place the chopped fruit in a small mixing bowl, and pour the vinegar over it. Let the dried fruit macerate in the vinegar for a while if you can (say an hour); it will plump up nicely if you do. Do that step first while you wash and chop the kale, slice the radish, and make the breadcrumbs. Place the washed and chopped kale in an extra-large salad bowl.
Add the vinegared fruit, watermelon radish, and olive oil to the kale and, using your hands, mix well. Dust with salt and pepper as you mix (this is important–it makes the difference between a good salad and a great salad). Top with cheese, breadcrumbs, and flowers.
(photo by Craig Lee)