Breakaway Cook

From Iceberg to Raw Kale

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.

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  • * 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)

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Gingery Love

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It took me long enough, but I realized today that I should be sharing my SF Chronicle articles and recipes here, for those who missed them in the paper. The original version appeared here.

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It seems impossible to imagine nowadays, but I never tasted fresh ginger until I was in my late teens; it simply wasn’t part of our family’s culinary lexicon.

But don’t feel too sorry for me: I’ve spent the rest of my life making up for it. Fresh, pickled, crystallized, powdered, preserved, dried, I consume it mad quantities, and it still feels like I can’t get enough.

I vividly recall the first time I had pickled ginger, that small mound of ginger that comes with sushi. It was one of a small number of “whoa!” culinary milestones that was so different from what’s come before it that it’s not an exaggeration to call it an epiphany. And it was free, at the sushi bar! You could have as much as you wanted! To this day, I still probably eat ten times the amount of pickled ginger as the average person when I go to sushi restaurants.

And then I noticed fat bags of pickled ginger for sale at both Japanese and Chinese markets around town, for just a few dollars. So I began chowing on it, as a snack, with dinner, with all kinds of meals. But one casual glance at the ingredient list on the bag one day also produced another epiphany of sorts: ginger, white sugar, white vinegar, and red dye — surely I could make pickled ginger on my own, using better ingredients?

Why yes, I could.  Homemade pickled ginger made with high-quality ingredients — young, lithe ginger, excellent vinegars, and fantastic sweeteners (artisanal honeys, organic maple syrup, and organic agave)– not only tastes vastly better than its industrial brethren, one would have to conclude it’s better for you, too.

Epicurean reasons alone are enough to make ginger a part of daily life, but its health benefits are enticing enough to begin adopting it into breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.  There’s wide agreement in the medical community that it boosts immunity, promotes digestion, battles viruses, helps nausea, staves off sea sickness, gooses metabolism, reduces inflammation, stimulates appetite, ameliorates rheumatism and arthritis . . . the list keeps going.

I’m partial to its heady, spicy, sweet aromas, and to its bracing clean taste. It lends brightness and vibrancy to everything it touches.  Its pro-digestion properties and cleansing effects on the body are just happy bonuses.

If you’ve never had a ginger blast in a salad, you’re in for a treat. And do try bites of pickled ginger with meat dishes; I like to place a little mound of it next a piece of cooked meat on my plate — a small nibble between bites cleanses the palate in the same way it does sushi. And be sure to use the ginger-infused pickling liquid in salads, it’s beyond fantastic.

 

Three-Ginger Salad

If you like ginger, you’re going to like this salad, which is loaded with sauteed ginger, pickled ginger, and crystallized ginger. It has crunch and snappiness from the cabbage, firm texture from the edamame, and creaminess from the avocado, all brought together by the ginger symphony.

  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons fruity green olive oil
  • 1 cup minced leeks
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
  • — Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 cups finely chopped green cabbage ( 1/4 head, about 8 ounces)
  • 2 cups finely chopped red cabbage ( 1/4 head, about 8 ounces)
  • 2 cups cooked shelled edamame
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced pickled ginger (see recipe below)
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced crystallized ginger (see Note)
  • — 2 tablespoons seasoned vinegar from accompanying pickled ginger recipe
  • — Matcha salt or medium-grind sea salt (see Note)
  • 1 ripe avocado
  • 2 tablespoons roughly chopped, roasted unsalted almonds

Instructions: Heat the butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the leeks and fresh ginger then reduce heat to medium-low; season with salt and pepper to taste. Gently cook until soft, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Set aside.

Combine the red and green cabbage, edamame, pickled ginger, crystallized ginger, the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and vinegar in a large bowl; mix well (your hands work best). Add the reserved leek mixture, and combine. Season liberally with matcha salt or sea salt and pepper. Taste, and add more vinegar, if desired.

Halve the avocado, slice each half lengthwise into 1/2-inch wide wedges, and remove the peel. Then cut each wedge into 1-inch pieces. Add to the salad, and mix gently. Serve, topped with a scattering of chopped almonds.

 

Breakaway Pickled Ginger

Traditional gari, as it’s called in Japan, is made from rice vinegar and white sugar, but it’s much better when made with quality ingredients. Fruit vinegars – raspberry, fig, and Muscat – work especially well, but so do balsamics and wine vinegars. For the sweetener, try agave nectar, a good local honey, maple syrup, or your favorite sweet syrup. I’ve even used excellent jam to great effect. Mature ginger will also work, but the young variety is superior – check produce specialists like Berkeley Bowl or any Asian market. The dish is still good with older ginger, too, so if you can’t find young ginger don’t let that stop you from making it. I use an inexpensive plastic Japanese-style Benriner mandoline to slice the ginger, but you can also use a sharp knife or vegetable peeler. The formula is easy to remember: 1 part ginger, 1 part vinegar, and a touch of sweetener (to taste).

  • 1 cup shaved baby ginger (see Instructions)
  • 1/2 cup fruit vinegar 1/2 cup rice vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons honey, or to taste

To shave the ginger, use a spoon to peel off the skin, then slice it very thinly with a knife, vegetable peeler or mandoline.

Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the ginger, and blanch for 2 minutes. Drain, and transfer the ginger to a bowl. Add the vinegars and honey, and mix well.

Transfer to a jar and refrigerate. The flavors are excellent immediately, but will improve with time. And it seems to keep forever.

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