I tried so very hard to like kale. In return, it mocked me. I sautéed it with some fat and finished it with lemon (a bitter choking hazard), added it to a stir-fry (inedible), and massaged it before adding it to a tart (terrible and humiliating—I actually massaged a vegetable). This game started last summer when my CSA delivered me dusty bunches of Maryland kale week after week after week…after week. It didn’t take long for me to develop a whole-hearted, occasionally vitriolic hatred of kale.
My aversion to kale was uncharacteristic; I am by no means a picky vegetable eater. For example, I adore beets. I’ll have them in everything: salads, soups, cocktails, and cakes. Cabbage? Sure: slaw or sauerkraut, I’m game. The list goes on: broccoli, kohlrabi, spinach, squashes of every variety. Kale, though, was not for me. It was always tough and bitter and tasted dirty and raw, no matter how long I cleaned or cooked it. My inability to make kale taste good was infuriating. By July, I was about as bitter as the green itself. No one really likes kale, I’d say, rolling my eyes. It’s a fad. Our human teeth are too evolved to break down that kind of roughage. Who needs it? Take a vitamin instead—tastes better. I can’t tell you how happy I was when my CSA ended and I no longer had a crisper drawer full of that bully of a vegetable.
Flash forward a few months. I was having some friends over for a Smitten Kitchen Cookbook party. My friend Jennifer and I planned to cook three courses out of Deb Perelman’s book, trying as many recipes as we could (this will be the subject of a future post). I had the task of preparing the main dish, for which I chose a heavy, dark, wintery affair. The morning of the party, I had a mild panic—I needed a bright and fresh side to contrast my serious main dish. I scoured SK’s salad section and the *only* thing that I thought would work featured kale. I had seen that salad during my initial read of the book, but I had flipped past it with annoyance and disappointment. I thought the one blogger out there I could trust not to jump on the kale bandwagon was the woman who taught us to make rice krispie treats with a whole stick of browned butter, who loves Martha’s mac and cheese as much as I do, and whom I could not remember ever mentioning kale (turns out I wasn’t paying attention in March 2010 or 2012. Willful blindness, perhaps.). I didn’t bother reading the recipe at the time—why would I—and promptly paged ahead to the all–butter pie crust. But now I was going to have to make that salad (according to the rules of the dinner party, I had to stick to the SK cookbook), which I was sure would be terrible. I figured that at the very least, after choking down a few jagged bites, we could all have a good laugh at kale’s expense.
When I settled in to read the recipe, I learned that Deb was basically a kale-hater, too (I knew it!). She wanted to make peace with the green, so she applied the same techniques restaurants in the ‘90’s used to get diners to like field greens: add cheese, dried fruit, nuts, and a honey-dijon vinaigrette. She managed to make a raw kale salad she liked, a feat she thought was impossible. I had a glimmer of hope.
I was worried, though, that there wouldn’t be enough cherries and pecans to cover up the kale taste, so I added extra. I tossed everything together and let it marry for the suggested 20 minutes. I snuck a couple of bites while my friends were snacking on Jennifer’s hors d’oeuvres. The bites were good, really good. By the time I poured the salad into the serving bowl, I had enough secret bites to know it was better than good; it was delicious. I was floored. It tasted mainly like goat cheese, cherries, and pecans in a zippy vinaigrette, but the kale taste—that earthy flavor I find so difficult to get out of my mouth—actually worked. It added depth and something unique to that familiar cherry-pecan-goat cheese-vinaigrette flavor combination. The best part was that I could swallow the leaves without feeling like I was being strangled. I think that was because the book called for making a chiffonade of the leaves (like you would for basil) and the thin slices were much easier to eat. My guests loved the salad, too. Even Ed, who has looked accusingly at every green since that ill-fated stir-fry (“is that kale??”), enjoyed it.
I liked this salad so much that I ate all of the leftovers the next day. The benefit of starting with such tough leaves was that they were still pleasantly crunchy 12 hours later, despite having been left to sit heavily dressed all night. I made this again recently to make sure I hadn’t lost my mind and I’m happy to report it’s still quite good. Don’t get me wrong, this salad hasn’t changed my mind about kale in other preparations, but it did convince me that kale is not all bad.
kale salad with cherries, pecans, and goat cheese
adapted slightly from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, by Deb Perelman
This is a great salad to serve with spicy foods, as it’s quite cooling. It also pairs perfectly with heavy winter mains like braised shortribs. It’s hearty enough to be served on its own as a light lunch, too.
You might have picked up on the fact that I don’t really like kale, so the proportions here are scaled so that every bite of kale also has the other ingredients. If you like kale, you could add fewer pecans and cherries. As for which type of kale to use, it doesn’t matter. The book recommends Cavolo Nero or another Black Kale, but I’ve tried the pale green variety and it was fine.
I love this basic honey-dijon vinaigrette. It’s classic, basic, and easy—a great one to whip up for other salads, too.
Heaping 1/2 cup pecans (100 grams)
1 bunch of kale (8 oz)
1 bunch radishes (4 oz)
Heaping 1/2 cup dried cherries (100 grams)
2 oz soft goat cheese, chilled
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1.5 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1.5 teaspoons honey
Salt and pepper to taste
Toast the pecans: preheat the oven to 350°. Spread the pecans on a baking sheet and toast for 5-10 minutes, until fragrant (toss at least once to ensure even toasting). Remove from oven and set aside to cool.
Prep kale: wash and dry kale. Cut along the sides of the center rib to remove the leaves–you’ll end up with long strips of kale. Slice out any large veins in the leaves (helps remove bitterness). Stack the strips a few at a time and roll them tightly the long way. Cut the roll crosswise into 1/4-inch or smaller ribbons. Place ribbons in a large bowl.
Prep the other ingredients: coarsely chop the pecans and cherries. Thinly slice the radishes.
Assemble the salad: sprinkle the kale ribbons with a couple of shakes of salt and pepper. Toss in the pecans, cherries, and radishes. Crumble the goat cheese over the salad.
Make the dressing: whisk all of the ingredients together until emulsified. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Finish the salad: pour dressing over salad mixture and toss well. Taste again for salt and pepper. Let sit for at least 20 minutes before serving.