Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Valentine's Day Dinner: Kale Caesar

I took charge of Valentine’s Day dinner this year.  Sure, we could have gone out, feasted on an overpriced, underwhelming prix fixe menu, crushed between loads of other amorous patrons, but why would I pass up the opportunity to cook an awesome meal to share with the person I love?  It’s so much more personal, so much more intimate, so much more special when you have personally orchestrated a really special evening for an immeasurably special person.  An opportunity to create a memory that we can share down the road, which seems only fair given the number of memories Robbie has bestowed upon me (and the amount of my crazy he's put up with). 

I haven’t been cooking (either for me, or him, or both or us) nearly as much as I’d like to lately, so I took the holiday as an excuse and ran with it, cooking up a storm and, somehow, not being a complete, frazzled mess of a human being when it was actually time to sit down and eat.  Some good advance planning on my part led to a well-orchestrated and well-timed meal that, if I may indulge myself for a moment, was pretty bad ass. 

To say that I like a good kale salad is a vast understatement.  I fucking love a good kale salad.  It’s easy, it’s healthy, it’s versatile and it’s delicious – what’s not to like?  While I typically just massage a bit of lemon and oil into it and let it sit for a few minutes before tacking some other stuff on top, Valentine’s day calls for something a bit more indulgent.  I find Caesar salads to typically be imbalanced; the dressing far too heavy and intense for the delicate romaine beneath.  But kale is a perfect vehicle – it’s heartiness and bite allow it to withstand the onslaught of yolk and garlic, of anchovy and oil.  Frank, a great Italian standby in my neighborhood, makes a fantastic, simple black kale Caesar, but I rarely order it, since I know exactly what goes into Caesar dressing, and despite its virtuous base, it’s not exactly health food.  But this seemed like a great opportunity to recreate it, and get the meal off to an arguably healthy start. 

I searched the interwebs for kale Caesar recipes, finding that, while the ingredients themselves don’t vary too much, the proportions vary widely.  Some dressings call for up to one and a half cups of olive oil, albeit for more salad than I was planning on serving.  That just seemed egregious to me, so I followed a far more wholesome-sounding lead, and went with a recipe I found on Serious Eats.  I made the entire dressing recipe, though used less kale than called for since we were only two (I anticipated leftovers), played around (very) slightly with proportions, and dressed it relatively lightly.  This recipe did not include croutons, but I find them to be an integral aspect of a Caesar, so I threw some well-oiled bread chunks into the oven while I whizzed together the dressing, which came together in minutes.  It was a smart choice for a first course, since I was able to throw it together completely before well in advance of the more complicated main course (which I'll get to in another post). Which is only another reason why kale salads should be embraced: they don’t need to be dressed immediately before serving.  The dressing tenderizes the kale and makes it more palatable, not to mention easier to chew and digest.  Whereas a mixed green salad, for instance, would be a soggy, drippy, inedible mess after a couple of days in the fridge, a kale salad persists, and is no less delicious for it. 

Kale Caesar Salad
Adapted, slightly, from here

Makes 2 generous first-course servings, with leftovers (or, I suppose, three first-course servings)

About 5 one-inch thick slices of bread, preferably slightly stale (I used a European country boule), cut into one inch-ish chunks
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt to taste
7 ounces kale
2 medium cloves garlic
Kosher salt
2 anchovy fillets, minced (about 1 teaspoon)
1 large egg yolk
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice,more to taste
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese,more for garnish
Freshly ground black pepper


Make the croutons:
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Place the bread chunks into a bowl large enough to accommodate them, and pour the olive oil over the bread.  Toss the bread to cover with oil, and salt liberally (or to taste).  Spread the bread onto lightly greased or sprayed baking sheet and toast in the oven for 10 minutes, keeping an eye out and shaking the pan as necessary to ensure that they don’t burn.  Remove and allow to cool to room temperature.

Prepare the kale:
Remove the large, thick stems from the center of the kale leaves (easy way to do this is to hold the stalk between your thumb and forefinger and slide your fingers up the stalk, so that the leaves peel away).  If using black kale (also called lacinato or dinosaur kale), you can tear the kale into bite-sized pieces.  If using curly kale or if your kale has a less tender leaf, cut the kale into thin strips by stacking the leaves on top of one another, rolling them tightly, and cutting crosswise.  Place the kale into a large bowl and set aside while you make the dressing.

Make the dressing:
Chop the garlic, sprinkle it with a good pinch of kosher salt, and smash it into a paste with the side of a chef’s knife.  Transfer the paste to a small bowl and add the anchovies (which I also like to smash into a paste before adding to the bowl), the egg yolk, lemon juice and mustard.  Whisk to combine.  Very, VERY slowly, whisking constantly, add the olive oil - first drop by drop, and increasing to a slow stream once the dressing has been emulsified.  Taste and add more Dijon or lemon juice as desired (I added a good amount of Dijon, which I reflected in the above measurements, though I’d venture to say I added more than an additional half teaspoon; I added more lemon as well).

Dress the salad:
Add a few tablespoons of the dressing to the kale bowl, and toss with your hands to coat, massaging the dressing into the leaves a bit.  Add the parmigiano cheese and toss to distribute evenly.  Allow the salad to rest for a few minutes, taste and add more dressing or salt as desired.  Once the salad is dressed to your liking, set it aside until it’s time to serve.  When ready to serve, toss in the croutons (you can add them earlier if you’d like – they won’t get too soggy, but for max crunchiness add them just before plating).  Garnish with a bit more cheese and some fresh ground pepper.  

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