Early Spring Salads

The early spring kitchen garden continues to offer salad greens from the sturdy plants that provided greens throughout the winter. Arugula, red mustard and kale all came through the cold snaps of December, January and February and now with the longer light of March and April are sending out new growth.

Arugula is starting to bud and blossom but the new leaves that are growing too are tender and spicy.

Spring arugula 4.18

Red mustard is sending out succulent-stemmed, horseradish-spicy leaves.

Spring mustard 4.18

And kale, the year-round champion, is bursting with sweet, tender leaves.

Spring kale 4.18

We eat kale salads for lunch nearly every day and lately we’ve been adding red mustard leaves to the bowl, their hot crispness a perfect balance to the tender sweet kale. Olive oil, a little salt, fresh lemon juice and grated Pecorino cheese meld the flavors of the two together into a perfect salad.

Spring mustard, kale 4.18

Spring kale mustard salad

Arugula makes a great salad with the same dressing, but for the past few months, I’ve been using Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe for arugula with roasted red onions and walnut salsa from his 2014 cookbook Plenty More.

Red onion Walnut salsa recipe

It’s so good! The thick slices of red onions roast, soften and caramelize. Redwing is my favorite storage onion, a variety I’ve grown for years. Served warm over a bed of arugula these roasted onions are delicious and beautiful and would be a fine just with the arugula, but what really makes this salad is the walnut salsa. Modifying Ottolenghi’s recipe slightly, I marinate minced garlic in red wine vinegar with a little salt for an hour or so then add coarsely chopped walnuts and finely diced poblano peppers I’d roasted and frozen last summer. Thawed they are perfect for this salsa.   Flavors of sharp vinegar, pungent garlic, crunchy walnuts and spicy poblanos make a salsa that I’m happy simply to eat with a spoon. Tossed into the salad it’s great too. Another modification I make is to use much more arugula than the recipe suggests, making this a dinner salad rather than an appetizer.

Red onion walnut salsa salad

These early spring salads are exactly what we need as we wait for warmer weather and the first lettuce of early summer.

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Kale Salads

My friend Lexi called me the other day to ask for my kale salad recipe and I was happy to share it: remove kale leaves from the stems and tear or slice them into bite-sized pieces, moisten with a little olive oil, sprinkle on salt to taste and use your hands to massage the leaves in the oil and salt until slightly slippery and shiny, adding more olive oil if necessary. Then squeeze lemon juice over the leaves and toss. Finally add grated Parmesan cheese and toss again. Proportions are flexible and depend on how much kale you start with, how sour or sweet the lemon is and how much cheese you like. Serve it right away or let it sit for up to an hour or so.

Kale salad stilllife

Kale salad tossing

Kale salad 5:15

It’s a recipe for the most basic of kale salads and my favorite, but as with any salad, additions and substitutions are practically endless. One friend adds roasted tomatoes, another lots of red pepper flakes, another toasted croutons; another substitutes Pecorino for Parmesan, another balsamic vinegar for lemon juice. Roasted vegetables, toasted pecans or hazelnuts, apples or citrus are also popular additions.

And then there is the question of what variety of kale to use. Some friends insist on Lacinato kale with its dark green, crinkled spear-shaped leaves. I like the tender, smooth-leaved Red Russian better than Lacinato and this year I’ve liked White Russian even more not only for its sweet flavor but also because it is both more winter hardy than Red Russian and has produced tender, flavorful spring growth longer than Red Russian has. Even now, at the start of June, there’s one more kale salad left on the last few White Russian plants still standing.

Kale white RussianLexi was using kale she’d planted this spring while for the past few months I’ve been harvesting new growth leaves from overwintered kale I planted last July. And before spring’s new growth there were the frost-sweetened leaves I started harvesting in October and before that the tiny new leaves from thinning those July-planted seedlings. With spring and late summer plantings, you can have kale salads year round.

Kale salads have been popular with chefs and home cooks for nearly a decade. Searching the recipe site Epicurious, I found the earliest kale salad recipes dated 2007 and 2009. Introducing the January, 2007 Gourmet magazine recipe is this note: “Inspired by an antipasto that’s popular at New York City’s Lupa, this substantial salad takes a hearty, rich green that’s usually cooked and proves how delicious it can be when served raw.” And a February 2009 Bon Appetit recipe from Dan Barber begins: “In a surprising twist, Tuscan kale is served raw—and makes for a substantial and satisfying winter salad.” Who knew! I experimented with my first kale salad in October, 2007 inspired by Melissa Clark’s New York Times recipe and article.

Before discovering how delicious raw kale is, I’d regularly wilted it then sautéed it in olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes and served it hot or at room temperature. I still do that, especially at the start of winter when warm food is appealing. But just as often now I keep the kale raw. It mixes well with other hardy winter salad greens like mache, radicchio and arugula but it’s also satisfying alone and especially welcomed after all the other winter greens are gone. In another month and a half, it will be time to plant next year’s crop. Kale salad, once new and trendy, is here to stay.

New Growth Greens

As March begins, there are still some tasty roots, leeks and Brussels sprouts in the winter kitchen garden, but instead of harvesting these reliable winter vegetables I’m drawn to the new growth on kale and the delicious salads it offers. These new leaves are a lighter green and have a less coarse texture than the darker leaves that have survived winter cold.  They are perfect for raw kale salads.  Of course, raw kale makes a great salad throughout the winter months, but these new leaves have a tender taste of spring.

I prepare the leaves the same way I prepare a winter kale salad: tearing them into small pieces, rubbing them with olive oil and salt and letting them rest for ten minutes or so before adding more flavors and textures.  Sometimes I’ll add just a little vinegar or lemon juice and enjoy a very simple salad.  Other times, I’ll match kale’s distinctive flavor with other assertive flavors like feta or Pecorino Romano cheese, olives, pickled onions, oranges or grapefruit.  Toasted breadcrumbs or croutons and a pungent Caesar salad dressing take kale salad in yet another delicious direction.

Last night, I made a very simple salad with new growth from all my kale varieties—Red Russian, Lacinato, Rainbow Lacinato and Winterbor—finely snipped new chive spears, grated Pecorino Romano cheese and lemon juice.  It was as much a treat as next month’s spring lettuce salads will be.

We’ll enjoy these new growth kale leaves for another few weeks before broccoli-like seed heads rise above them to provide yet another treat from this versatile winter vegetable.  Check back soon for kale seed head recipes!