1,001 Arabian bites: know-how to help with the impending bounty of kale salad
Anyone who lives in a city and eats out from time to time can acquire a kind of psychic literacy for menus. Most of us are familiar with the homogenised stratum of ingredient-driven, chef-driven, farm tractor-driven and consciously self-conscious cuisine that’s popping out clones like it’s going out of style – which it is. Bread service, once taken for granted, is no longer a standard courtesy. Water is usually served upon request.
So it is with mixed feelings that I can guarantee the omnipresence of one thing in casual modern dining; more predictable than valet parking, split checks or a perfect medium-rare. That thing is kale salad and it’s gone viral.
At first, I saw kale as an eclipse; the final curtain call on the long-blighted Brussels sprouts, which got their due when chefs seemed to grow infatuated a couple of years ago, dressing up the little buds, roasting them and reinventing them.
Kale salad, on the other hand, is no passing trend; it’s an icon of monomaniacal worship, with ubiquity that’s unprecedented, if not unwarranted. Kale is the Encino Man of the vegetable kingdom, expendable until recently from the conventional American diet and generally disregarded in Europe after the Middle Ages. Cabbage was more popular than kale.
No, kale and I were not fast friends. My first kale salad reminded me of the smell of a banana peel in a bin on a hot day and that tropical funk persists in most tentative bites. There are other earthy, peppery, nutrient-dense greens I prefer, such as chard, or “selek” in Arabic, which can be used in place of spinach in hand pies and also makes a silk-tender substitute for grape leaves.
Luckily, if there’s one thing kale can handle, it’s a beating. In fact, it’s immeasurably better that way. To break kale’s squeaky cellulose structure, you’ll need to massage it – that means using your hands. Salt and dress the greens with a little oil and lemon juice, then give it a few minutes of love. You’ll know you’re done when the texture stops resembling an artificial plant. As a bonus, kale makes the world’s only salad that’s better the next day.
Like spinach, kale will wilt to the point of disappearing right in front of you, so buy more than you think you’ll need. The Lebanese-American food blogger Maureen Abood bakes kale into wonderful zaatar-seasoned crisps that I could eat all day and night. While just about the easiest and most innocuous snack imaginable, kale crisps melt in your mouth and are no more sustaining than a breeze.
In the UAE, you’ll find curly kale in frilly green bunches, sometimes stained violet. The leaves should be luxuriously ruffled without a hint of yellow. You might also find dinosaur kale (also known as Tuscan, black or lacinato kale), which has pebbled, inky blue-green leaves that look vaguely aquatic. Whichever kale you buy, you’ll have to rip out the stems and inner ribs before preparing.
Eventually, kale grew on me. I wanted to corner kale and conquer it, but my allegiance grew from a commitment to intimacy (the massage helped), rather than love at first bite. But that’s part of what keeps me interested.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico
Updated: May 21, 2014 04:00 AM