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The Food Lab Lite: Kale Caesar Salad
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I'm not sure exactly where or when kale Caesar salads became a thing, but if forced to guess, I'd put my wager on 2009, and in Brooklyn. That's certainly where I first started seeing it on menus. These days, it's common enough that even friends who a) don't cook and b) don't believe in Brooklyn have heard about it and probably tried it.
The idea is a natural extension of the marinated kale salad, in which kale leaves are roughly chopped, massaged with dressing and salt, then allowed to sit. The beautiful thing about these salads is that kale is robust enough that it stays crisp and crunchy even after sitting dressed in the fridge for days. You can make it once and eat it over the course of a few days with no loss in quality.
Caesar dressing, which naturally pairs with slightly bitter, very crunchy lettuces, seems like a perfect partner in crime. And it is.
Try A Little Tenderness
To make the salad, I start by removing the major stems from a bunch of kale, then shredding the leaves into bite-sized strips.
Some folks make the false assumption that it's the acid in a dressing or marinade that causes tough kale leaves to tenderize when making marinated kale salads. Actually, it's the oil that does the job. This makes sense. Plant leaves naturally have a waxy cuticle on them in order to protect them from rain. Haven't you seen rainwater falling on a leaf? It rolls straight off like water off a duck's back.
This cuticle is oil soluble, so when you massage oil into a pile of kale leaves, it removes this coating, allowing the cells underneath to acquire some controlled damage, thereby softening them.
The question is this: is it necessary to pre-tenderize the greens with plain oil before dressing them or can dressing alone do the job?
I tried it both ways, making a couple big batches at the office for folks to try (any day where there's extra green in the office is a happy one). The first I tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper, massaging the oil into the leaves with my hands and letting it rest for half an hour before tossing with the dressing. The second batch I tossed with the dressing alone (adding extra olive oil, salt, and pepper to compensate), and served up immediately.
The results were pretty conclusive: pre-softened greens have a superior texture, coming out tender and crisp as opposed to fibrous and chewy. The difference was not so great that anyone rejected the un-softened batch, but I figured, I'm going to be making some croutons anyway, why not just let my greens pre-soften while I work on the rest of the salad?
The dressing is a pretty standard modern Caesar dressing. It lacks the coddled eggs and dramatic presentation of the original Caesar salad from Tijuana, but what it lacks in drama, it makes up for in convenience and plain old good flavor.
The food processor is the easiest tool for this job, though a hand blender or regular blender will work just as well. It's as simple as starting with a mayonnaise base (store-bought or homemade), and adding a few key flavorings. Lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, anchovies, parmesan cheese, and garlic.
Boom, we're done. (P.S.: This makes a great dip too).
A typical Caesar salad comes with large, crunchy croutons. In this version, I go with something a little different.
Rather than large chunks, I break up the bread into very small pieces using the food processor. Once tossed with a bit of olive oil and baked until crisp, the croutons become ultra crunchy because of their increased surface area. When you toss them with the salad, they adhere to the greens. Every bit you take gets coated in these little bits of sweet, toasty, olive-oil-coated crunch. It's at least five to six thousand hot dogs' worth of awesome.
And the greatest part of the recipe? Store the dressed kale in the fridge and the croutons in a sealed container on the countertop. The dressed kale will stay crisp for at least three days, meaning whenever you want a perfectly dressed, crisp and crunchy salad, it's as easy as opening the container, sprinkling on the croutons (they get soggy if you store them with the salad), and serving.
It's dangerously easy, but over-indulging in kale has never been a great fear of mine.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.