Get a Jump-Start on Holiday Prep With This Make-Ahead Roasted Squash and Kale Salad

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

You want a good strategy for staying calm on Thanksgiving, beyond heavily self-medicating with bourbon? Here's my advice: Do as much of the cooking ahead of time as is humanly possible. Have your vegetables prepped, your sauces made, your ingredients portioned, your casseroles assembled, and your pies baked. Planning a menu that allows you to do this is the real key to a stress-free holiday, and this salad is a good head start in that department.

It combines sweet roasted butternut squash with roasted kale in a vinaigrette flavored with maple syrup and sherry vinegar, along with some spiced pecans for crunch and dried cranberries for a nice chewy texture. It's a delightful salad when it's made fresh, but the flavors and textures actually get even better as it sits in the fridge overnight.

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To make it, I start by cutting up butternut squash into 1/2-inch disks and tossing them in olive oil before roasting in a moderately hot oven.

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The trick here is to roast them even longer than you think you should—a little black around the edges is totally fine—and to not fiddle with them as they roast or even right after they come out of the oven. Hot squash is very tender and, because it exudes sticky juices while it cooks, will most likely be stuck to the foil on the bottom of the pan. Let the squash rest on the pan until it cools and firms up and it'll be much easier to remove without mangling it.

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Next I toss some kale leaves (I'm using lacinato kale in this photo, but curly kale will do fine as well) in olive oil and roast them just until they're wilted and starting to crisp in spots. Roasting kale provides not just a textural change, but also gives it a sweet nutty flavor as well.

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Now the pecans get their turn in the oven. I first toss them with a spice blend made with cinnamon, smoked paprika, and a few other dried spices, along with some olive oil and brown sugar. You'll want to make extras of these, otherwise you won't have enough for the salad by the time you stop grazing on them.

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Making the vinaigrette is simple: whisk together minced shallots with whole grain mustard, maple syrup, and sherry vinegar, then slowly drizzle in extra-virgin olive oil until the vinaigrette is smooth and emulsified. Some vinaigrettes can be difficult to emulsify properly. This one is simple. The viscous maple syrup really helps the vinaigrette come together nice and tight. Think of it as emulsification training wheels.

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Make sure to toss the salad extra-gently once you get the vinaigrette in there. Being too rough with it will break up the squash pieces. This is a case where you want to forget the tongs and make sure you get in there with your hands, gently scooping up the salad and letting it cascade over itself until everything is well coated.

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Stored in the fridge, the salad will improve over the course of a few days. To serve it, just leave it out and let it come to room temperature, or if you like it a little warmer, just zap it in the microwave for a minute until it's as hot as you want.