Kale salads sprang onto the scene a while back, bestowing menus a level of green virtue and hipster cachet. Like a beacon of plant-based promise, the kale salad says, “Hello, health-seeking eaters, we have something for you, alongside our usual fare.”
Good old kale, which we used to boil, simmer, stew and generally cook into submission, has become a veggie to eat raw. You may have tried a kale salad, and found it revelatory. Or you may have crunched and chewed along, wondering what all the fuss was about.
But there is a step in the prep of a good kale salad that is crucial to the success of the final dish.
You have to massage it.
Yes, like your stressed-out back and shoulders, your kale needs a good pummeling to get relaxed. That step is the one that many restaurants have been skipping, in the proliferation of deep green salads. So if you’ve tried a kale salad and found it too chewy, maybe it was just needing a kneading.
You see, a big difference between sturdy kale leaves and the leaves of your favorite tender lettuce is an abundance of cellulose. Both plants are built from cellulose, a plant fiber, pumped full of water and fluids, which keep the walls of the cells firm, like a hose full of water. That’s why greens that linger in your refrigerator become limp. As the water inside the leaves evaporates, structures collapse. Kale has more cellulose, thicker cell walls and a sturdier structure than lettuce does.
When you chop and dress a lettuce, the enzymes inside the leaf mix, causing the leaf to start breaking down immediately. The torn-open cells soak up the acidic dressing and start to collapse. That’s why a dressed salad goes from appealing to limp in about an hour. But kale, on the other hand, improves.
Cutting open those sturdy leaves of kale opens up the cells to absorb dressing, and become tender. But massaging helps break them down even more. The result is a softer, sweeter, less bitter leaf. It’s almost like cooking, but in a flavorful dressing that invades the leaf itself.
Fall is the perfect time to massage some kale, and pair it with tender, sweet, roasted squash. In this salad, you’ll rub the greens and top them with roasted squash, and some spiced pumpkin seeds.
Take a minute to massage, and enjoy mellow, relaxed kale.
Robin Asbell is a cooking instructor and author of “Big Vegan,” “The Whole Grain Promise” and “Great Bowls of Food.” Find her at robinasbell.com.