We went up into the woods over the weekend. It felt so good. Always does, really.
We went to the Boundary Waters, the forest in Northern Minnesota bordering Canada. A wilderness where the only real way to get around is by slipping a canoe into the water and paddling from lake to lake. There you can glide through still water, bounce through choppy, scramble over beaver dams, dodge moose…the only sounds around are the slap of the paddles, the drips of water, the occasional loon call, or easy conversation with the others in the boat.
Every wild area has its own unique silence and peace. I think that of the Boundary Waters may be one of the deepest anywhere. It affords the most beautiful solitude (and the most comfortable companionship with the others paddling with you) that you can imagine. Where else in the world can you canoe or kayak between hundreds of lakes with only hikes of several – ok, sometimes several hundred – canoe lengths in between? It’s remarkable.
We paddled a nice 12 mile loop on Saturday. On Sunday afternoon we decided to hike up one of the low ridges to take in the views of the leaves that are just starting to show hints of gold and scarlet. On the hike down, for the first time in several weeks, I began to think in earnest about food.
Now, when I am in my normal state of mind, I tend to spend a lot of my waking time thinking about food, about spices and ingredients and ways to combine them, about meals I’ve had and meals I want to cook, new techniques I want to try or how to use up a stash of vegetables I’ve accumulated in the crisper drawer. Often I plan out the meals for several days at a time, and every day I at least seem always to be planning dinner by the time I finish breakfast. I would imagine that many of you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Which means you are the few people in the world who also understand when I say that the spells I sometimes go through where I just can’t wrap my brain around creating new or interesting meals, the dry spells, feel flat out strange. Like a pump or maybe a circuit in my brain has gone out and it’s not working quite right. It’s funny because when I’m in my normal state of thinking about food a lot, I catch myself wishing that I thought about it less.
My inner critic rags on me for not spending my time thinking about more noble or profound things or for being too food obsessed. It tells me that it would be better to be a “normal” person who just thinks about meals when they start to get hungry, and even then only enough to plan out something that is adequately nutritious and palatable. It doesn’t appreciate that I get giddy sometimes just thinking about the infinite possibilities contained within a cabbage or a carrot.
My inner critic is a jerk-wad.
When I’m in the state my inner critic prefers, the one where when I notice mealtime has arrived I have no particular plan or predisposition I just scramble to piece something together, I can tell the creative part of me is turned off. I think that for me, thinking about food is a healthy state of mind. And, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that brainstorming the possibilities for turning ingredients into something surprising and nourishing and beautiful can be a noble pursuit indeed. I just need to tell myself that.
Anyways, the long drought, the forced-feeling phase of the past several weeks finally truly lifted on that hike. I breathed in the smell of the forest, and scrutinized the wavy bends of the tree roots and the shorelines, and for whatever reason the rusty, squeaky wheels started cranking again. Ideas for future meals came popping in here and there like little flashes from fireflies. And, of all things, the thoughts that really got me going were those about kale salad.
Maybe I shouldn’t sound so surprised about that. Kale salad really is inspiring. But, lately folks in the know have started to refer to it as perhaps a little too inspiring. That is to say, the word on the street is that every last restaurant in every big city seems to have a kale salad on the menu, and most of them could be carbon copies of one another, and at a certain point one may find oneself tossing one’s napkin aside and saying, jaw weary from chewing so much roughage, “enough already! Can somebody please get me a crisp endive? Or gentle leaf of escarole? I beg you!”
However, I think one is really only likely to be at that point if one is a restaurant critic or frequent diner in the Big Apple (FYI, kale salad with apples is quite nice), and I believe the rest of us should be allowed to continue to enjoy our kale salads unassailed by feelings of being a worn out seasonal dining meme. So there. (Once again, I was probably the one who needed that convincing, not you. My inner critic is a full-on nimrod.)
By the end of the hike I was sitting on at least a dozen ideas for kale salad. They may trickle their way onto this site bit by bit, if the local store doesn’t get suspicious and start tracking me for buying so much kale. But, for the bunch of kale that was waiting for me at home once we got back from the hike, I decided to take a grilled kale salad route.
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but I have an affection for grilled romaine salad. The charred flavor standing in contrast to the freshness of the leaves and the sharpness of the dressing makes for a salad that’s even more alluring, more va va (voom, that is) than your usual bowl of tender greens. I figured the same idea would work for kale, and then I stumbled across a recipe for grilled kale salad with plums in Bon Appetit. Aha! Support for my theory.
With a turn on the grill, the kale softens slightly and develops delightfully crispy charred patches. There’s a slight similarity to the (shall we admit, this one is overly popular?) kale chips available now in some markets, but these won’t run you $7 for an ounce! Rather than plums, I plucked other seasonal goodies out of the fridge, sweet golden beets to roast, and even sweeter figs. Figs and beets always seem to beg for a balsamic dressing, and I chose not to deny them their preference. And, inspired by the same Bon Appetit salad, I added creamy billows of fresh ricotta to gently anchor all of the other flavors.
With the rich sweetness of many of the components here, generous pinches of good salt on each salad will coax out a level of complexity and a savory aspect from a set of ingredients that may seem too uni-dimensional otherwise. So taste, season, then taste and adjust the salt some more until everything pops. Salt also helps tame any bitterness left in the greens after their brief visit to the grill.
I meant to add chopped, toasted hazelnuts for crunch, but I forgot. And we didn’t miss them. Already there was enough going on to hold our interest and make the salads filling. Not to mention enough to make me want to keep thinking about food and rout any concerns about kale salads being trite.
Grilled Kale Salad with Beets, Figs, and Ricotta (serves 4 as a first course, 2 as a hearty main dish)
- 4 small golden beets, peeled and cut into wedges
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
- 1 tsp. maple syrup
- one bunch of dinosaur (lacinto) kale (or green kale), bottoms of the stems removed
- 12 fresh figs, black mission or Turkish brown figs, stemmed and halved
- 1 generous cup of fresh ricotta
- salt and pepper
- Preheat your oven to 425F. Toss the beet wedges with 1 Tbs. olive oil and sprinkle them with salt. Spread them in a baking dish and roast, stirring occasionally, until tender, 20-20 minutes.
- Whisk together 2 Tbs. olive oil together with the balsamic vinegar and the maple syrup. When the beets come out of the oven, toss them with the dressing.
- Heat your grill and coat the kale with the remaining olive oil and a good sprinkling of salt. Spread the leaves out on the grill and cook them, turning each over once, until they have developed crispy edges and charred splotches, several minutes. Transfer the kale to a cutting board, remove the tough center stems if you wish (I don’t bother, but it definitely means more chewing), and chop it coarsely.
- Put a spoonful of ricotta on each salad plate, then divide the kale between the plates. Divide the beets between the salads, and drizzle some of the dressing that is leftover from the beets over each of the salads. Finally, divide the figs between the salads, dollop the remaining ricotta over the salads, sprinkle each with salt and pepper, and serve.