Kale and Company

Dark leafy vegetables such as kale and mustard greens are flexing their menu muscle

Mesclun has always sounded French for dainty. 

But not these days. 

As salad greens have gotten beefier, even babies are bulking up. All across the country, leaves that once would have only been served cooked—and cooked for a good long time—are now raw favorites. 

Consider the mesclun that Keith Stewart, who farms in New York’s Hudson Valley, brings to the Greenmarkets, Manhattan’s farmer’s markets. It’s a peppery mix of mustard greens, tatsoi, red oak lettuce, mizuna, dandelions and four kinds of kale: lacinato, rainbow lacinato, Russian and curly leaf. His arugula almost tastes wimpy by comparison. 

Kale, in particular, has been taking over America’s salad bars and bowls. It’s pushing aside romaine, getting tossed with everything from Parmesan to pepitas and vanquishing iceberg—a “green” so void of nutrients the Bronx Zoo won’t feed it to the animals. 

And kale comes in a veritable rainbow of colors. Paffenroth Gardens, which supplies many New York City chefs, grows a palette of green, white, red and black kale. 

To its credit, kale contains protein, carbohydrates and twice the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of Vitamins A and C. But the plethora of iron and other minerals in these dark salad greens are just one reason that chefs are picking them more often. Primarily it’s a matter of taste.

Dan Barber, chef-owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, is plating sturdy greens in winter with no dressing—not even salt and pepper. “People think it’s a little pretentious but these hearty greens take on the craziest flavor after several freezes,” he says. “When you concentrate, you can taste the characteristics.”

As Barber notes, greens like kale thrive in the cold, as frosts convert their starches to sugar. In fact, demand for local salad greens has driven farmers to extend the season using hoop tunnels and different seed varieties to yield leaves that can be picked young and tender and sent naked to the table. 

Just a few years ago, most of these leafy greens would have been destined for a saute pan, if not a braising pot. But now you can hardly pick up a menu without seeing kale dressed and stepping out with cheddar and almonds, for example, as it does at Northern Spy Foods in Manhattan. Tatsoi turns up at Cypress in Charleston, S.C., paired with beets in walnut oil, feta and orange vinaigrette, while Chez Philippe in Memphis teams it with mizuna, enoki mushrooms, goat cheese and pistachio brittle in champagne vinaigrette. 

The mini-chain of Dig Inn in Manhattan recently added tender mustard greens to the baby arugula, spinach and romaine house blend on which all its salads are built. Andrew Carmellini at Locanda Verdein New York uses a mix of Castelfranco radicchio, baby kale, little frisee, radicchio, watercress and escarole in his salad with toasted hazelnuts, Parmigiano-Reggiano and smoked speck.

Gavin Kaysen of Cafe Boulud in New York says he can barely keep kale in the kitchen since adding a salad with raw and crisped greens with roasted squash and Marcona almonds with buttermilk vinaigrette to his menu. 

"People’s taste are changing. They’re open to something different."

—Farmer Jeff Bialas on raw greens

Caesars are always moneymakers for restaurants, and kale ups the ante. Skillet in Seattle serves its rendition with boquerones, croutons and creamy Parmesan dressing and offers fried chicken thigh or sockeye salmon on top for an extra $5 or $7, respectively. 

Interestingly, a doctor was apparently among the first to realize kale had potential beyond the pot. Dr. Andrew Weil, with the help of Chef Michael Stebner at True Food Kitchen in Scottsdale, Ariz., created a Tuscan kale salad using ingredients that are now almost formulaic: lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, hot pepper flakes, Parmigiano-Reggiano and breadcrumbs. Subsequent variations have relied more on curly leaf kale, which most chefs agree needs to be “massaged” to make it more tender than lacinato (also known as dinosaur kale).

Linda Shiue, an internal medicine physician at the Palo Alto Medical Clinic in the San Francisco Bay Area, promotes the health benefits of kale to patients with high blood pressure. In the cooking classes she teaches for the David Druker Center for Health Systems Innovation, massaged kale salad with sliced apples, pepitas and shaved Parmesan figures into every course menu. She uses a lemony dressing because acid makes food taste salty without salt and pepitas for fiber and potassium, as well as crunch and flavor.

 Sturdy greens are also muscling their way onto salad bars at college campuses, including Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and the University of California, Berkeley. Run by Bon Appetit Management, these institutions, along with corporate foodservice, including Google’s famous cafeteria, are seeing more greens. 

Even chains are catching on to the craze. The Cheesecake Factory has a kale salad on its menu, sandwiched between corn dogs and the crab and artichoke dip. It includes cranberries, apples, Marcona almonds and green beans in a buttermilk-black pepper dressing. 

As Jeff Bialas, another New York farmer who supplies chefs, puts it: “People’s tastes are changing. They’re open to something different.” And they’re learning that good and good-for-you are no longer mutually exclusive. n

Regina Schrambling is a longtime food writer in New York City who blogs and tweets as Gastropoda, and prefers her salads on the dark side.

THE STARRING ROLES

How do you build a salad with muscle—the kind that packs more nutrients than a classic one could ever fathom? Start with these stars:

Tatsoi

Kale (Lacinato, Tuscan, dinosaur, curly and Russian)

 

 

Mizuna

Dandelion

 

 

Mustard greens

Spinach

THE SUPPORTING CAST

Fruit: Apples, pears, pomegranate, dates, dried apricots and raisins

Citrus: Lemon or orange in vinaigrette; orange or Clementine in segments

Nuts: Pepitas, Marcona almonds, hazelnuts

Crunch: Croutons, Melba toast, quinoa, farro, freekeh, granola

Dressings: Toasted peanut vinaigrette, smoked cashew dressing, creamy Parmesan

Cheese: Parmigiano, feta, cheddar, Manchego