What the Kale?

October 2nd, 2013

What is kale and where the *%$# did it come from?  Up until this year, I knew it only as the colorful frost-resistant foliage that I planted in autumn after the first frost killed my begonias.  Suddenly, this leafy green vegetable is sprouting up in the salad sections of menus everywhere.  And at the local grocery stores, it’s currently appearing in a pre-washed and bagged version on the shelves next to its more traditional leafy green cousins.

Kale is a member of the broccoli/brussels sprouts family.  With leaves of green or purple, it grows easily and freezes well.  More important, it is a huge source of Vitamins A, K and C, and of sulforaphane, a chemical with potent anti-cancer properties. There’s even some calcium for those of us trying to increase bone density. As a result, this ubiquitous “queen of greens” is being touted as “one of the healthiest vegetables on the planet.”

Edible types of kale include “curly” kale, premier kale and redbor kale.

Kale’s rigid texture and slightly bitter taste may deter the more traditional leaf-lovers.  Antidotes include mixing kale with sweeter-tasting greens and allowing the kale to marinate in salad dressing to soften both the leaves and the taste.

One Chicago restaurateur has figured this out. The kale salad with pine nuts, currants and parmesan cheese, tossed in a sweet vinaigrette, is served daily at the salad bar at The Cellars Market in the Board of Trade building.

When Mel was in town a few months ago, she made a terrific kale salad for Rob and me. She even massaged the leaves.

October 2 has been designated National Kale Day.  This is a great opportunity to sample a kale salad at one of the many Chicago-area eateries that claim to know how to make it taste good.

As they’re saying at Whole Foods today (where kale is on sale), “All Hail Kale!”


July 2nd, 2013

I’ve been wondering if salads would be more popular if they had a bigger carb footprint. Something more than the Caesar’s crunchy croutons and the Southwest’s tangy tortilla strips.  What if, instead of carbs in our salads, the chef put them around or under them?  This would provide more than a de minimis dollup of carbs as part of the salad meal, without actually having to ask the server for bread. :-)

I’ve had my share of pitas and wraps stuffed with Caesar salad, served at mainstream places like Au Bon Pain and Bakers Square.

But there are more creative ways to carb up the greens.  For instance, last fall in Stowe, Vermont, where Mel and I spent a fabulous mother-daughter weekend at a local spa resort, I scarfed down an arugula-gorgonzola-shaved red onion salad served on top of a pizza crust at Piecasso.   There are at least two other venues that sell a pizza-salad combo, both in New York City:  Pie by the Pound (Greek salad) and Pulino’s (salad nicoise).

Courtesy of Seth, I have learned of yet another way to have your salad and eat carbs, too:  salad in a crouton cone.   The cone is made by putting a mixture of freshly ground croutons, eggs and olive oil in a waffle cone maker. It can then be filled with any type of salad that complements a crouton taste, especially a Caesar or a Cobb.  Now I scream for salads!

Yours till Caesar raps,

Wilful and Wonton Salads

October 10th, 2012

As the red, yellow and orange leaves pile up on our lawn, I realize that it’s time to re-focus on my favorite leaves—those green ones in my salad bowl.  I might add that this is really a good season to fall for salads….

Over the past months, I’ve realized that I especially enjoy salads that “crunch”—although my family would undoubtedly add that I need to try harder to mute the sound effects.  I love the croutons and Romaine in the classic Caesar, the tortilla chips in Southwestern and the bacon bits in the Cobb.  But the salad with the biggest overall crunch factor and an increasing favorite of mine is the Asian (sometimes called “Chinese”) salad.

The recipes for these salads vary.  Most contain either iceberg/Romaine lettuce, and/or cabbage as their base.  Additional crunch assistance may be provided by fried wonton or other crispy noodles, and nuts (almonds, peanuts or cashews).  The dressings tend to contain soy sauce, sesame or peanut oil and perhaps rice wine vinegar.  I’ve found my favorite dressing a bit far from home—the honey-infused version served atop the Asian Chicken Salad at The White Gull Inn in Fish Creek, Wisconsin.  Sweet!

Some salads chefs also add canned mandarin oranges. I’m not sure why, although I was glad to learn that these fruits are actually grown/eaten in southeastern Asia.  But there’s something particularly anomalous about a fresh, crisp green salad topped by fruit that’s been soaking in a can of syrupy juice.

Asian salads have become increasingly popular in the Chicago area:  from fast food places like McDonald’s to slightly-less-fast food venues such as Panera, Corner Bakery and even Noodles & Company (thanks, Rett).

The menu at California Pizza Kitchen boasts two Asian salads among its 13 choices:  the Chinese Chicken and Thai Crunch.  They both rely on a base of Napa and red cabbage, with carrots, chicken, wonton and scallions.  But the superior Thai Crunch salad also contains edamame, rice sticks and peanuts in a lime-cilantro peanut dressing.  Who needs the pizza?

But, as Jane reminded me, to find the best Chicago-area Asian salad, you have to be on your way to somewhere else—via O’Hare airport.  There, Wolfgang Puck has established four eateries, including three that serve his “Famous Chinois Chicken Salad.” The recipe contains a base of Napa cabbage and Romaine lettuce, cut into ¼-inch julienned strips, topped by julienned snow peas, shredded roast chicken and toasted sesame seeds.  This is definitely a salad to which I want to get Oriented.

Yours till the Asian carps,

¡Sí Sí Para Ensaladas!

January 3rd, 2012

Chili's Quesadilla Explosion Salad

Maybe it’s because I just completed an online Spanish course, but I’ve recently developed quite a fondness for southwestern salads.  While there doesn’t seem to be a standard recipe, most of the ones I’ve eaten have a crunchy lettuce base (romaine and/or iceberg), mixed with corn, tortilla strips, and cheese. There may also be black beans, onions, tomatoes, pumpkins seeds, and/or avocado, while the dressing often contains lime or cilantro. In the Chicago area, southwestern salads aren’t as popular as Caesars or Greeks, but they can be found at a number of eateries.

One of the most popular Mexican restaurants in the City is the award-winning Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill. But it’s a lot easier to get a seat at his Frontera Fresco at the Macy’s in Old Orchard. And while I haven’t forgiven the store chain for its multitude of Marshall Field’s takeover sins (including those ridiculously flimsy shopping bags), Macy’s does house the only three Frontera Frescos currently in existence—one at Old Orchard, one downtown and one in San Francisco.  The tasty Taquería Salad is composed of romaine, arugula, roasted peppers, tortilla strips and cheese, and served with lime Caesar dressing.  I especially enjoy munching on my salad while sitting in the outdoor eating area of the Old Orchard Frontera Fresco on a warm summer day, right across from the overpriced and underwhelming Wilde and Greene restaurant.

Several years ago, a friend recommended the Caesar salad at Chili’s.  I was a bit skeptical at first, but then pleasantly surprised.  They make a nice Cobb there, too.  But the relatively new Quesadilla Explosion Salad is my favorite. There’s grilled chicken with cheese, tomatoes, corn relish, cilantro and tortilla strips, served with a citrus-balsamic dressing.  As an added bonus on the side, the chef includes cheese quesadilla wedges.  According to the Chili’s menu, it’s their most popular salad.  Not surprising.

One of my favorite downtown salad spots, Ceres Café, also has a southwest salad on its menu:  romaine and iceberg lettuces, sliced chicken breast, cheese, tortilla strips, cilantro, corn, diced tomatoes, and black beans.   The peanut-cilantro dressing is a bit spicy for me, but doesn’t seem to bother either Marcy or Eleanor, a vegetarian, who orders it with avocado instead of chicken.

Other good southwestern options include the BBQ Chicken Salad (with thin and crispy fried onions) at the Yard House in Glenview, Nordstrom’s Lime & Cilantro Chicken Salad and Panera’s BBQ chopped chicken salad. Even McDonald’s wants in on the genre, with its Premium Southwest Salad served with chili lime tortilla strips.

As to the cheeses in these salads, they are usually a mild Mexican variety such as cotija or chihuahua. And I was relieved to learn that the only commonality between chihuaha cheese and the chihuaha dog is that they’re both from an area in Mexico of that name. :-)

Yours till the tortilla strips,
Not Just Lechuga

Gobbling Down Those Salads

November 24th, 2011

How can it be that time of year again?  Our neighbors’ lawns are dotted with colorful Pilgrim and turkey inflatables.  “Black Friday” commercials are bombarding the airwaves.  And the supermarkets are packed with frantic shoppers whose carts are stuffed with those Thanksgiving fixings that will ultimately make us feel just like that guy in the “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” Alka-Seltzer commercial.

Full disclosure: I’m not a big fan of the holiday turkey.  Because, honestly, in terms of overall flavor and just general pizzazz, how can it compare with baked sweet potatoes mashed with gobs of butter, Barbara’s cranberry crunch (a dessert cleverly masquerading as a side dish) and the iconic pumpkin pie?  (Adam Gopnik writes in a recent New Yorker article of “the bird’s natural tendency not to taste very good.”)

But, on The Day After, it’s a different story; leftover turkey rules.  Cold and sliced, it can be the foundation of fabulous sandwiches, like this one with guacamole, avocado, sliced cheese and tomatoes.

Even better:  how about putting that turkey in a green salad?  For some reason, though, chicken—and not its turkey cousin—usually provides the fowl addition to most greens.   For instance, who ever heard of a turkey Caesar?  Maybe because it’s easier to cook a chicken breast than its turkey counterpart?  Or perhaps because chicken tends to be  juicier?

This seems consistent with the offerings of most salad-serving restaurants. For instance, among the eight salads listed on the Panera signature salad menu, six are made with chicken, while only one is turkey-based (baste?):  the roast turkey harvest salad, with fresh pears, dried cherries, Gorgonzola cheese, pecans and cherry balsamic vinaigrette .

There are also some good turkey salad recipes out there, like the Food Network’s mixed greens with turkey, strawberries, kiwi and cashews in honey-sesame dressing.

But, for this year’s post-Thanksgiving lunch, I’m thinking of concocting my own salad, based on Sopraffina’s farmstand version:  mixed greens, candied walnuts, crumbled goat cheese and sherry raisin vinaigrette.  Instead of the tomatoes, though, perhaps I’ll add dried cranberries—and, of course, the bird de resistance—turkey.

Yours till Plymouth rocks,

A Salute to Fruit

September 17th, 2011

I’m a big fan of fruit.  OK, not that big of a fan—unless it’s in, say, a pie.   But I know that this is likely a minority view; and that there are some folks who actually like fresh fruit in their salads—their GREEN salads!  I guess fruits are just not on my salad palate.

There are some exceptions, though.  Like ones with dried fruit, especially when paired with cheese and red onions.  This includes Lula’s organic spinach salad with dried cherries, walnuts, red onions and goat cheese.  Then there’s Marco Roma’s surprisingly tasty “pollo chop chop” salad:  lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, grilled chicken, bacon, gorgonzola, elbow pasta and raisins.  Yes, raisins.  But for those who would like a little more juiciness on their greens, there are some other choices.

Sopraffina’s “seasonal salad” just changed from a spinach/strawberry combo to a “fall harvest salad,” with granny smith apples and dried cranberries. Panera still serves its poppyseed and chicken salad (with a fruit quartet: strawberries, blueberries, pineapple and Mandarin oranges). At Nordstrom Café, in addition to their blue cheese/pear and grilled chicken/strawberry salads, they’ve been serving a Summer Plum Salad: spiced almonds, feta cheese and sliced fresh plums, tossed in a champagne vinaigrette. Pretty good for a fruity salad—and just what I needed to sustain me before a recent invasion of the shoe department.

Here’s a surprising City salad spot: Yolk. In addition to dozens of breakfast-oriented items, the menu lists 10 salads made with some type of greens.   When Rob was there last week, he ordered and thoroughly enjoyed the Goat Cheese and Spinach salad: grilled chicken breast, crumbled goat cheese, sliced strawberries, toasted almonds and sliced red onions. This sounds eggs-actly like a place I’d like to try soon.

Yours till Kant elopes,

Weak for Salads

July 29th, 2011

How did it get to be National Salad Week again?  OK, I confess that I had no idea there even was such an event until Estee thoughtfully posted the information on my Facebook page.  Thank you, Estee—and Facebook.

National Salad Week, I have now discovered, takes place the last week in July.  That makes sense, as produce prices are starting to plummet and tomatoes are starting to taste like the fruits they officially are.

The British website Recipes4us.co.uk has acknowledged our special salad week, and posted some helpful hints.  These include the suggestion to “add extra flavour and colour by adding some flower petals too. Many flowers are edible.”  Not sure if I’m ready for that….

The International Caterers Guild is also in a celebratory mood.  To mark National Salad week, they suggest that we “make this week as an excuse to go wild and prepare lots of healthy (and some not-so-healthy) salads.”

In one of the iconic Simpsons episodes, “Lisa the Vegetarian,” Homer and Bart taunt Lisa by singing that “you don’t win friends with salad.”


The Association for Dressings and Sauces, an Atlanta-based trade association of salad dressing and sauce manufacturers and suppliers, would strongly disagree. A recent ADS press release cites a consumer survey indicating that 95 percent of Americans eat salads at least three times per week; and that they perceive others who eat salads regularly as healthier, happier and sexier!  That’s certainly how I feel.  :)

Happy National Salad Week!

Feta Compli

June 30th, 2011

"Greece" is the word.

I have just finished sampling Greek salads in the City, and I am thirsty. It’s mostly those kalamata olives—which serve as a reminder that the word “salad” actually comes from the Greek word for salt.

Speaking of kalamata olives, they acquire their flavor by being slit (ouch!), then “brine cured,” which means soaked in a “canning salt”/water mixture.

Another key ingredient in Greek salads is feta cheese. It’s made from sheep’s milk or a blend of sheep’s and goat’s milk; soft feta is sweeter, less salty, rich in aroma and less spicy, while semi-hard feta is saltier and spicier, having a stronger taste and aroma.

In addition to the olives and cheese, a typical Greek salad has a base of either iceberg or romaine lettuce, which is combined with tomatoes, cucumbers, sliced bell peppers and red onions. The dressing is usually a mixture of olive oil and either wine vinegar or lemon juice, plus herbs/seasonings like oregano and chopped parsley.

I was somewhat relieved to learn that Greek salads are actually eaten in Greece (unlike, say, Chinese food). Abroad, however, they do not contain lettuce. Hub’s, a suburban Greek-style eatery, must know this, as they offer a leaf-less “Greek village salad.” But their salads are too bland—as Leah and I agreed while continually shaking on extra salt and pepper during our most recent ritual lunch there.   Better quick-food Greek greens are at Panera’s; but I won’t again order the Mediterranean Veggie sandwich with it as part of the You-Pick-Two combo, as it’s basically a Greek salad on bread.

Somewhat disappointing was the Greek salad at the fancier Psistaria Greek Taverna in Lincolnwood, where the vinegar overpowers the dressing. This is also a problem at East of Edens, but at least you get a dollop of dolmades on your greens.

Sabrina and I love the Greek salads at Ceres, where the chef adds halved hard-boiled eggs and tosses the salads in a slightly sweet vinaigrette. Best of all, though, is Sopraffina’s Mediterranean Salad, where generous amounts of feta cheese are crumbled (not just cut into several big chunks) on greens that are lightly tossed in a tangy–but not too salty–Athenian lemon dressing. Opa!

Yours till the Grecian urns,

Lettuce Remember

March 31st, 2011

My dad passed away last week.  As I look back on the many things we shared during our 50+ years together, eating salads is one of my favorites.

Of course, when I was younger that wasn’t the case.  Because Dad’s inner chef was a bit different, and kids are just not that big on different.  At home, I didn’t understand how he could possibly eat lettuce whose sole dressing consisted of Mazola corn oil and wine vinegar poured from the two thick glass cruets on our dinner table.  And at restaurants, I’d cringe when he’d order a salad and ask the waitress to mix together a couple of the (then maybe three) dressings on the menu, like French and Thousand Island.  Ewww.

I will admit that Dad had one thing right:  always toss the greens with the dressing before serving.  No on-the-side stuff for him.  He realized that mixing it all up was the only way to optimize the leaf-to-dressing ratio.  Of course, it worked better if everyone liked the same dressing. ;-)

Fast-forwarding to later in our lives, I picture the two of us gobbling down salads together during our Tuesday lunches at The Next Door Bistro in Northbrook (thank you, Barbara and Charlene). OK, it was me doing the most of the gobbling.  But Dad really did enjoy their house salad:  mixed greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, Greek olives, asiago cheese, croutons and red onions, tossed perfectly in their house vinaigrette.  The salad was big enough for us to share, especially when accompanied by Next Door’s crusty,  freshly baked bread; we ate the garlic version only if we didn’t have a dental appointment within the next three days.  And at only $7.95, Dad was particularly pleased.

Dad liked to look around the restaurant while we ate.  He would comment on the other customers’ heaping plates of capellini tomato basil and rigatoni chicken bolognese.  For the two of us, though, the salad was just fine, thank you.


The Cheese Does Not Stand Alone

February 19th, 2011

Grate news: There are over 670 types of cheese.

Green Bay having recently won the Super Bowl, what better time to focus on cheese?  No, not those giant wedges of Swiss that Packer fans (and Seth as a young ‘un) put on their heads, but the many cheese choices that we can now put on our salads—to make them super bowls in their own right.

The cheese world has come a long way since my childhood when my favorite type was Velveeta—now outed as a “pasteurized prepared cheese product.” I also loved Kraft parmesan, that powdery, strange-smelling stuff that I shook from the iconic green can onto my spaghetti.

But now there are over 670 types of cheese. They may be soft or hard; sharp or mild; yellow, white or orange; grated, cubed, shredded or sliced. In salads, they offer extra texture, taste and calcium.  Unfortunately, they can also provide extra calories and saturated fat. Alas, the Vermont cheddar (shout-out to Mel!) that I love to grate onto my mixed greens w/toasted pistachios, chopped red onion and sliced granny smith apples has 120 calories/ounce.  The good news is that feta and goat cheeses each have less than 80 calories/ounce.

The first cheese I remember on salads were the Swiss strips on the Julienne. Then came the freshly grated (not Kraft-canned) parmesan on the Caesar.  Other frequent duos now include blue cheese/gorgonzola on Cobbs, feta on Greeks (salads, that is) and cheddar/Monterey Jack on Southwesterns.

What about brie in a salad?  I wasn’t crazy about it in Sopraffina’s Parisian salad.  Then they wisely bid those greens adieu to make way for the current seasonal favorite:  the BLT salad.  It’s composed of romaine lettuce, bacon, cherry tomatoes, sliced egg, croutons, Ranch dressing—and asiago.  Sandwich morphs into salad, then adds some tangy cheese; good moove,  Sopraffina!

Yours till the asiagos,

Added 3/1/11:   Maurine has sent me an e-mail suggesting that, in honor of our new mayor-elect, we should have a salad with rahm-ain lettuce or rahm-ano cheese!