Saturday, April 16, 2011

Esalen Kale Salad Cravings

I’m home! I’ve had a whirlwind three weeks in the Southeast region of the U.S. while touring with HCJ and his big band, and it’s been a genuine thrill to be part of it all. There’s still more to come with concerts in New Jersey and Connecticut next week plus a whole week in Boston in late April, but I’m grateful for a week at home to catch up with friends and family. I'm also having some much needed time in my kitchen, and upon arriving home after three weeks away, I immediately headed to my local health food store to buy a humongous bunch of kale. I’d been craving bitter greens for weeks, and I couldn’t wait to make this Esalen Kale Salad.

My friend Marjorie had first told me about this particular recipe from the Esalen Cookbook around the time I’d posted my take on the City Bakery kale salad last fall. My raw kale bowl—with its Italian flavor profile featuring a lemony olive oil dressing while punched up with toasted breadcrumbs and grated pecorino cheese—was something I made countless times last fall. But I was intrigued by Marjorie’s salad that combined kale ribbons and marinated red onion slivers with thin mushroom slices and avocado cubes, all bound together by a lemon-soy dressing and a liberal sprinkling of toasted crunchy pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds. This recipe came up again in a recent conversation and I asked Marjorie to send it to me, which she did on the first day of the HCJ tour when I arrived in Thackerville, Oklahoma.

Now to give you a little context for why I’ve been totally obsessed with making this recipe, allow me to set the scene for you. In a place like Las Vegas, there are many location-themed grand casinos such as The Paris, The Venetian, and The New York New York, all standing proudly along the main strip. However, at the Winstar Casino in Thackerville, all of these international locales were combined under one roof to rather incongruous effect. As you entered the casino from the hotel, the signs and décor screamed LONDON as you walked past replicas of Big Ben and London Bridge. After walking past 50 feet of slot machines, you could pass under a big archway and suddenly find yourself in “Paris” with a mock Eiffel Tower. Another 50 feet of slot machines and an archway later, the Coliseum in “Rome” loomed large, and so on and so forth.

Not to put too fine a point on it as I know I’ve mentioned this in the previous two posts, but I would just like to reiterate that the casino dining options were bleaker than bleak. For example, there was a greasy fish-and-chips joint in “London” and a scarier-than-usual-looking Panda Express in “Beijing”, and for reasons that made no sense to me or to anyone else in the band, the “Cairo” section hosted a Mongolian BBQ restaurant whereby you could create your own stir-fry dish.  I've often enjoyed eating at Mongolian BBQ places in the past, but  this particular establishment featured frozen-solid seafood along with pepperoni as protein options, multiple containers of the saddest-looking vegetables and a choice of day-glo bright sauces to bind it all together. I was seriously contemplating going on a 24-hour fast, when the Esalen kale salad recipe from Marjorie appeared in my inbox, ironically enough.

It was the cruelest tease.  I actually laughed out loud as I read the recipe, thinking how unfair it was that she should send it to me when I was stuck in the middle of Nowhere, Oklahoma with no kitchen access for three weeks. I was absolutely salivating at that the thought of the leafy bitter greens co-mingling with velvety avocado and meaty mushrooms, happily imagining how that would all taste with the tangy lemon-soy dressing and the welcome crunch provided by the trio of toasted seeds. Upon reading this recipe, I swear I would have given an entire week’s worth of per diem to get my hands on some raw kale at that moment.

Fortunately the quality of food improved dramatically once we got out of Thackerville, and I was fortunate enough to enjoy some truly inspired meals over the next few weeks. (Please refer to the previous post for photos of some of the culinary highlights.) But that still didn’t stop me from thinking about this kale salad throughout the tour, and I knew I’d have to make it at the earliest opportunity. And once I finally had the opportunity to try it, I think it was worth the wait.

Adapted from a recipe in the Esalen Cookbook by Charlie Cassio

I used a combination of purple curly kale and flat-leaf Tuscan kale when making this. I think the Tuscan kale works better texture-wise in the raw salad, but you can use whatever kind you like. The original recipe calls for Braggs Liquid Amino Acids in the dressing, but I think a good soy sauce makes a fine substitute. I also left out the optional sprouts from the original version, thinking that there was already enough going on in this salad which made the sprouts unnecessary.

1/3 cup tamari soy sauce
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
½ of a small red onion, thinly sliced into half-moons
¼ cup pumpkin seeds
¼ cup sunflower seeds
¼ cup sesame seeds
1 pound fresh kale
1 avocado, pitted and cut into ½-inch cubes
1 cup thinly sliced shiitake or crimini mushrooms

Combine the soy sauce and lemon juice in a small bowl, then add the olive oil in a slow steady stream as you whisk to combine completely. (Alternately you can add the three ingredients in a jar with a lid and shake vigorously to combine well.) Add the red onion slices to the dressing and let marinate while you prepare the rest of the salad.

Toast the pumpkin seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the seeds are golden and fragrant. Keep an eye on them as they can go from golden to burnt in a matter of seconds. Transfer to a plate to cool. Repeat with the sunflower seeds and sesame seeds. Make sure to toast each type of seed separately as they’ll require different toasting times due to their varying sizes.

Remove the stems from the kale. Stack the kale leaves and slice into thin ¼-inch ribbons. Combine the kale and the marinated onions in a large mixing bowl with just enough dressing to lightly but thoroughly coat the leaves. (If you want, the Esalen recipe encourages you to really get your hands in there and massage the dressing into the kale—it’s quite satisfying, I must say!) Add the avocado, mushrooms and the toasted seeds and toss till well combined.

Makes 4 to 6 servings. However, if your name is Louise or you are a similarly kale-starved person, this makes 1-2 satisfying servings.

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