One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.

-Luciano Pavarotti and William Wright, "Pavarotti, My Own Story"

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011: Squash and Kale Salad

Thanksgiving is almost upon us again. All the food magazine covers are adorned with burnished turkeys and the Thanksgiving posts I wrote last year are getting more and more hits every day. In 2010, I used a simple strategy of making everything but the turkey ahead of time, which let me have a stress-free evening and enjoy the company of my fellow diners. You can find the write-up of this simple, make-ahead Thanksgiving meal here. I'm particularly fond of the turkey recipe as it roasts in only seventy minutes and has delicious, crispy skin. If I cook again this year, I will definitely use the same method!

Although I adore traditional Thanksgiving foods, the meal as a whole is often a butter and cream-laden starch-fest. My palate is not used to such heavy foods and once at the table, I find myself wanting something light and acidic. While brainstorming ideas, I came up with this butternut squash and lacinato kale salad. Its bright, mustardy dressing cuts through the richness of the meal and the jewel-toned vegetables make a nice complement to the cranberry sauce and turkey on your plate. Toasted pine nuts and sweet currants add a festive touch. 

Lacinato kale (also called Tuscan kale) is one of my favorite vegetables. It is normally too tough to eat raw, but there is a trick to making raw kale edible: Salt it a little bit ahead of time and let it sit. The salt will draw water out of the kale which causes the leaves to wilt just enough to be edible. You can use the same trick with shredded cabbage to make coleslaw. 

This salad can be made largely ahead of time, which is a boon for Thanksgiving. Roast the squash, make the dressing and cut the kale leaves up to a day before the meal. Refrigerate all components seperately. On the day, wilt the kale, then toss with the dressing before topping with the pine nuts and currants. Speaking of the latter two, they can be substituted with dried cranberries and pecans to give an even more colorful salad. 

Winter Squash and Kale Salad
I used pumpkin in this salad, but any kind of flavorful winter squash, or even sweet potatoes, will do. You can either roast the squash halves whole, or after dicing them. The second method will give more delicious browned surfaces but the first method is easier. Don't substitute the lacinato kale with regular curly kale, the texture doesn't quite work. Even if you do prepare the salad components ahead of time, toast the nuts at the last minute. If your dried currants are tough and shriveled instead of plump and moist, let them sit for a few minutes in hot water before draining and adding to the salad. Serves 8 as an appetizer or side dish.

1 small bunch lacinato kale, washed and drained, tough center stems cut out
1 small (3-4 lb) sugar pumpkin, butternut squash, acorn squash or 2 large sweet potatoes
1/4 cup pine nuts 
1/4 cup dried currants 
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1 tbsp plain or whole grain Dijon mustard

1. Preheat oven to 400F and line a baking sheet with foil. Cut the squash in half, spoon out the seeds and stringy material, drizzle with a little oil and place cut-side down on the tray. Roast for 30-40 minutes, until a knife slides easily in and out of the squash, then let cool. (If you decide to peel and dice the squash before roasting, toss the cubes with oil and roast for only 10-15 minutes until slightly browned and tender.)

2. While the squash is cooling, stack the kale leaves and cut them length-wise into 1/4 inch thick strips. Put them in a colander and add a generous amount of salt. Don't worry about oversalting as you'll rinse the kale later. Massage the salt into the leaves for 2 minutes, then let sit for 15-20 minutes.

3. Toast the pine nuts in a small dry pan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until golden. Let cool.

4. Once the squash is cool, peel it and cut into 1 inch cubes. Season the cubes with some salt and pepper. Hold the colander with the kale leaves in it under running water to rinse off the salt, then drain. Combine the oil, vinegar and mustard in a jar and shake to emulsify.

5. To assemble the salad, spread the kale strips on a wide plate. Toss with half the dressing and season with salt and pepper. Put the squash cubes in the center and drizzle on the rest of the dressing. Top with the nuts and currants and serve.

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