Kale, Date & Almond Salad

The other night I ate at Rustic Canyon for the first time.  I'm a big fan of Huckleberry, which is owned by the same folks. My expectations were high and overall the meal was quite lovely. The place was packed and the ambience was lively. The cocktail I had was perfect and the beer and wine selections looked great.  Everything we ate tasted good, but there were two dishes that stood out more than the others.

Service was outstanding for the first half of the meal.  For the second half of the meal, our waitress seemed to forget about us entirely. We were more or less ignored once our first round of drinks had been replenished; this made ordering dessert a little difficult. Service isn't something that matters to everyone, but it does matter to me. I'm particularly sensitive to service when the price tag of the meal is high. Regardless of what I'm paying, if a place has pretty good food and excellent service I'll almost definitely return to that establishment.  If a place has great food and terrible service I'm unlikely to go back.  Maybe it was an off-night because they were so busy (there happened to be celebrities there that night), or maybe that's just how it is. Rustic Canyon was yummy, but I'm not sure I'll go out of my way to return.

Back to the food... the gnocchi with oxtail, strawberry sofrito, pine nut, and fennel pollen was the stand-out dish, and the kale salad was a close second. I really like kale, but it's not something I tend to order at restaurants. On the menu the salad was described as having 'honey' dates, walnut, Parmesan and lemon.  It sounded good and different, and it tasted even better than I imagined. The kale was bright and slightly bitter, the dates were velvety and sweet, the lemon vinaigrette was creamy and vibrant.

I came home wanting to eat it again.  Here is a take on the great salad I had that night.

Kale, Date & Almond Salad with Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette
Serves 2-3

4 cups kale (lacinato/tuscan kale would be best, but I used the regular variety), thinly sliced into ribbons
1/4 cup almonds, toasted and chopped (hazelnuts, pecans, or walnuts would also be good)
5 dates, pitted and halved
salt and pepper
juice of one lemon, Meyer if in season
drop of honey
3 tablespoons olive oil, or more depending on taste
crumbled goat cheese (optional)
shaved parmesan (optional)

Add the kale, toasted nuts, and pitted dates to a bowl. Lightly season the salad with salt and pepper.

In a small bowl or jar, add freshly squeezed lemon juice, a drop of honey, and a little more salt and pepper.  Whisk the olive oil into the lemon juice mixture until creamy and emulsified.  Taste your dressing and adjust accordingly.

Toss the salad with the dressing until the leaves are well coated.  Let the salad sit for at least 15 minutes before serving so that the kale properly absorbs the dressing and softens.

Top with crumbled goat cheese, or shaved parmesan if you're in the mood for that.

Simple Salad and Simple Dressing

I love making salads. It's a funny thing to love to make. Salads are often an afterthought when one is preparing a meal for friends. Salads are that thing you eat when you're trying to be healthy, or when you're trying to incorporate more greens into your diet. Salad is often treated as a second class citizen in the culinary world.

I hold salads and salad dressings in high esteem.  As a kid, I would always ask my mom for seconds of salad. As an adult, I crave them on a daily basis. Part of my love of salads coincides with my love of condiments.

I'm a sucker for a good sauce or add-on.  A great dressing or vinaigrette is my personal favorite kind of sauce.  The best kind of dressing is one that masters a balance of tangy, salty, sweet, and oily.  One of the staples in my arsenal is an exceedingly simple dijon balsamic vinaigrette.  Personally, I prefer a tahini dressing; but a great balsamic dressing is always a crowd pleaser.

It is imperative that you start with a great balsamic when you make this dressing. There are a lot of guides on the internet for picking the best balsamics (here's one). Above all else, check the ingredients. Added sugar or caramel is super whack. Avoid buying vinegar with any kind of added sweetener.

Back to the salad itself... for dinner parties, I like to keep my salads simple. Usually, I stick to 3 ingredients: something leafy, something crunchy, something unexpected/fun - this could be an ingredient with a great color, flavor, or texture (i.e. watermelon radishes, thinly sliced zucchini, carrot ribbons, pickled shallots, and so on.)

This salad is super easy, and the earthy pine nuts and sweet currants go well with the spicy arugula. Tangy sweet balsamic dijon dressing brings it all together.

Arugula, Currant and Pine Nut Salad with Balsamic Dijon Vinaigrette
Serves 4-6

for the salad:
7 ounces of arugula
2 tablespoons pine nuts (or however much you want), lightly toasted if desired
3 tablespoons dried currents (or however much you want)
salt and pepper

for the vinaigrette:
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon whole grain mustard (optional)
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon finely minced shallot (totally optional)

Put al of your salad ingredients in a large bowl.  Season your arugula with salt and pepper. Yes, before you dress the salad.

Add the balsamic and mustards to a small bowl. Whisk in the olive oil until the dressing is emulsified. If you're using shallot, add it to the dressing and stir. Ok, here's what should happen at this point:
TASTE IT. Taste your dressing for Pete's sake. You might need more oil. You might need more mustard. You might need more balsamic. Every ingredient differs, everyone's taste differs.  If you like your dressings on the sweet side add a little honey or agave to the mix. Start with a 1/4 teaspoon and go from there.  A great way to taste your dressing is to dip a leaf of arugula into it. If it tastes the way you want it on the rest of your salad your dressing is good to go.

Just before you're about to eat the salad, drizzle some of the dressing around the sides of the bowl. Gently toss the leaves in the dressing. Your hands are best for this operation. Start slowly, you can always add more dressing.  Once your leaves are glistening with your desired amount of dressing, serve!