A Tale of Two Kale Salads
One beautifully plain, the other quite fancy
Hello, salad-makers. Thanks for reading and thanks for subscribing. (If you’re not yet onboard and would like to gain access to all our delicious content, you can become a paid subscriber by using the green buttons below.) Either way, we are so happy to have you here.
ALSO: I have some news: I’m leaving the barn, North Carolina, and my extremely too small kitchen for Atlanta, where I have friends and family and a kitchen in a new place I’m extremely excited about. I hope to be moved in by early July. It’s time! As much as I have loved living here, and as good as it’s been for me, I probably should have left last year. But the comfort of isolation was alluring to me for a long time, and it often felt like magic. More on this story as it develops.
CHEF SALAD: Allison Robicelli
THE FIRST THING YOU NOTICE about Allison Robicelli is her hair, which is periwinkle blue. It’s a lot like she is: bright, quirky, attention grabbing. The second thing you notice is that she’s very funny and she likes to talk. And cuss.
Who doesn’t? But this is a family newsletter, so I will tell you in the cleanest way possible what we talked about recently.
Robicelli, who is Brooklyn born and raised, is a former professional baker turned food writer, who has lived through cancer and the opening and closing of a beloved Brooklyn bakery, Robicelli’s, which she owned (and poured her heart and soul into) with her chef husband, Matt.
She published a memoir/cookbook about that experience, and today she’s a staff writer for the scrappy, funny, irreverent Chicago-based food site, The Takeout, which is absolutely perfect for her sensibility. While homeschooling her two teenage sons, Toby (13) and Atticus (14), Robicelli has also become the resident fast-food expert in The Takeout’s effort to “celebrate high and low foods and drinks with equal reverence,” which has required her to eat a hell of a lot of Hot Pockets, among many other forms of food, both malignant and benign.
To say that Robicelli has a wide range as a food journalist is an understatement. She has asked the burning question “Why don’t we eat swans?”; wistfully advised readers on how to avoid being eaten by a bear while picnicking; personally sampled every single item on the TGI Friday’s Under the Big Top circus-themed menu; waxed lovingly about air fryers and supplied recipes for them; lived on plant-based meal replacement powders for three days and written about it; reported on the misfortunes of two Australian beer drinkers who got stranded at sea; and warned us about robots in the kitchen, among many other highly informational entertainments.
How in God’s name she has time to do this while also home-schooling is completely beyond me. When I’m writing or in the kitchen, I can barely get my mail in from the mailbox—and I told her so. That was practically the last thing I said during our almost 2-hour conversation, because once I got Robicelli going, it was a stream of consciousness rhapsody about many things having absolutely nothing to do with salad. So I just floated along like a drunk Australian on her sea of firebrand philosophizing, which was always fun and interesting.
ON THE FOLLY OF MAKING PLANS
I’m very fluid about life, you know? I realized one thing ages ago: When you make plans in life, it’s pretty much a guarantee they’re not going to happen. The second you make plans you are just wasting your @%&# time. . . . I’ve learned that you can work so hard towards a goal and the world changes or the economy bottoms out or people betray you or your personal situation shifts. Or we have a pandemic. Maybe I shouldn’t say I don't have plans. . . . I have loose sketches.
I’m super smart. I’m not going to go like crowing about my IQ or anything, but I'm a very smart person; I have ADHD, so I found school really boring. Atticus is super smart. And he wasn't doing well in school. So, I took him out. All right, we’re going to try this. I’m also very inquisitive. I was ready to learn new stuff. He’s really into physics, which is something I cut every class in. But I said, okay, well now I need to learn this. And we’re doing it together. And it’s an adventure.
ON OWNING A BAKERY
I don’t want to talk about this much because I’ve written a book about it. The reason I don't talk about it is I was often miserable. Owning a business is not fun, even when it’s food. On the one hand you love it, and you love what you do in theory, but the second you turn it into a business, it stops being just about food. But the love is still there . . . . When we lost the bakery, a therapist told me my depression resembled the kind that comes from losing a child. So, in the past couple of years, watching food writers yell at the owners as if they’re the reason the system sucks? My reaction is: we don’t want this. There are always going to be guys at the top, who are taking advantage of people, but that’s not the entire industry.
I got, um, cancer when I was 20. Finding out was like: Well, here we go. But the only two regrets that I had at the time were that I’d I never fallen in love, and I’d never ridden a horse. It’s crazy. The things that you worry about versus what you’re really facing? I honestly thought it would be fine if I had to die at 20, except that I didn’t get to fall in love. Fortunately, today, I’m very happily married to my best friend. But when I saw my oncologist, for my ten-year appointment, he said ‘I tell everyone you’re my miracle girl.’ And I’m like, What do you mean? And he’s like, ‘You were supposed to be dead!’ And I'm like, Oh, well, okay, but I’m not, am I? It changes you. It’s people who are healthy who go around fearing death.
ON HER BRAND OF FOOD WRITING
I dunno—I got into food writing late. But I always loved food. I remember getting an award in third grade for writing an essay that was supposed to be about taking a trip somewhere. I wrote it about a trip through my refrigerator. I had never applied for a food writing job before The Takeout, because I didn’t feel qualified. I was like, you would give me money for doing this? And they said, Yes, we will give you money. I’d always felt like an interloper, not just because I wasn’t a trained writer or because I came from cooking. But because of my style. I’m a naturally funny person. And, you know, the funniest people are always the saddest people and the more I’ve gone through, the more humor has helped me survive. I felt like the quirky, weird girl, you know? But now I feel like the luckiest person in the world.
ON DEVELOPING RECIPES
It’s something that I think about in bed, for hours. I piece them together in my head. Plus, I have a very weird thing called synesthesia, which is impossible to describe. I have a good sense memory and I can see flavors and tastes in color. It’s kind of like drawing on a canvas, so I’ll wake up and think: I know how to put together this recipe. And it’s fun! Your kitchen can be like a Play-Doh Fun Factory. You can make mistakes, you can fail, you can mess up and laugh and be okay with it. I want people to be playing with their food, laughing at their mistakes. Oh, I $%#* this up? Well, here is what I learned to do next time. Everyone takes themselves so seriously, but we’re all going to die.
During our conversation, I tried more than a few times to steer Robicelli toward salad, but she forged ahead, talking about how much New York City has changed since the 80s and 90s, and how much she loves Baltimore because it reminds her of the way New York used to be, and saying things like “I am a person who believes foolishly in the greatness of things and other people and community,” and decrying the rigidity of our perceptions of food. (“I’m guilty of this, too. Because I’m from New York. My entire life I said there’s only one type of pizza, there’s only one type of bagel, and they’re like this or that, and this is the best. There’s no such thing as the best. There are very, very bad things, but everything can be appreciated for what it is.”)
After a while, I finally got the nerve to ask her the question I was beginning to dread, since I was afraid I wasn’t going to get the answer I wanted.
So, tell me: are you a salad eater?
“Not really,” she replied.
But I’m experienced enough at luring salads out of people to know that EVERYONE IS.
“I’m Italian,” she continued. “Our Italian is not the Italian from Italy. But when I was a kid we'd have our big freaking Italian Sunday dinners. You eat the giant meal first, and then the salad comes at the end, and it makes you feel good. I just don’t understand why you’d eat the salad first. So, for me, when I do have a salad, it’s something really simple and it’s after dinner. If I do make a salad for dinner itself, my favorite is kale and Florida avocados. "
“I like kale because it’s usually on sale. Very seriously that’s how I’m very different from other food writers. Other people go to the grocery store and buy things that aren’t on sale. I don’t even know how to do that.”
Robicelli gave me the Kale Salad recipe, which uses “the cheaper, less desirable” avocados, which she defended when I told her I did not like them—by pointing out that I was expecting one thing to be like another while she was only looking for a bargain.
And then she said, quite suddenly, as if I’d been keeping her against her will: “Look, I’ve got to run because I have an article tomorrow and I’ve got to write my recipe. It’s bagel, skins. I figured out how to make potato skins, but they’re made out of bagel exterior.”
*RECIPE: Allison Robicelli’s Beautifully Plain Kale Salad, in Her Words
Serves 2-4, depending on many factors.
A small red onion
One bunch kale (you can use fancy kale if you want, but I always buy the plain green one because it’s cheap), cleaned, stems ripped out
One or two of those avocados nobody respects.
A fat grapefruit or two, depending on how much you like grapefruit. All salads should be made with no rules and reckless abandon. [Editor’s Note: We disagree with this.]
Olive oil, salt, pepper
Start by thinly Frenching [aka slicing] your onion and scattering the pieces into a large bowl.
Supreme the grapefruit and set aside.
Over the bowl of onions, wring all the juice out of the grapefruit carcass before discarding, add a pinch of salt, and toss with your hands to make sure the onion pieces are fully coated. Throw in the grapefruit segments. Dice up the avocado that nobody loves, and throw that in there, too.
Chop the kale as finely as you want it (I like mine in small pieces), add to the bowl on top of everything else, sprinkle with a bit of salt, and massage until the kale has begun to get wilty. Toss everything together with your hands, being very thorough so the avocado together with the grapefruit juice make their own vinaigrette and coat every leaf. Give the salad a taste, and add olive oil or a splash of vinegar (any kind) if you think it needs it. Season with salt and pepper, toss, taste again for balance, then eat. (You can also do this with your hands.)
A FANCY KALE SALAD, from Ed Smith of Rocket and Squash
Robicelli’s salad has the kind of dashing simplicity I absolutely adore: it’s thrown together but it tastes like a dream. I have a similar recipe in my book, but it’s more time consuming: I use soft and bitter greens (the washing, the spinning!) and I make a mustard vinaigrette. With Robicelli’s great version, the leftovers are delicious without being soppy. (The boys in the lab and I are crazy about leftover salad.)
The elephant in the room here, though, is the sad fact that kale puts off some people, who see it as “health food”—even if they love other extremely green leafy things. Luckily, kale is so virile and self-satisfied that it just doesn’t care. It can stand up to your insults. It can also stand up to a barrage of rich brunchy or lunchy adornments—and still manage to make you feel incredibly virtuous simply for having eaten kale.
I found exactly that kind of luxurious kale salad in a new book, Crave, that landed on my doorstep recently. Of course I went straight to salads. Soon we’ll be talking to the author, the British food writer Ed Smith, who runs the terrific website Rocket and Squash. I don’t want to give too much away except to say I really love this book. I’d serve this kale salad with nothing more than some lavash or toasts.
*RECIPE: Chopped Kale, Dill, and Chickpea Salad with Smoked Trout, by Ed Smith
2 14-ounce cans chickpeas
1 tablespoon olive oil
9 ounces kale (not the bagged kind), stems discarded, leaves shredded
1 lemon, zest finely grated and the juice of half
1 1/2 large cucumbers, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeds scooped out and discarded, flesh cut in to 1/2-inch crescents
10 dill sprigs (1/2 finely chopped, 1/2 left whole)
Leaves from 10 sprigs mint, finely chopped
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
4 fillets hot-smoked trout
Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oven to 425 F (220 C)
Spread half the chickpeas over a small baking sheet. Add the oil, roll the chickpeas in it until glossy, and cook on the top half of the oven for 30 minutes until golden (they become crunchier as they cool). Season immediately with lots of flaky salt then set to one side.
Transfer the shredded kale leaves to a mixing bowl, add half a teaspoon of flaky sea salt, then use one hand to squeeze or massage the kale for a minute or so, until wet and reduced in volume. Add the lemon zest and juice along with the non-roasted chickpeas, mix and fluff with a fork.
Put the cucumber crescents into a separate bowl, add a pinch of salt and stir. Add to the cucumbers the chopped herbs and the yogurt before transferring two thirds from that bowl to the kale. Mix again with a fork, then pick and add most of the remaining dill fronds (saving a few for garnish) along with lots of black pepper, and mix again.
Transfer to a large platter or individual plates. Top with the remaining cucumbers and yogurt, the crisp chickpeas, then the smoked fish in large flakes, and finish with a final flourish of dill fronds.
THAT’S IT. WE’RE DONE HERE.Enjoy your belle salades. Midweek, we’ll have another delicious kale salad for paid subscribers. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to share the Department of Salad: Official Bulletin with your friends and loved ones who deserve it.