Kale and coconut

Kale is a recent love for me, at least relatively speaking.  I had seen the curly leaves used as edging – a kind of metaphorical hedge between dishes in fancy hotel breakfast buffets or salad bars; a hefty big brother to curls of parsley left quasi-artistically on the side of a plate – but I had never eaten it.  Sometimes it didn’t even look edible, but more like a plastic plant trapped somewhere in the realm of land kelp.

Last year I began experimenting with kale, mostly thanks to bloggers like Shauna at Gluten-Free Girl and Elana at Elana’s Pantry.  N. and I have chomped our way through kale in lasagna, pesto, braised with soy sauce and mushrooms, and of course coated in olive oil, sprinkled with salt and paprika and roasted into chips.  Its robust, almost waxen toughness seemed to require aggressive cooking techniques.  I never believed the recipes I read suggesting raw consumption could be tasty.  And yet Bittman advocated for this as well!

“74. Trim and chop kale; salt and squeeze and knead until wilted and reduced in volume, about 5 minutes.  Rinse, dry and toss with olive oil, lemon juice, chopped dried apples and toasted pine nuts.”

With my yen for freshness and greenery escalating, I decided it was worth a try.  The cast of characters consisted of:

1 large bunch Italian or lacinato kale

1 tsp. salt, plus more to taste, if desired

2 TB olive oil, or to coat

Juice of half a lemon

½ chopped dried apples

¼ cup toasted pine nuts

Doubtful, I tore the beautiful emerald lobed leaves from the tough central stalks, then roughly chopped the huge pile of leafy scraps into smaller pieces.  I sprinkled salt over my heap of salad and began to knead.  To my utter amazement, in under a minute the leaves had started to change in texture and consistency.  They became more like spinach, then more like cooked greens, and I decided to knead only for two or three minutes, fearing from the drastic reduction in volume already that I would end up with less than two servings.  When I stopped kneading, I flopped the wilted clumps into a salad spinner to rinse, de-salt, and spin dry.

I tossed the kale with olive oil and lemon juice in a large salad bowl, then added the pine nuts and apples.  A quick taste led me to add a miniscule sprinkle of salt, and then it was ready to serve!

We enjoyed the salad with chicken apple sausages – I wanted to capture the special flavor of the apples and highlight their sweetness against the tart lemon and bitter kale.  It was a very successful salad, and would be particularly good at the height of summer when you cannot bear to encounter the heat cooking requires.  Just pre-toast the pine nuts on a cooler occasion and this salad flies together.

The contrast of flavors is lovely.  It manages to hit all four of the major taste bud groups: the kale is bitter, the hint of salt gives it nice salinity, the apples are sweet, and the lemon is tartly sour.  Similarly, it satisfies a variety of textures: the kale is tender but still has some body for your tongue to play with, while the apples are chewy and the pine nuts provide a satisfying crunch.

Using kale as a salad base provides so many possibilities.  I already know I’d like to try toasting the apple rings to try and achieve a more chip-like texture and add extra crispness: apple croutons, if you will.  A more savory salad might entail replacing the apples with a good grating of sharp cheddar or Parmesan cheese.  Hard boiled eggs, walnuts, and maybe a scattering of bacon would make a more substantial salad.  The options are endless.

But the title of this post isn’t about endless kale.  It also mentions coconut, so I’d better move along.

With half a bag of sweetened, flaked coconut in my pantry and a small bevy of beauties descending on my house for a ladies’ TV night, I decided to over-achieve this week and make another Bittman selection to share with my friends.

“100. Spiced Macaroons: Mix 3 cups shredded unsweetened coconut, 1 cup sugar, ½ teaspoon ground cardamom and a pinch of salt in a bowl.  Stir in 3 lightly beaten egg whites and a teaspoon almond extract.  Drop in small spoonfuls on baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes, or until golden on the edges.”

I must admit from the outset that my process was a considerable adaptation, spurred by a shortage or downright lack of both ingredients and time to obtain more.  I used the following:

2 cups sweetened shredded coconut

¼ tsp garam masala

Pinch of salt

2 lightly beaten egg whites

1 tsp amaretto liqueur

From there, I followed Bittman’s directions exactly.  At the point the house began to smell like a vacation, I pulled the cookies from the oven and, unable to resist, stuffed one that collapsed from its fragile form into my mouth.  Oh heaven.  It was incredible.  The coconut was still chewy, and I’m pretty good with words, but the mixture of spice and salt did something I can’t describe.  Cooks are always saying salt enhances the other flavors of the dish, and that’s what happened here.  The coconut and egg whites suggested lightness and airy tropical sweetness, while the garam masala was incense and thick dark spice, but just the barest touch: a perfumed, candle-lit temple down the road from an endless white sand beach.  Fanciful, you say?  What can I tell you… coconut is one of my favorite flavors, and when it is elevated to such heights a certain mystical religiosity is perfectly appropriate.

The cookies were quite tender, and some declined to hold together at all.  This made them easier to eat, in a way, because they were already breaking themselves for us – all but insisting upon their own sacrifice – but the next time I attempt them I want them to hold together better.  I may cook them a little longer, or perhaps beat the egg whites more vigorously.  You wouldn’t want stiff, or even soft, peaks, but perhaps an approach to peaks would help the coconut cling together.  Nevertheless, three girls in the space of an hour decimated a plate of macaroons, leaving behind only three stragglers who were so lonely that I found them a happier home the following afternoon as a reward to myself for accomplishing some much-needed reading.  I must say, the lift from an analysis of 14th century poetic aesthetics into all-but-mystical flavor vacation is about the best an afternoon snack can do. 

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