Kale Salad: Building Blocks

salad title

It’s been a bit of a rough week, in terms of stress management.  The most frustrating part is that I am not even at the actual busy, stressful time yet–I’m just worrying about it.  Anxiety life.  Oy.  But, if I can just keep on picking away at my assignments and project prep: a little bit of work this evening or that morning, I shouldn’t have any problems at all.  I’ve just gotta remind myself that the best thing I can do is to break everything into manageable tasks.

Kale Chop

Freshly chopped.

I also have to find some stress relief.   That is currently in the form of watching season 1 of Once Upon a Time (I’m behind, I know.  But I am also totally over whiny James and would just like him to disappear, please!) and planning a mini patio makeover for us.  We haven’t done much with the space in our two years here.  We brought a pair of plastic adirondack chairs we found at the curb of our old neighborhood, and purchased an Applaro table + chairs + stools from Ikea when we moved here, which I still love!  Every piece folds up, so its a total space saver!  Other than that, we have my herb planter and a very old, giant grill that was another curbside find.  M and I agreed that we would be getting a new grill this year (possibly even this weekend!) and I was feeling like things needed a little sprucing up, in general.  I want to enjoy my time on our patio, rather than simply abandoning it to the bugs.  Since the beginning of this year and our grocery budget revamp, I have also been trying (semi-successfully) to purchase our groceries with cash.  I almost never carried cash before, so this has been a huge shift for me.  But, our ATM only allows withdrawals in sets of $10, so, with my $35 to spend at the grocery store, I’m left with $5 that isn’t budgeted for groceries.  It had been easy enough to stash this weekly $5 bill in a jar and forget about it.  Now, four months into the year, I have a nice little cash fund that I can use towards a patio update: to get some string lights, pillows, and maybe a lantern or two!  Since we are hosting our families for a small Easter lunch, I am hoping to have the patio finished by then!  I’ll be sure to share the results when I do get things done.

Kale Ready

After “massaging” the kale.

Today, I am sharing our absolute favorite recipe for kale.  This is the only salad that we eat consistently, but it never disappoints, even when it is so simple.  It’s gleaned from several different recipes across the web and also from a few kale salads that we have sampled in restaurants.  By thinking of this salad in flavor building blocks, rather than in specific ingredients, we always have enough “building blocks” on hand in our pantry to make this salad, and we have endless combinations to try!  There are 5 important parts: Sweet (some kind of dried fruit works best), Crispy (breadcrumbs or croutons), Crunchy (nuts or seeds), Salty/Creamy (cheese), and Tangy (vinaigrette).  Add each of these elements to some kale and you will not be disappointed!  This salad is almost more like a coleslaw in terms of the thinly shredded greens and the ratio of greens to other ingredients.

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Kale Salad

Serves: 4-6 | Prep time: 10 minutes |Cook time: (optional) 3-5 minutes

  • 1 bunch curly kale
  • 1/2 c. dried fruit
  • 1/3 c. tiny croutons (about 1-2 slices of bread)
  • 1/3 c. sliced/chopped and toasted nuts or whole, shelled, toasted seeds
  • 1/4 c. shredded parmesan or other hard, salty cheese
  • 2 Tbsp. water
  • 5 Tbsp. vinegar, divided (red wine, champagne, or apple cider vinegar is best)
  • 1 Tbsp. lemon juice
  • 6-8 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 tsp. dijon mustard
  • 2 tsp. honey
  • salt & pepper

Place the dried fruit in a small bowl and add 2 Tablespoons of water and 2 Tablespoons of vinegar.  Microwave for 30 seconds and allow to sit while preparing the rest of the salad ingredients.  This allows the fruit to rehydrate slightly, making it softer and adding a chewy bite to the salad.

Remove the leafy part of the kale from the stems.  Stack the leafy part and slice the greens into thin strips.  Add to a large bowl and massage the kale greens.  The greens will get softer, will slightly change color, will shrink a little in mass, and will begin to smell like grass.  Your hands may even turn a bit green.  This breaks down the tough leaf without cooking and makes the raw salad infinitely more palatable! Check out the photos above–can you see the difference?  Set the greens aside.

Chop the bread slices into the tiniest pieces that you can manage.  I prefer this to breadcrumbs, as it gives a more hearty texture.  Plus, then I don’t have to keep GF breadcrumbs around.  I’ll be totally honest, we usually freeze the ends of bread loaves for this exact purpose!  Place the bits of bread in a skillet with a glug of olive oil and cook, stirring occasionally, until these tiny croutons are a little toasted.  Set aside.

Mix up the dressing: add 3 Tablespoons of vinegar, 1 Tablespoon of lemon juice, 6-8 Tablespoons of olive oil (the usual ratio is 1 part vinegar to 2 parts olive oil, but we prefer less oil for a tangier dressing), 2 teaspoons dijon mustard*, and 2 teaspoons honey into a jar.  Lid tightly and shake until the dressing is combined.  Taste the dressing and adjust as needed–perhaps more honey or more vinegar.  If I need more vinegar, I’ll first use the water-vinegar combination from my soaked fruit!  You can jazz up this vinaigrette by using different types of vinegar and oil, adding herbs or garlic, etc.

Put together the salad: Drain the soaked fruit and add the fruit to the greens.  Add the nuts/seeds, then the cheese.  Pour over about half of the dressing.  Sprinkle salt and black pepper over the salad, fairly liberally.  Toss all of the salad together until thoroughly mixed.  Add more dressing if needed.  Last, add the croutons, and mix in.  This helps to prevent them from getting soggy.  Serve immediately or set in the fridge for up to an hour before serving.  Leftover can be stored in the fridge tightly covered for up to 2 days, but you will lose a lot of the texture from the nuts and croutons as they soften.

*The mustard helps the oil and vinegar emulsify, so do your best not to skip it!

Some of our favorite combinations are:

–Dried cherries, pumpkin seeds, and parmesan

–Dried cranberries, sliced almonds, and parmesan (in the photos)

–Dried currents, toasted walnuts, and asiago

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Cabbage & Noodle Chicken Thai Salad


Well, just as I was getting excited for a nice cool autumn, we woke up to an October heatwave!  We are supposed to hit a high in the 80’s today!  I was glad for the sunshine after so much rain, but this is a little too summery.  So much for sweater weather!  In fact, these warmer days have me craving cold dishes and raw veggies all over again, while I was just gearing up for stews and braises.  This cold salad uses a very seasonal veggie–cabbage–as it’s base, which keeps things nice and cheap.  While rice noodles aren’t the most expensive ingredient out there, they do cost more than cabbage!  By switching the ratio of cabbage and noodles, I was able to stretch this salad even farther.  The neutral flavor of cabbage is just perfect to support the strong flavors of the other ingredients.  And crunchy cabbage + chewy rice noodle = my perfect bite!


I tend to be one of those people who makes too much food.  Usually, it works out in my favor, since I almost always bring dinner leftovers for lunch the next day.  This salad is no exception, I will gladly admit.  It also keeps in the fridge for 4 or 5 days, so it is a perfect dish to make for lunches to last through the work week.  More than once over the summer, I did exactly that.  (Although I had to forgo the peanuts during summer–no nut products at camp!  It was still extremely delicious without them, though I do prefer that bit of extra crunch and salt.)   But, peanuts or no, or even with chicken or without, I never grew tired of this hearty, filling salad.


Cabbage & Noodle Chicken Thai Salad

Serves: 4-6 | Prep time: 20 min | Cook time: 25 min

For the Salad

  • 1/4 of a small head of red cabbage
  • 1/2 of a small head of green cabbage
  • 2-3 carrots (or 1 c. shredded carrots)
  • 1 small red onion
  • 4 scallions
  • 1 loose handful of mint leaves
  • 1 loose handful of thai basil leaves
  • 1 loose handful cilantro leaves
  • 8 oz thin rice noodles
  • 1/2 lb. (8 oz) chicken breasts (optional)

For the Dressing:

  • 1/3 c. fish sauce
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1/4 c. lime juice
  • 1 Tbsp. rice vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp. soy sauce (or coconut aminos)
  • 2-3 tsp. sriracha (or to preferred heat level)
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
  • 4-5 Tbsp. olive oil

For Garnish:

  • 4-6 Tbsp. chopped peanuts (optional)

Submerge the chicken into a small pot of water.  Bring to a boil on the stove, then turn down to the lowest setting to simmer, cover, and cook for 15-20 minutes.  The chicken is done when the meat is not longer pink inside (since we will be shredding it, feel free to fish out a piece and cut entirely in half to check).  Once cooked, drain and set aside to cool.

Prepare the rice noodles according to the package, but drop one minute off of the cooking time or two minutes off of the soaking time.  Once done, drain, then rinse the noodles in cold water.

While the chicken and noodles are cooking, whisk the listed dressing ingredients (fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, soy sauce, rice vinegar, sriracha, garlic powder, olive oil) until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture has emulsified into a smooth mixture.

Shred the cabbage by slicing it as thinly as possible.  If using whole carrots: peel the carrots and discard the peelings. Then use the vegetable peeler to continue to peel the carrot into long strips.  Use a knife to cut the wide strips into thinner pieces.    Peel and quarter the red onion, then slice thinly.  Chop the scallions into thin slices, then chop all the herbs.  Add all vegetables and herbs to a large bowl.

Shred the cooled chicken, then add 1 tablespoon of the sauce, mixing to coat all of the pieces.  Add the chicken to the vegetables.

Heat a wok over high heat, then add 2 tablespoon of the sauce and the rice noodles.  Sauté for 3-5 minutes, stirring constantly.  Pour the remaining sauce over the vegetable mixture in the bowl, add the hot noodles and mix/toss with tongs until the salad is completely mixed together.

Served topped with a tablespoon of chopped peanuts sprinkled over each bowl.  This will keep in a covered container in the refrigerator for 3-4 days.

Shrimp and Spinach Salad with Warm Bacon Vinaigrette

spinach shrimp salad title

Early on in my college career, I saw a lot of my mother.  Though I lived on campus, I was only about 30 minutes away from home.  My sister had jumped across state lines, so I got the brunt of parental visits as my mother adjusted from having three to just one child at home.  (To be honest, I also did my fair share of calling up mom to come visit/take me home for the weekend as well).  On one such day trip with my mother, we went to Applebee’s for lunch.  Applebee’s was the standard dinner out during my early years, especially when we visited my grandfather in Colorado.  For many years, I stubbornly refused to sample anything beyond the chicken fingers and the hot dog that huddled safely on the kids menu, until I was well past the age limit able to access that menu.  Faced with the wide, unknown expanse of the regular menu, I chose the only meal that seemed safe: the boneless buffalo wings that my mother nearly always ordered.  Just as my childhood restaurant visits were filled with chicken fingers and hot dogs, my early-teenaged years were now ruled by a devotion to hot-sauce-smothered chicken and blue cheese dressing.  With my luck, I was choosing dishes that could be found at nearly every restaurant we visited.  I think part of the reason for my steadfast devotion to eating the same dish time and again was due to my stomach troubles in my youth (as previously mentioned).  The short list of “safe” dishes may have truly been better for my stomach, but honestly, I think I was just less nervous when I ate those, and thus, less likely to decide that I felt “sick” after eating out.


spinach shrimp salad 1

Through high school, I started to slower expand my list of acceptable foods, and, on this particular visit to Applebee’s, I was in the height of my obsession with tomato-basil soup.  I had also never been to the restaurant at lunch time.  They were advertising a new lunch menu: a “you-pick-two” idea of pairing soup, salad, or sandwiches for lunch.  The concept was quickly becoming popular and I felt ever-so grown up as I eschewed my usual choice of sandwich for my favorite soup (tomato-basil) and a salad that I would never have touched just a few years prior: Spinach with Shrimp topped with a “warm bacon vinaigrette”.  I am so glad I picked that salad.  It was incredible–crisp spinach just beginning to wilt with the heat of the smoky-sweet, tangy vinaigrette with plump, sweet shrimp intermingling with sharp shards of onion and soft bits of roasted red pepper.  This was the first salad that seemed to stick in my memory.  I had to have it again, and spent the next few months trying to convince my friends to do dinner at Applebee’s whenever we went out off-campus.  This was a monumental task, since my new best friend had worked at Applebee’s before coming to college and sworn off the restaurant completely.  Finally, once, I managed to get the group to go there for dinner since the restaurant was right beside the movie theater.  I was happy to see the salad was still on the menu, and ordered the full portion.  I was not disappointed.  It was just as good as I remembered.  That was the last time I went to Applebee’s.

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Nowadays, there isn’t much there that M and I can eat, and, if my friends group is going to any of the run-of-the-mill American restaurants, TGI Fridays’ happy hour specials trump all the rest.  But even now, six years later, I occasionally find myself thinking about that salad.  And, for a few weeks here, I was on a serious salad kick: unable to not pick up buckets of greens and lettuces in the store and at the farmer’s market.  In the last few weeks, I have finally tried collard greens (cooked greens!  I liked them!) and dished up several full-sized salads for dinner, including this remake of the memorable Applebee’s salad.  Unfortunately, a truly terrible take-away-salad-induced bout of food poisoning has cooled my fervor for salads, at least for the time being.  But this Shrimp and Spinach salad might just be the dish that can restore my love and trust in leafy greens.  I checked Applebee’s menu and they no longer offer this salad with shrimp, so that is now one more reason to make this at home!  I served these full sized salads with garlic bread and called it a night.  Quick, easy, and delicious dinner!

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On a quick side note, I do use tomato jam in this recipe.  E & A made a huge batch at the end of last summer and I have loved finding dishes to add the sweet-and-spicy jam into the mix.  This is one of the best so far–if you can get your hands on some tomato jam, it is absolutely worth the purchase.  If not, you can leave it out of the vinaigrette.  I mention some ideas for substitution in the recipe below.

spinach shrimp salad side

Shrimp & Spinach Salad with Warm Bacon Vinaigrette

Serves: 4 | Prep time: 10 minutes | Cook time: 10 minutes

For the Salad

  • 1 1/2 lbs medium-size, raw, de-veined shrimp (thawed if previously frozen)
  • 8-10 c. fresh spinach
  • 1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 c. (packed) roasted red peppers, diced
  • 4 Tbsp. raw, unsalted almonds
  • 2 Tbsp. parmesan cheese, shredded/grated (optional)
  • 4 slices cooked bacon, chopped  (drippings reserved)

For the Bacon Vinaigrette

  • Reserved bacon drippings (should be about 2-4 Tbsps, depending on the thickness of your bacon.  Don’t stress about it)
  • 2 Tbsp to 1/4 c. olive oil
  • 1/4 c. apple cider vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp. dijon mustard
  • 1 Tbsp. honey
  • 1 Tbsp. tomato jam*
  • Ground garlic, optional
  • Ground black pepper

*Tomato jam gives sweetness, depth, and a bit of a kick to this dressing.  If you cannot get a jar of it, you can substitute an extra tsp of honey, and 1 tsp. of chili flakes to get the basics of the flavor.  If you are able to add a touch (1/4-1/2 tsp) of tomato paste as well, that can round out the flavor.

Prep the Salad

In a dry pan over medium heat, toast the almonds.  This should only take a few minutes, so stay close to the stove, stirring or shaking the pan frequently.  The nuts are toasted when you begin to smell the almonds and they barely darken in color.  Set aside until cool enough to handle, then chop.

Add a little oil to the pan to prevent sticking.  Wash shrimp and pat dry.  Cook the shrimp over medium heat, in batches, if necessary to prevent crowding the pan, for 2-3 minutes per side, until pink, firm, and opaque.  I like to use Easy-Peel shrimp in the shell as it helps prevent overcooking.  Shrimp that have already been peeled/are not in the shell will take even less time.  (An easy way to watch for overcooking is to look at the ridge of the shrimp where the vein has been cut away.  If this edge thickens or starts to curl and turn white, the shrimp are on the edge of being overcooked.  Remove from the heat and cool as quickly as possible.)  Remove cooked shrimp and allow to cool, then peel and remove shells and tails.

Divide the spinach onto 4 plates and sprinkle each plate with the divided sliced onion, chopped peppers, shredded cheese, and cooled, chopped almonds.

Make the Vinaigrette

Reheat the bacon drippings if cooled.  Over medium heat, whisk olive oil into the bacon fat.  Continue whisking as you add the mustard, then the vinegar, and finally the tomato jam (or substitutes).  Add a dash or two of garlic powder and ground black pepper.  Whisk and cook until the jam has melted into the vinaigrette.  Remove pan from heat and whisk in honey.  Now, off the heat, is the time to taste the dressing to see if it need a bit more seasoning (pepper, salt, garlic) or more oil or more vinegar.  I tend to like a higher, more equal ratio of oil to vinegar, so do check to make sure the dressing taste good to you.  Give a final, brisk whisk to fully incorporate all of the ingredients.  Slide the shrimp into the warm pan, and turn to coat.  If needed, to warm the shrimp through, place over low heat until steaming.

Assemble the salad

Divide the shrimp among the plates and pour the hot vinaigrette over top of the salad.  Serve immediately.