Before putting this salad together for you, I decided the project needed a little market research. "I say the phrase 'kale and quinoa salad' — quick, what springs to mind?" I asked a gaggle of friends and food-lovers on Facebook. "Yoga pants. Namaste." said one (who happens to live in the granola paradise of Vancouver). "Favorite foods," said an always exuberant friend in Santa Barbara. Others were not so enthusiastic. "Add bacon," I was advised. "Hold the kale!" implored another. "Cautious optimism" said not one but two people.
At least no one said "hipster hell." Kale and quinoa are two of the trendiest pieces of the modern stereotypically healthy diet, but that really isn't their fault. Let me help you pack more of both into your day with this filling, nutritious lunch salad that will put you squarely in the "favorite foods" camp.
In Joshua Tree.
I can't take credit for this recipe; the idea, at least, came straight from the opposite of hipster hell: the hipster's haven in the desert, The Ace Hotel Palm Springs. Have you ever been there? In December it's glorious — cool and dry, sunny during the day and starry at night. (Quite affordable, too.) My husband and I fled there after the big work projects of the year, grateful for three days of rest after what was an intense and often difficult 2013.
We went for long drives through Joshua Tree and took the cable car up into the mountains, coming back to lounge in front of the fire and think blank thoughts in the sunshine. We were happy to let the hotel feed us their idea of grown-up hippie food and to sip plenty of date shakes spiked with dark rum. One evening I ordered something I had been eyeing on their menu: a kale and quinoa salad with dates, nuts, and a hibiscus vinaigrette. When it arrived I found a pile of ribbony greens and a satisfying quantity of quinoa, but I was disappointed in the flavors. There wasn't enough salt and it needed a hit of acidity. It was like the rough draft of a recipe, and I carried it back with me in my head.
I pumped up the dressing, leaving out the slightly more obscure hibiscus element, and adding lime and orange juices for a real edge of tartness. I used red quinoa, which I think stays just a teeny bit firmer and more distinct in salads. But most of the elements stayed the same as the Ace's formula: savory caramelized onions that disappear into the salad but add a genius depth of flavor to a vegan dish; roasted almonds; sweet and chewy dates.
The result is definitely my favorite salad of the winter so far. You could dress it up with shreds of chicken, or eat it just as it is; it's robust enough for a filling lunch all on its own, and the acidic dressing massages the kale into a better, more tender version of itself. But the kale is still sturdy enough to hang out in the fridge for a few days; it's one of the rarer salads that can be dressed and assembled days before you eat it. It's a little taste of hippie hipster desert paradise in the depths of winter, and one to make you say of kale and quinoa, "Delicious and satisfying."
Kale & Quinoa Salad with Dates, Almonds & Citrus Dressing
For the salad and toppings: 1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1/2 cup red quinoa
1 small clove garlic, smashed
1 bunch lacinato kale (3/4 to 1 pound, with stems)
1/2 heaping cup whole dates
1/2 cup roasted salted whole almonds
For the dressing: 1 clementine or mandarin orange, juiced
1/2 lime, juiced
2 teaspoons maple syrup
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the olive oil in a wide sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion and sprinkle lightly with salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion has darkened to a toasty brown and smells caramelized — about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside. You should have about 1/2 cup of cooked onions. (This can be done up to 3 days ahead of time, and the onions can be refrigerated.)
Rinse the quinoa in a fine mesh strainer. Add it and the garlic to a 2-quart saucepan set over medium-high heat and sauté for about a minute both to dry the grain and toast it lightly. Add 1 cup water and 1/2 teaspoon salt and bring to a boil. Cover and turn the heat to low; cook for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat but leave the lid on for an additional 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, remove the lid and fluff with a fork.
While the onions are caramelizing and the quinoa is cooking, slice off the muddy bottoms of the kale stems, then slice the rest of the bunch into fine ribbons. Wash thoroughly and spread on a towel to dry.
Pit the dates and slice them into quarters. Roughly chop the almonds, by which I mean try to chop each almond into just two or three pieces, no more.
Make the dressing: Whisk the juices together (you should have about 1/4 cup total of juice, or a little less). Whisk in the maple syrup and olive oil. The dressing will be emulsified but still thin. Stir about 2 tablespoons of the dressing into the quinoa after it finishes cooking.
Assemble the salad: Toss the kale with all of the still-warm quinoa and the caramelized onions. Toss with about half the dressing and taste. Add the remaining dressing if desired, then toss with the dates and almonds. Taste a bite; if it needs more salt, add it now, as well as fresh pepper if desired.
This salad keeps very well; the kale gets more tender as it sits in the dressing. Refrigerate for up to 5 days.
Be sure to use a leafy kale in this salad, as opposed to a curly. How to know the difference? Lacinato kale (also called dinosaur, Tuscan, or black kale) comes in bundled sheaves of leaves, like chard or collards. Curly kale looks more like a big bouquet of floral filler, with ruffled edges, and it is too tough for this recipe. (I find chewing raw curly kale to be like taking bites of shrubbery, personally, so I usually cook it.) See more here about types of kale.