Elsa’s Kale Salad

Living Well

“Mom, can I have an Elsa’s kale salad for lunch tomorrow?” It’s not a question I would expect to hear from my ten-year-old while planning her school lunches, but it’s become a regular theme lately in our house. It was kismet when a friend and I were walking a wooded trail in Montpelier last year. She was raving about a recipe she made for dinner the night before from Smitten Kitchen, a food blog to swoon over. She happened across a winter kale salad recipe that her six-year-old gobbled up and—to her delight and surprise—that she and her husband loved too. My daughter, Lucy now calls it Elsa’s Kale Salad, for the young friend whose enthusiasm introduced it to us.   

This recipe gives us many things. It reminds us of the days when we could walk with friends without masks. It reminds us of summer when our garden was bountiful and green. It is hearty and satisfying, with a pop of sweetness, a good crunch, and a richness delivered through nutty cheese and breadcrumbs. The shining star in this salad is the main ingredient, which packs a wallop of vitamins in each bite. Healthline calls kale “one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet.” When we eat this salad, we feel energized and vibrant, getting a surge of antioxidants and vitamins that are often hard to get in a single serving elsewhere. As a mother, I struggle to find an interesting “main course” to pack for school lunches that hits the big three: healthy, filling, and interesting enough that a kid will eat it.

Kale is no joke. According to Nutrition Data a single cup has:      

  • Vitamin K: 684% of the Daily Value (DV)
  • Vitamin A: 206% of the DV (from beta-carotene)
  • Vitamin C: 134% of the DV
  • Manganese: 26% of the DV
  • Copper: 10% of the DV
  • Vitamin B6: 9% of the DV
  • Calcium: 9% of the DV
  • Potassium: 9% of the DV
  • Magnesium: 6% of the DV
  • It also contains 3% or more of the DV for
    • vitamin B1 (thiamin)
    • vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
    • vitamin B3 (niacin)
    • iron
    • phosphorus

The best part by far, is that it shifts little girl’s perceptions of a good school lunch (peanut butter and jelly, take note!). The only downside is keeping enough kale in the house during these winter months to keep up with the demand.

Elsa’s Kale Salad

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen, who I can always count on for a little food-induced bliss. If you haven’t yet discovered Deb Perelman’s unparalleled recipes, do yourself and the dreaded food rut you are in a favor, and go check out her website. For this recipe, though you may be tempted to, do not omit the golden raisins. They are the punctuation to this dish and it simply won’t be as good without them.


½ cup walnuts, toasted

¼ cup golden raisins

2 tablespoons (I generally go with “one glug” of) white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon (also known as a dash of) water

3 Tbsp. olive oil, divided

¼ cup panko breadcrumbs

½ clove of garlic, pressed

A bunch of kale

Juice from half a lemon

½ cup of pecorino or parmesan cheese, shredded

Coarse salt

Freshly ground black pepper, to your taste

Red pepper flakes, to your taste


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toast walnuts for 10 minutes on a dry (unoiled) cake or bread pan, giving the pan a good shake halfway through. Once they are cool enough to touch, chop coarsely.

While your walnuts are toasting, combine golden raisins, vinegar, and water in a small saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. On your stove’s lowest heat, simmer for 5 minutes. Tip: set a timer and shake your walnuts when your timer for the raisins goes off. Remove raisins to a bowl to stop the cooking process and drain the excess liquid.

In a small frying pan, add 2 tablespoons olive oil and warm until slightly glassy. Add breadcrumbs and crushed half clove of garlic. Sprinkle a pinch of salt and give it a dose of your peppers of choice. Every 20-30 seconds give the pan a good shake (or use a wooden spoon or spatula) to keep the breadcrumbs and garlic from burning. The breadcrumbs toast quickly, so don’t leave the stove during this step. When they are lightly golden brown, remove from heat.

Wash the kale thoroughly. Gripping a single leaf by the middle of the stem, shear the leaves off the stem using your other hand (this works better than a knife) and remove the larger, more fibrous veins. Rip the leaves into bite-size pieces.

In a large salad bowl, add kale, lemon, remaining olive oil and a pinch of salt. This is a key step, so don’t skip it: with your hands, massage the lemon and olive oil into the kale. It softens the leaves and gives the kale a punch of flavor.

Add the raisins, breadcrumbs, walnuts and shredded parmesan or pecorino to the kale, and give the whole delicious pile a good stir. In an ideal world, let the salad sit on the counter for at least 10 minutes before serving to let the flavors sing together. We make this before school in the morning (or leave it in the refrigerator overnight) to have for lunch and it is perfect.  

To make this a full meal, serve it with an omelet or a delicious spinach and mushroom quiche, or alongside cheese toast with sliced avocado.