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This sweet potato and kale salad can be modified to suit all kinds of cravings.Tara O'Brady/The Globe and Mail

A simple menu, scrawled in artistic script on a blackboard or in a wide-set typeface on white paper is becoming the dining norm. Sparsely worded, open-ended, lyrical descriptions that tantalize from the page.

I am reliably happy to leave my meal in the hands of the chef, and these ephemeral descriptions usually serve as enough of a starting point, too wispy to build a foundational prejudgment of the plate before it arrives in front of me.

Other nights, such culinary haikus can be maddening. When I’m set on a craving, these menus can be a gamble. I want a sense of what I’m ordering, and if there isn’t wait staff on hand, there’s little guidance to be found in a handful of words that read like refrigerator-poetry kits.

Case in point, I recently ate at a restaurant slammed with guests so the attention of the server was hard to come by. We had been to the same restaurant days before, and I wanted the salad I’d scoped a few tables over on that first visit; it was a glorious, verdant pile of leaves, tangled with onions, with what looked like spiced chicken.

When we returned, I hardly gave attention to the menu, and confidently – read: foolishly, without consultation – ordered the chicken salad. My tablemate asked for what sounded more like a bowl, a bed of quinoa with roasted sweet potatoes and feta.

In the end, she was presented with that aforementioned green-on-green field of leaves, freckled with quinoa, and I was given something that was more chicken than salad, with only a wreath of greens around the edge of the plate. It was still quite tasty, but not what I had wanted.

I kept thinking about that salad or, specifically, the salad I wish I’d ordered. My friend kindly shared hers, and that sampled taste was enough to fuel action as soon as I had the chance.

Combining the two salads on the table that night, I made a fresh, simple kale salad with chili-accented sweet potatoes, and a confidently bright dressing. I doubled down on the acid, relying on both lemon and white wine vinegar, for a layered, complex sharpness. I’m often asked about uses for black garlic, and so thought to employ it here – the aged and fermented cloves add a funky mellowness, but roasted garlic could be used instead. Nuts and seeds brought richness, and quinoa contributed body. I chose French feta for its mild softness; it is salty to be sure, but more tenderly so. And, as it is tossed in the salad, the quinoa clumps around its creaminess, and the feta smears onto the leaves, giving a sense of a creamy dressing, against the clarity of the vinaigrette.

One night we served it mounded upon a seared chicken paillard, another afternoon on tiger-striped grilled sourdough.

This is a salad easily shifted to follow one’s own whim. The sweet potatoes could be swapped for chickpeas. Instead of nuts, a scattering of crisped hash browns or Hickory Sticks – a trick pulled from Superpoint Pizza in Toronto – offer similar crunch. The quinoa could instead be farro, wheat berries or brown rice, and the feta traded for chèvre.

In other words, instead of poetry, this is choose your own adventure.

Sweet Potato and Kale Salad with Black Garlic Dressing

Serves 4

  • ½ red onion, sliced thinly into half-moons
  • Extra-virgin olive oil for roasting, plus ⅓ cup for dressing
  • 1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
  • ½ teaspoon piment d’Espelette, Aleppo-style pepper, or paprika
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ⅓ cup flaked almonds, skin on
  • ¼ cup hulled sunflower seeds
  • 1 cup cooked quinoa
  • 4 ounces feta, preferably French
  • 6 cups baby kale
  • White wine vinegar, as needed
  • 2 cloves black garlic or roasted garlic, or 1 fresh garlic clove
  • 1-½ teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • Juice from half a lemon

Soak the red onion in a small bowl of ice water and set aside.

Preheat oven to 425 F. On a heavy, rimmed sheet pan, toss the sweet-potato cubes in a thin coating of olive oil. Season with the piment d’Espelette, kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Toss again, then roast in the hot oven until the potato is bronzed and tender, 12 to 15 minutes, turning occasionally.

When the potatoes are ready, pull from the oven and carefully turn onto a large serving plate or wide bowl. Turn the oven down to 375 F. On the same sheet pan, toast the almonds and sunflower seeds until deeply fragrant and golden, about 8 minutes, stirring often.

Scatter the quinoa over the roasted sweet potato. Crumble the feta over top, followed by the tumble of kale. Sprinkle a splash of white wine vinegar over the leaves. Using clean hands, turn to coat the kale with the vinegar, massaging lightly. Drizzle a bit more vinegar over top, then let stand as you make the dressing.

In a small bowl, use the tines of a fork to smash the garlic into a paste with a pinch of kosher salt (if using fresh garlic, grate with a microplane first). Stir in the mustard, honey and lemon juice. Whisk in the ⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil in a thin, steady stream to emulsify. Season assertively with more kosher salt and some pepper.

Pour most of the dressing over the kale and potatoes. Drain the onions and add to the bowl. Using hands again, toss to coat. Check for seasoning, employing more dressing or vinegar as needed. Strew the toasted nuts and seeds over top, and serve.

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