Kale had a moment a few years back; it was suddenly – without warning – on every restaurant menu and in every recipe. It was as though kale had just been invented. Now, of course, it’s been supplanted as the trendy vegetable du jour – first by Brussels sprouts, and now by cauliflower. (I sincerely wish I’d invented “cauliflower rice;” the mark-up on those plastic packages – just for throwing it in a food processor! – is shocking.)
There are lots more varieties of kale than just what you see in the supermarket.
Like most Americans, I first encountered kale when I worked in the catering industry. Curly kale is so often a garnish on salad bars and buffets that we think of it more as decoration than vegetable. But its very hardiness – its ability to sit out on a buffet table for hours on end no matter the temperature, without wilting, is precisely what makes it so valuable both in the garden and in the kitchen.
‘Red Russian’ kale sprouts with their first true leaves.
I simply adore kale. I adore its sharp, almost metallic taste. I adore its indestructibility. I adore its versatility. And I adore its substantial nutritional benefits most of all. (Numerous studies have positively linked higher brassica consumption with lower cancer risk.) Kale is one of the first greens to appear in the spring, and one of the last to disappear when winter stomps in – and it often outlasts winter! It starts easily from seed or transplant, can be grown in virtually any soil, survives frost, heat, wind, snow, drought and neglect, and is one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. It’s even inexpensive if you’re buying it at the store rather than growing it. If there is one thing you should add to your garden and your diet, it’s kale.
One of our kale plants after a recent rainstorm.
The kale we know and love today is part of the Brassica family, along with broccoli, cauliflower, and many others. It’s related to wild cabbage, and probably originated in the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor. Kale is one of our oldest-known cultivated crops, and today is a staple food in many cold-weather countries (eastern Europe and Russia, in particular) because it tolerates frost so well. As with most vegetables, your local supermarket probably only stocks one or two types of kale. Three, if you’re lucky. And these are all perfectly fine, and will work in any recipe you’re making. Just know, however, that if you want to sample more exotic kales, a good seed catalog might have dozens you can try.
Most commonly found in grocery stores, from left: standard curly kale, lacinato (or dinosaur) kale and red kale.
When I prepare kale, I always separate the leaves from the stems. There are – of course! – silly gadgets you can buy to accomplish this, but you can also just hold the stem with one hand whilst stripping the leaves with the other. I cook the stems, because they’re a bit tough to eat raw; chopped finely, they’re ideal in soups or stir-fries. The leaves, however, can be used either fresh or cooked, depending on the weather, your mood, and what you’re serving.
The same quantity of kale raw (top) and post-massage (bottom).
If I’m serving kale in a salad, I slice the leaves thinly and give them an aggressive massage. This means tossing the leaves in a bowl and sprinkling with good olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, then using both hands forcefully to macerate the leaves. This massage makes the leaves easier to eat – so much less prickly! – and easier to digest, too. (Always use a bit of citrus with any dark, leafy greens; the extra vitamin C helps your body absorb the abundant iron.) Let the greens sit for ten or so minutes after their spa treatment; the quantity will have decreased substantially, but the salad will be much more delicious.
A recent supper for a chilly evening: white bean and kale soup with buttermilk biscuits.
Kale greens also love soups, stir-fries, pastas and any sort of one-pan mash-up meal. Kale is particularly fond of beans and potatoes and eggs, and can easily disappear into a smoothie. You can make tasty kale chips with a dehydrator or a low oven, or you can puree it with nuts and cheese for pesto. Because it holds up as a salad green, even when dressed, you can prep your healthy work lunches in advance. It’s loaded with fiber, vitamin A, zinc and magnesium and lots more nutrients, and has a surprising amount of protein for a vegetable. Really, there’s almost nothing this sharp, prickly, difficult-to-love-but-oh-so-worth-it vegetable can’t do. Just give it a chance.
My favorite kale salad with golden beets, Honeycrisp apples and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
My forever favorite way to eat kale raw is a riff on Chef Steve Redzowski’s famous kale and apple salad, from his restaurant Oak at Fourteenth. The original calls for thinly sliced kale, shaved Honeycrisp apple, delicate curls of Parmigiano-Reggiano, candied almonds and a sprinkle of the Japanese seasoning nanami togarashi, made up of black and white sesame seeds, citrus zest and chile powder. (You can make your own, or seek it out at any well-stocked Asian market. It keeps forever, and once you start using it on vegetables you’ll wonder how you cooked without it.) Of course, that’s just a jumping-off point. As with most recipes, make it the way you like it – or even better, make a “Clean Out the Fridge” Kale Salad and use up all your odds and ends.
Do you grow and eat kale? What varieties do you grow? How do you prepare it? Do you eat it because you actually like it or just because you know it’s good for you?