One of the most robust-looking vegetables in any garden is kale in all its varietal splendor — red leaved, purple-veined, blue green or nearly black; ruffled, savoyed and smooth. One look at kale and you know you should eat it, and given the robust good looks of the leaves, you’d expect them to make for spectacular eating. But I often find kale disappointing, really a bit on the bland side and not nearly as exciting as pungent broccoli raab or the equally pungent frilly mustard greens. I do buy it faithfully but don’t always get around to cooking it for there’s nearly always something more enticing to cook first.
Asking the Internet for advice
Really, I want to do more than tolerate or merely like kale; I want to love it. I know some people feel passionate this vegetable and I want to be one of those people. Because I’m not, and because while I was idly figuring out how to use Facebook, I typed a message into the “What’s on your mind?” space: “I’m determined to like kale more than I do. Are there any passionate kale eaters out there?”
The responses came rolling in — 80 of them and counting! Only one person wrote that she didn’t care for kale and had made her peace with that. As for everyone else — my, such enthusiasm for the leaf! The beautiful long, tongue-shaped lacinato variety, (also known as Dinosaur tongue, cavalo nero, and Tuscan kale) was repeatedly named as a favorite, though no one actually said why. Its appearance may be one reason; those long bubbly looking leaves of the darkest and blackest of greens are beguiling. Plus they don’t seem as if they’d be scratchy in the mouth, like some of the ruffled kinds suggest, especially in salads.
Kale salads? Why yes. Kale is, apparently, the new salad green. I discovered it at Santa Fe’s Café Pasqual after hearing it enthusiastically discussed by the diners at the next table. A cascade of slivered dark ribboned leaves studded with pine nuts, tiny white cubes of goat feta, and a shower of toasted sesame seeds amounted to one the most exciting salad I’d eaten in years, and I’ve been working on kale salads ever since. A number of the Facebook responses also centered on salads. They suggested kale tossed with lemon vinaigrettes, or mixed with red onions, olive oil and lemon, or jumbled up with apples, pomegranate seeds, and walnuts with a honeyed dressing, or mingled with nuts, Craisins, and tossed with flax seed oil or, in the style of Berkeley’s Café Rouge, done up as a Caesar salad. Our collective experience suggested that the big tough leaves don’t work; they just remain tough and you feel like a ruminant trying to get them down. But since all kale leaves, whether young or old, are extra-durable, you can make a salad, keep it around a day and find it improves, which you can’t do with lettuce.
Don’t skimp on flavor
Other themes emerged, pork being one, and garlic (lots of it), being another. Vinegar or lemon was always suggested, and kale with potatoes got quite a few mentions. As with other greens, kale somehow comes alive when it runs into a piece of bacon or thick slices of Spanish chorizo, as in a mess of kale with potatoes and chorizo. Of course the kale is going to be scrumptious with all those spices and porcine juices. But kale and potatoes even without the pork, in the style of colcannon, works well too.
Kale can take, and needs, plenty of garlic no matter how it’s cooked, and a splash of acid to wake it up, just as with turnip, collards, mustard and other greens in this family. These additions were always suggested by my Facebook friends no matter the cooking method, except in making kale chips in the oven or adding kale leaves to smoothies. Yes, smoothies! One of the best was from a food cart in Portland, Ore., and you’d never know you were imbibing kale.
Kale as a chip?
Yes, there were many declarations of passionate love for the vegetable, but also a comment by a friend who wrote, “I’m a chard man, myself, but the Mrs. and her friends swear by making kale chips in the oven, sprayed with a little oil. I like my cole crops steamed and bare-naked. No salt. No pepper. But sometimes lavished with fresh, raw tomatoes.”
Bare-naked cole crops are a little extreme for me, plus I’m a chard woman myself. But kale is neutral enough that it can replace chard in soups and frittatas and pasta dishes. You might have to cook it a little longer, unless the leaves are exceptionally small and tender. And as for the rib that runs down the center, remove it in all but the smallest of leaves. It’s as tough as a rope and will never get tender, ever.
One person must have sighed as she wrote: “Kale. Such a wonderfully gratifying vegetable. I just adore it. Eating kale feels like a major hit of minerals and earth I crave.”
If kale does that for you, it’s definitely your vegetable. And with all the mouthwatering suggestions that have come my way, it might become mine too.
Zester Daily contributor Deborah Madison is the author many books on food and cooking, including “The Greens Cookbook” and “Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating From America’s Farmers Markets.” Her latest book is “Seasonal Fruit Desserts from Orchard, Farm and Market.”
Photo: Kale farm. Credit: Zeljko Radojko / istockphoto.com