How kale went from a cellar-dwelling vegetable to a pennant-winning one is an interesting story full of ups and downs throughout history.
When I started cooking decades ago, kale was arguably the least popular vegetable on the American table, beloved only in soul food cookery, which is an expression I haven’t seen in years. Today, you see kale everywhere in every guise from crisps to drinks. I think it’s a wonderful development because kale is a marvelously nutritional and good-tasting vegetable.
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Kale, Brassica oleracea var acephala, is a cruciferous vegetable in the same family as cabbage. Basically, kale is nothing but non-heading cabbage, which is pretty easy to grow. Kale broccoli, broccoli rabe, Brussels sprouts, kale, cauliflower, cabbage and kohlrabi are all varieties in the family of cabbage, which includes more than 400 species.
It is thought that cabbages originated in the Mediterranean. Greek literature recorded the earliest use of cultivated cabbages — probably primitive cauliflower or broccoli — there in about 600 B.C. Greek philosopher Theophrastus wrote of three kinds of cabbage in his book on plants. He described the curly-leafed, smooth-leafed and the wild cabbage, noting the medicinal value of the latter. There are many descriptions of kale and cabbage, related plants, in the writings of the Roman authors.
Kale and cabbage have long had a lowly reputation. In ancient Rome, cabbage had not yet formed its “head” as we think of cabbage today and it was basically kale. The wealthy citizens of republican Rome thought of cabbage as poor people’s food. By the time of imperial Rome, there was a greater love of cabbage because of its supposed medicinal value. Roman author and philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote in his “Natural History” that it would be a long task to make a list of all the praises of the cabbage. It was believed that eating cabbages could ward off a hangover as well as act as a laxative.
Today, it’s good news that kale has made a comeback because it’s a nutritional powerhouse and can take a beating, making it a terrific leafy green for long-cooking stews.
Kale and Sausage Stew
This is a flavorful and easy stew that gives you an opportunity to use black kale, the very dark green crinkly-leaved Italian style kale with a hearty taste. I usually serve this stew with slices of buttered and roasted bread.
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 ounces slab bacon, cut into batons
1 small onion, chopped
4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ pound hot Italian sausage or fresh andouille sausage, casing removed and crumbled
¼ pound beef chuck, diced
10 cherry tomatoes
1½ cups red wine
1 cup water and more as needed
¾ pound kale, heaviest portion of stem removed
1 bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. In a stew pot, heat the olive oil with the bacon, onions and garlic and cook, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the sausage, beef, tomatoes, red wine, water, kale and bay leaf, reduce the heat to low, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until meat and vegetables are tender, about 2 hours.
2. Season with salt and pepper and serve hot.
Top photo: Flowering kale. Credit: Clifford A. Wright