Sources: WholeFoods.com, Field Guide To Produce, On Food and Cooking
Sometimes it seems that vegetables not only go in and out of season, but also in and out of fashion. I thought of this recently when I read that kale had been a "hot" vegetable in 2012 but in 2013 it would be replaced by cauliflower. Although I think such trend spotting is simply silly, I embrace anything, including some artificially anointed cachet, that will encourage people to try and cook with unfamiliar vegetables.
That said, since so many of us love it, kale doesn't have anything to worry about from cauliflower or any other vegetable for that matter. However, I frequently talk with home cooks who are befuddled by kale: "I know it's really good for me and I love its flavor but I see it in the market and haven't a clue how to cook it." Just last week an ambitious but admittedly tentative new cook said this to me, but even practiced ones have been mystified by this wonderful leafy green.
A Super Food
If its rich, green flavor isn't enough of a reason to cook kale, consider its super food credentials. With nutritionists routinely describing kale as "amazing," the "queen of greens," "[having] exceptional nutrient richness," and "super-nutritious," one cup of cooked kale contains:
- 36 calories
- 5 grams of fiber
- 15% of our daily requirement for calcium (good news for the lactose-intolerant)
- 40% of magnesium
- More than 1000% of vitamin K, 300% of vitamin A, and nearly 90% of vitamin C daily requirements -- three of our most important and cancer-fighting anti-oxidants.
- Plus omega-3 fats, folate, iron, copper, potassium, manganese, phosphorus, vitamin B6 and B3, and more.
A note about all that vitamin K: too much can pose problems for some people. It can interfere with anticoagulants e.g., Warfarin, so check with your doctor before loading up on kale (and as with anything, moderation is a good rule).
Besides being a nutritional powerhouse, kale also tastes wonderful and is particularly versatile in winter cooking.
Buying and Storing Kale
- Kale is a cruciferous vegetable, related to both broccoli and cabbage. But when it comes to buying, storing and cooking with kale, we're better off looking to leafy winter greens for best practices. Here are some tips:
- Kale is available year-round but is best during the winter and early spring months when its flavor can be milder and sweeter.
- There are several varieties of kale. The best known and easiest to find are curly kale, Tuscan (also known as dinosaur or lacinato kale or black cabbage), and ornamental kale (sometimes called salad savory).
- Curly kale is the most common to find in our markets, has the strongest flavor, and the toughest leaves.
- Tuscan/dinosaur/lacinato kale has very dark green or blue-green palm-like leaves that are narrower than curly kale and has a more delicate flavor and texture.
- Ornamental kale is the newest variety, can come in different colors (green, red, purple), and is more tender than curly kale.
- Baby kale, increasingly easy to find in our markets and usually sold pre-washed in clear plastic boxes from companies like Earthbound Farms and Olivia's Organics, are usually a mix of young leaves of various kale varieties.
- When buying bunches, look for dark, plump, firm leaves and moist, intact stems.
- While kale is not on the Environmental Working Group's list of the 12 foods that have the most concentrated pesticide residues -- what the EWG calls the "dirty dozen" -- still, there can be enough concern that may lead you to buy only organic kale. Here is a link to the EWG's 2012 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce to help you decide.
- Once you have it home, store bunches of kale unwashed and refrigerated in airtight bags.
Cooking With Kale
Kale used to primarily be an ingredient in another dish, such as soup, rather than as the main event. But due to both its recent superfood-driven popularity plus the new varieties of large leaf and baby kale, it's increasingly eaten on its own.
If you've never cooked kale or maybe only had a kale salad in a restaurant, you may be tempted to buy a bunch and use it in a salad as if it were a head of romaine lettuce, or give it a quick cook like baby spinach. But if you do so, I expect you will be unhappy with the result. That's because kale's tough leaves need to be cooked in special ways to taste best.
First, a few tips for handling kale:
- The easiest way to trim the coarse stalks from kale's tender leaves is with a pair of kitchen scissors. Just hold the leaves and cut up one side and down the other of the stalk.
- Always wash it well. I wash it after trimming off and discarding the stalks by giving it several rinses in cool water. In my experience, kale is not as sandy as spinach but it still benefits from a thorough rinse. For baby kale that is sold pre-washed in plastic boxes, I still rinse if only to refresh the leaves and to give them the perfect amount of moisture for braising.
- Kale reduces but not as much as spinach does. Baby kale reduces the most -- I find that two 1-pound clamshell boxes reduce to about 2 1/2 cups. One cup of raw, trimmed curly or Tuscan kale (minus all the stalks) reduces to 1 cup cooked. In other words, buy more raw than you'll need cooked.
- When cooking kale in boiling water, I keep the leaves in large pieces and cut them after they've been cooked and drained. This way the leaves hold together during the cooking (as they get more tender) and you'll have more control over the final size of the pieces.
- If you love kale salad, use either baby kale or else slice the leaves of curly or Tuscan kale into very thin ribbons -- as if you were making a slaw. That's because when eaten raw, most kale is tough to chew and if you cut it very thin it makes for much more tender eating.
Kale has a green, spicy, and ever so slightly bitter flavor. My favorite way to eat it is cooked until tender and seasoned with some combination of olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, and maybe a tiny splash of red wine vinegar. My method for cooking depends upon the kind of kale I've bought. Here are my three favorite methods:
Curly or Tuscan Kale With Olive Oil and Garlic
Makes 3 or 4 servings.
2 bunches of organic curly or Tuscan kale
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt or sel de mer
Freshly ground black pepper
Optional: 4 garlic cloves, sliced very thin and separately sautéed until crispy in a small skillet with 1 tablespoon of olive oil; hold aside until the kale is ready to serve.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add about 1 teaspoon salt to the water.
- Using kitchen scissors, trim off and discard the stalks from the kale. Using a salad spinner or your kitchen sink, rinse the trimmed leaves a couple of times in cool water.
- Add the kale leaves to the boiling water. Lower to medium so that the water gently boils and cook for about 10 minutes or until the leaves are tender. Drain.
- When cool enough to handle, and using your clean hands, take handfuls of kale and wring them to remove any excess water. Chop the kale and toss with the olive oil, a generous pinch of good salt, and several grinds of pepper.
Optional: Garnish with thin slices of garlic sautéed until crispy just before serving (they'll get soft if sautéed too far in advance).
You can make the kale an hour or so in advance and then gently warm it again either in a saucepan or in the microwave.
Braised Baby Kale
Makes 3 to 4 servings.
1 1/2 to 2 pounds organic baby kale
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 or 4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced very thin
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Freshly ground black pepper
Optional: 1 to 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
- Rinse and drain the baby kale, giving it a shake but leaving any water drops to remain. I also leave the little stems on the leaves knowing that they'll cook to tenderness, unlike the almost woody stalks on curly or Tuscan kale.
- In a large pot, combine the olive oil, garlic slices, red pepper flakes, and a small pinch of salt and over a medium low heat, cook until the garlic is soft and just beginning to brown.
- Add the baby kale and give it a stir, cooking over medium heat for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring and turning often (tongs work best for this) until the water has cooked off and the leaves have become tender. If the water has cooked off and the leaves aren't yet tender, just add a tablespoon or two of water and continue to cook.
- Taste and adjust for salt and add a few grinds of black pepper.
If you like you can add a splash of red wine vinegar, a tiny bit at a time, for a bright finish.
This cooking method is the same as in Canal House Cooks Every Day's fabulous recipe for Borlotti Beans With Sautéed Baby Kale. See our link to the recipe.
Roasted Kale Chips
Although it's an excellent snack, small containers of crispy roasted kale can have sticker shock prices, especially if you consider how easy and value-priced it is to make.
1 bunch kale; curly kale works well
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sea or other good salt
Optional Seasonings: Finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, cayenne pepper, ground cumin, nutritional yeast, chili powder.
- Preheat oven to 300° F. Line 2 large rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.
- Using kitchen scissors, cut off all the tough stems and discard. Cut any large leaves into 2-inch pieces, leaving any small leaves whole.
- Wash the kale and dry it completely -- otherwise the leaves will steam and not get crispy. A salad spinner works well for this.
- Place all the leaves in a large bowl, drizzle with oil and toss. Add the salt and toss again. Arrange the leaves on the baking sheets in a single layer and bake until crispy and the edges just begin to brown, turning the leaves over about halfway through, about 20 minutes in total.
- Remove from oven and let cool for 2 minutes on the baking sheets.
Optional: Transfer to a bowl and toss with any topping of your choice, adding a little at a time to taste.
Store in an airtight container for 3 or 4 days. There's no need to refrigerate.
Kale can also be steamed in the microwave, added to pastas, used to top pizzas, cooked like collard or mustard greens with bacon, turned into pesto to become a crostini topping, and is a wonderful companion ingredient to beans, especially chickpeas, and tomatoes. And it's an essential ingredient in the classic and hearty Tuscan vegetable soup called ribollita. Keeping in mind kale's wonderful flavor and the nutritional power even a cup of it can add to our diets, here are two other outstanding ways to use kale in hearty winter dishes.
Garbanzo Beans and Greens
From Cooking Light Magazine, a satisfying ragout of chick peas and vegetables seasoned with bacon, cumin, some red pepper heat, on a base of braised kale. Here is the recipe.
Classic Tuscan Ribollita
From Giuliano Hazan, son of the extraordinary and lovely Marcella Hazan. A hearty vegetable soup, ribollita contains tomatoes, beans, chunks of bread, and of course, kale. Here is the recipe.