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Peppery, Ruffled Kale

Kale is cabbage with an attitude: a little peppery, a little sweet, a little mineral, perhaps, but with none of the metallic quality of spinach

Fine Cooking Issue 91
Photo: Scott Phillips
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I confess that I haven’t always been a big kale lover. In fact, I began eating it in earnest only five or six years ago, after seeing it in a collection of recipes for high-antioxidant foods. But if kale’s reputation as a nutritional powerhouse got me interested, it was its frilly blue-green leaves, its toothsome texture that doesn’t go all mushy in the blink of an eye, and, most important, its pleasant, earthy flavor with just the faintest bitter bite that got me hooked. Now it’s a staple in my fall-through-spring kitchen.

When kale skeptics ask me what kale tastes like, I tell them to think of it as cabbage with an attitude: a little peppery, a little sweet, with a slight mineral edge, perhaps, but none of the metallic quality of spinach. Tiny, fresh kale leaves can be tender enough to eat raw in salads, but I usually prefer to cook kale with some liquid to make it enjoyably tender. Kale’s hardy texture requires more cooking time—a good 15 to 20 minutes—than do spinach or other tender greens that wilt quickly. Braising, steaming, and simmering in soups are among the best cooking methods for kale. Cooked kale also makes an excellent ingredient for dishes like creamy gratins and rich savory tarts.

How to choose, prep, and store it

Kale is usually sold in bundles. Choose deeply colored leaves, with no signs of yellowing or bruising. I store kale unwashed in an unclosed plastic bag in the refrigerator’s crisper drawer, where it keeps well for two or three days. If you need to store it longer, wrapping the bundle in slightly damp paper towels before putting it in a plastic bag helps prolong its freshness. But try to use kale within five to seven days, because the longer you keep it, the stronger its flavor will become.

Wash kale in a deep sink or a very large bowl of cold water, gently swirling the stalks to encourage any soil or grit to disperse into the water. Shake off the excess water and pat dry with paper towels. Before cooking kale, you’ll need to remove the tough stems and central ribs from all but the smallest leaves. You can cut them out with a knife or simply tear away the leaf from the rib.

Kale gets sweeter in winter

Kale is a fall and winter vegetable whose flavor becomes sweeter and mellower when the weather turns chilly. You’ll find three basic types of kale in markets: Scotch kale (pictured above), with ruffled, dark green (sometimes almost blue) leaves; Russian kale, with smaller, flatter, sweeter, and more tender leaves; and Tuscan or black kale (also known as Lacinato or Dinosaur kale), with elongated, very dark green leaves that have a pebbled texture. The latter is sometimes labeled cavolo nero, which means “black cabbage” in Italian. Scotch kale is what you’re most apt to find at the grocery store, while the other two types are rarer and more likely to be sold at farmers’ markets or specialty food stores.

Kale stands up well to assertive flavors, such as garlic, ginger, soy, briny black olives, hot pepper, spicy fresh sausage, and cured meats like bacon, pancetta, ham, and smoked sausage. Cream and cheese add richness and depth, while pasta, grains, potatoes, and beans provide a plain canvas to showcase kale’s distinctive flavor. Vegetables with an inherent sweetness are a good match for kale, too. For instance, I love to serve braised kale alongside roasted sweet potatoes or butternut squash. And I find that a splash of acid, such as citrus juice or vinegar, just before serving kale always accentuates its flavor.

Soup is an ideal showcase for kale

Bean soup with kale and sausage or cured pork is a Mediterranean standard (try Mediterranean Kale & White Bean Soup with Sausage for my take on this favorite), but there are many other delicious soups you can make with this hearty green.

Add punch to a potato soup. Build layers of flavor by sautéing pancetta or bacon in a little olive oil until crisp. Remove the meat and cook onion, garlic, and celery until soft. Add diced potatoes and water or a combination of water and broth and simmer until tender. Purée the soup, return the meat to the pot, add lots of chopped kale, and simmer gently until it’s tender. Finish with a splash of vinegar or lemon juice.

For a quick hot-and-sour soup, sauté some Thai red curry paste in a little oil and then add chicken broth, thinly sliced carrot, and sliced fresh mushrooms. When the broth comes to a simmer, add chopped kale, fresh Asian noodles, and diced firm bean curd. Simmer gently just until the kale is tender and then ladle into bowls and garnish with thin slices of scallion, hot chile pepper, whole cilantro leaves, and a squeeze of lime juice.

For some down-home goodness, add chopped kale to a pot of pinto or navy beans long simmered with smoked ham hock, sliced onion, diced canned tomatoes, and a dried hot chile. Continue to simmer until the kale is just tender and serve in bowls with plenty of cornbread to mop up the broth. Garnish with a drizzle of homemade chile or cider vinegar.

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