Kale is versatile winter vegetable with rich history
Kale is one of the prettiest winter greens. Although the spell-checker wants to turn it into a member of the mint family, I’m actually referring to green leafy vegetables that prefer cool winter temperatures. One variety of kale is aptly named Hungry Gap because it’s available from January through April when little else is growing. Kale and cabbage share a common botanical ancestor, but loose-leafed kale is considered more primitive than the tight-headed cabbages bred by Europeans during the late Middle Ages.
From green to purple in color, long and shapely kale leaves have tough center stems and ruffled edges. Sown from seed, tender kale is harvested after a frost has mellowed the potential bitterness of its flavors. The English called it cole or colewort; the Scottish used the name kale (or kail). In Scotland, a small kitchen garden located next to a cottage was known as a kailyard. During the 19th century, the “kailyard school” of Scottish writers was distinguished by their unrealistically sentimental portrayals of rural life.
In earlier times, kail was a generic term for dinner or food in general, because kale was one of the staple foods of the Scottish diet. Today, the Scots word kail means both a type of cabbage and a dish made from cabbage. No matter how the word is spelled, many countries have a signature dish that features kale and (quite often) potatoes.
Colcannon is a traditional Irish mash of boiled potatoes and kale (or white cabbage). The British have Bubble and Squeak, typically made from leftover vegetables and featuring potatoes and cabbage. Portuguese caldo verde is a soup of potatoes, kale and onions often served at parties or for a late supper.
Along with potatoes, another welcome companion to kale (especially in soups) is any type of bean. I’ve included two recipes for kale and bean soup, one with chickpeas and exotic spices, the other a creamy puree with white beans and tomato. Depending upon what’s in your pantry, you could readily substitute another kind of bean in either of these dishes. And, if you want to please the meat-eaters in the family, add sautéed sausage slices to the soup.
In northern regions of Germany and parts of Scandinavia, kale is the focus of a festival called Grünkohlessen. To celebrate the autumn harvest of a curly-leafed kale variety called Grünkohl, communities organize scenic walks through the brisk cold to a designated local pub. Here they’re served kale, potatoes and sausages, along with great quantities of adult beverages. The highlight of the event is the crowning of the cabbage king (or cabbage couple) who will organize the next year’s festivities.
Although we’re not likely to plan a kale party, there are many cooks who enjoy this versatile ingredient in a wide range of dishes. Kale can be sautéed, steamed, grilled or baked; it’s delicious plain or garnished with olive oil, salt or lemon. Tender young leaves may be tossed into a green salad to add color, texture and interesting flavor. Chopped leaves can be cooked in soups, stir-fries or as a pizza topping; kale can replace spinach in quiche or creamy dips.
Before making the kale chips in the photo, I sorted through dozens of recipes, trying to find consistency. Each version listed a different oven temperature and cooking time, so I opted for a lower setting to keep the thin leaves from burning. I also ignored instructions to drizzle the leaves with olive oil to avoid a soggy mess.
The technique that worked for me was to pour a small amount of olive oil onto a piece of waxed paper and scatter the leaves across the oil to collect just a bit of coating. A generous sprinkle of sea salt added both texture and brightness to the crunchy results. This low-calorie snack is a terrific replacement for potato chips. Kale is a nutritional powerhouse - loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber - no wonder people hold festivals in its honor.
1 bunch kale
2 t olive oil
Preheat oven to 200 F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside. Wash and completely dry the kale leaves. Trim out the tough center stem and tear the leaves into bite-size pieces. Spread the olive oil on a piece of waxed paper. Toss the leaves onto the oil to lightly coat them. Places the leaves in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet and sprinkle with salt, to taste. Bake until crisp, but not browned, about 20 minutes.
Kale & Chickpea Soup
1 t olive oil
1 chopped onion
2 diced carrots
4 minced garlic cloves
1/2 t paprika
1 t cumin
1/4 t chili powder
1/8 t cayenne
1/4 t allspice
1/2 t ginger
3 crushed saffron threads
2 bay leaves
1 broken cinnamon stick
2 15-oz cans chickpeas, drained
8 C vegetable broth
1 bunch kale
salt, to taste
Heat the oil in a large saucepan and sauté the onion until softened over medium heat. Add the carrot and cook for about 3 minutes. Stir in the garlic and spices; cook for about 2 minutes.
Add the chickpeas and stir to coat with spice mixture. Pour in the broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes. Clean and trim the kale, removing the tough center ribs and chopping the leaves. Add chopped kale to the soup and cook until tender, about 10 minutes. Adjust seasonings and serve.
Kale & Cannellini Bean Soup
1 t olive oil
1 diced onion
4 minced garlic cloves
4 seeded, diced tomatoes
2 15-oz cans cannellini beans
3 C chopped kale
1 t basil
1 t oregano
1 t tarragon
2 t parsley
1 piece Parmesan cheese rind
salt & pepper, to taste
Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Sauté the onion until starting to brown.
Stir in the garlic and cook until fragrant, about a minute. Add tomatoes, undrained beans, kale, basil, oregano, tarragon and parsley. Stir to combine and toss in cheese rind.
Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove the cheese rind and use an immersion blender to puree the soup until creamy. Adjust seasonings and serve garnished with grated Parmesan cheese.