I remember when I first encountered kale. It was a weekly offering sometime early in the season of my first CSA about seven years ago. I seemed to have some inkling of what it was and how to cook it, but I couldn’t recall kale ever gracing the dinner table of my childhood, or being offered at any restaurant, high-end or low, that I had frequented to that point. Those were the days before farm-to-table was a favorite food philosophy, before “locavore” was Webster’s “Word of the Year”.
Did I like kale? Well, I guess I did. Maybe I felt virtuous eating it, or enjoyed its versatility due to its hearty nature – it stood up better to sauté-ing than weaker greens like chard or spinach, but wasn’t as tough as its big brother collard greens. And we did get a lot of greens those first few seasons of our CSA, when the farm was figuring out an appropriate ratio for its fast-growing roster of community support, so I had many chances to compare.
Around the same time, I was starting to garden – first in my shady side yard and then in a community plot up the street. I tried my hand at tomatoes and herbs and sweet peppers and lettuce – the typical veggies I was used to having on hand at any given time back then. I was new to gardening, and had varying success with these classics each season. I found ways to make my tomatoes thrive, and basil and parsley were both generally productive, but my pepper plants rarely produced more than a few anemic fruits and the lettuce bolted by mid-summer, leaving a large bare spot in my tiny plot that I hoped to use more efficiently. A few other experiments like squash and cucumbers had also not lived up to expectations – generally vines that grew prolifically before wilting inexplicably, or plants that produced many large flowers but few actual vegetables. Was it blight? Lack of – or too much – water or sun? I have since learned a great deal more about small plot gardening, but at the time I just wanted something that was a clear success. Something that grew early and well and large; something I could eat and feel the satisfaction of having grown it myself. So, a few seasons in I planted a six-pack of kale seedlings that I had picked up at the local nursery, mostly lured by its description as “hearty”. They could be planted early and harvested late and promised a long season of edible leaves. These little plants did not disappoint and were often my greatest pride in my evolving – and improving – garden.
In the years since I first made kale a constant and reliable part of my diet, it has become the darling of the locavore set. Many studies have declared it one of the top ten healthiest foods, with a nutrition profile that is high in fiber, vitamins (like A and C) and minerals (such as calcium), but low in calories. However, I was far from the first person to be drawn to the heartiness of kale: primitive tribes foraged for wild kale thousands of years ago, eventually cultivating it and spreading seeds through trading and migration from its origins in the eastern Mediterranean to many other parts of the world. It has long been a staple, especially in northern climates, for its frost-hardiness and versatility. A close relative to collard greens, both are members of the cabbage (cruciferae) family, which also includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower – but kale and collards’ specific varietal name – acephala – means, roughly, “without a head.” This headless quality means that it can be harvested sooner and over time; its many variations, like curly or lacinato or rainbow, mean that it is both beautiful (some cultures planted kale for looks alone) and offers variety in flavor, color and texture.
Nearly all of the kale I eat is from the prolific plants in my garden (I plant mostly the lacinato, or blue dinosaur, variety), which can overwinter, producing plenty of edible greens from early spring to late fall, and beyond. When the plants get too full, I harvest the greens, briefly blanch them and freeze them, to be added to stews, stir fries, and frittatas over the winter. The rest of the year I eat them raw in salads (a trick to tenderizing the hearty leaves is to massage them by hand in a vinaigrette for a few minutes), lightly sauté freshly washed and still damp leaves with other cooked meat or vegetables, or grind them up with frozen fruit, milk and maybe some protein powder for a breakfast smoothie (the kale can barely be tasted, but it turns the drink a virtuous bright green).
But my favorite, recently discovered kale dish is probably the least healthy, but easily the most decadent. I cooked a few chopped strips of bacon until they were crispy, removed them and then added a thinly sliced onion to the fat. Once the onion was soft, I added a few cups of freshly washed kale, cut in strips, to the remaining bacon fat and tossed them with tongs for a minute, maybe, until they turned even brighter green and were just heated through. I seasoned with a few grates of fresh nutmeg and a sprinkling of salt and then combined them with the bacon. The result was a sweetly savory kale salad – hearty from the nutritious leaves, sweet from the onion, with the bacon adding a naughty, fatty crunch. Finally, after thousand of years, healthy kale has evolved.
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