Winter’s most nutrient-packed green is more versatile than you may think
By Jamie Collins
Photography by Margaux Gibbons and Patrick Tregenza
Kale is one of my very favorite kitchen staples. From a farmer’s standpoint, it is an especially great crop because it is the green that keeps on giving—seedlings are planted twice a year, once in the spring and again in the fall, and its leaves can be harvested continuously until the next crop is planted.
Twelve years ago when I first started selling hearty, versatile and highly nourishing greens like kale and chard at farmers’ markets, no one knew what they were. Everyone was sure chard was rhubarb, and shoppers wanted nothing to do with any of the kale. Some of the comments I recall were that the leaves were weird and bumpy or too tough or too curly. So despite artfully stacking the odd yet beautiful green and purple bunches on my tables, I only made myself hoarse attempting to convince people to try it.
Fast forward a decade, and kale is one of the crops getting the most recognition and press attention. Unfortunately, it has taken media stars, not the farmers who grow the greens, to convince people to branch out of their comfort zones and recognize that kale is not just garnish at the salad bar, but a tasty superfood. And it is in fact one of the most potent of all the superfoods. Kale contains cancer-fighting antioxidant phytonutrients like carotenoids and flavonoids, as well as high amounts of the antioxidant vitamins A, C and K. In fact, one cup of kale has more vitamin C than an orange, and it’s also a great source of many minerals, including potassium, calcium and iron, as well as an omega- 3 fatty acid essential for brain health.
Kale chips, raw kale salads and kale smoothies are becoming a mainstream rage, turning the plant into a part of our daily life, and creative cooks are working it into all types of food, for all times of day. Kale is also now providing a way for farmers like me to make a living during the winter months, when so much of the other crops we grow go out of season.
There are many kinds of kale, all edible, although some are also used as décor in landscaping. Kale is in the Brassica (broccoli) family and is a descendent of wild cabbage. During the Middle Ages, it was the most commonly eaten green vegetable in Europe. Around 1500 AD, cabbage was bred to form into heads and to have a more delicate flavor than kale, helping make cabbage a more common garden vegetable. In the 1700s, kale made its way to the U.S. via English settlers. But it did not become a common green in America until the 21st century.
Here are some varieties that you’re likely to find at local farmers’ markets:
Dino aka lacinato is an heirloom variety native to Italy with a stronger broccoli flavor than those of other varieties, a bumpy leaf texture and tender ribs.
Green curly is mild flavored with a more tender texture than other varieties. This kale does well in raw salads with seasonal fruit and a light dressing. This is also the best type of kale for chips, due to the curly leaves, which can hold a savory coating well.
Red Russian has dark purple stems and ribs with gray-green jagged leaves. It is milder than dino but stronger than curly and can handle a variety of preparation methods.
Red bore looks like green curly kale but is dark purple in color. It contains more dark pigment, and therefore has more antioxidant properties. Use as you would green curly.
Nagoya is a beautiful purple and green variety and is more common in landscaping than on a plate. We grow it as a tender and frilly leafed addition to our braising mix.
I love kale for its versatility and high nutrition content. Although I love all kale varieties, I should mention my very favorite kind is Ivan Kale. (He is my son, born in the height of the summer kale season this year and pictured on the cover of this magazine!)
A variety of kales can be found at farmers’ markets, and kale can also be grown easily from seed or transplant in a home garden.
Start with a well-amended soil and plant in spring or fall. The plants should be 10–12 inches apart. Once the plants grow to 7 inches tall, the outer leaves can be harvested, leaving the inner leaves to grow and be picked one to two weeks later. Adding compost to the soil and feeding with a fish fertilizer every two weeks will help keep the plants strong and healthy for several months.
Once harvested, the best way to store kale is to run it under cold water, shake the excess and place it in a closed plastic bag in the refrigerator. A biodegradable bag is not recommended because it wicks moisture from the greens.
COOKING WITH KALE
Kale can be prepared in minutes, whether eaten raw or cooked. Think beyond salads and side dishes and try serving kale any time of day, in any winter comfort food or other treat. What follows are some of my favorite ways to work kale into my own diet.
Eggs and kale: Thinly chop kale and sauté with sweet onions and an oil of your choice (we like avocado oil). Mix with brown rice and top with an over-easy egg.
Kale and homemade macaroni and cheese: Combine hot, cooked quinoa noodles, sharp Cheddar, Parmesan and roasted garlic cream. Fold in chopped kale.
Massaged kale salad: Place chopped dino kale, sliced sundried tomatoes, Meyer lemon juice, a dash of fresh squeezed orange juice and a strong olive oil in a shallow pan. Massage kale for about a minute, until all leaves are coated with the juice and oil. Let marinate for 2 hours at room temperature before serving.
Mint chocolate kale smoothie: Blend 2 1⁄2 cups of coconut water or rice or hemp milk, a handful of mint leaves, 1/3 cup of cacao nibs, 2 frozen bananas, 2 cups of kale, maple syrup to taste, 1 teaspoon of vanilla and 1⁄4 cup of unsalted cashews.
Lacto-fermented kales: Lacto-fermentation uses the whey left over from making cheese or yoghurt to preserve the harvest and make vegetables more digestible and their vitamins and minerals more easily assimilated. If you don’t have a good source of whey (such as from a friend or neighbor raising goats, sheep or cows), you can simply use salt.
Chop up any kind of kale (or collards or chard) into thin ribbons. Toss them with 1 tablespoon of high-quality sea salt (Pink Himalayan is my favorite, for the mineral value), and 4 tablespoons of whey or an extra tablespoon of salt.
Stuff the greens into a quart-sized jar and keep adding and pushing them down until they almost reach the neck of the jar. Add the whey (or water, if using extra salt instead of the whey) to cover the leaves. Put on an airtight lid and let ferment on the counter. After three days, move to the refrigerator.
Kale chips: These are best if dried in a dehydrator, but if you don’t have one, you can use the oven on the lowest temperature possible. I like nut butter-based coatings (for example, almond butter mixed with miso paste, onion powder and salt), but a simple preparation is olive oil and sea salt. Dredge the pieces of kale in olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Place on a baking sheet and bake until crisp, about 20 minutes. Oven temperatures vary; check often so as not to burn.
Jamie Collins of Serendipity Farms has been growing organic row crops at the mouth of Carmel Valley for 12 years. She distributes her produce through a CSA, u-picks and farmers’ markets.
RECIPES: See kale recipes, below and online at www.ediblemontereybay.com.