Cooking Fresh with Kale
By Dani Lind | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
My father-in-law loves his greens. He always grows multiple plantings of turnip and beet greens in his raised garden beds in Prairie du Chien, as well as arugula, chard, and even collards. But when you ask him “Where’s the kale?” he scoffs and says kale is a “designer vegetable” fit only for hipsters and hippies and health fanatics. By which he must mean me, since kale is the main green vegetable I grow (five varieties this year!).
I like all leafy green vegetables, but I love kale. Like LOVE love. In addition to many different colorful varieties in my outdoor gardens, I grow kale year round in the greenhouse that’s attached to our farmhouse and eat it pretty much every day, sometimes multiple times a day. I don’t think of myself as a fanatic about it, I just really like to eat it. I like its texture, its color, its flavor, its versatility, and of course how nutritious it is. Plus it’s easy to grow so I always have it around.
It’s not like I just eat big bowls of plain kale for breakfast, lunch and dinner (although seasoned right I could). But it’s just so easy to throw a handful of chopped kale into scrambled eggs or omelets or breakfast potatoes, or add some to a salad, slaw or smoothie, or wilt it into pasta sauce and soups and stir-fries and curries and mashed potatoes and pilafs and casseroles... Get the picture? It’s really easy to eat it multiple times a day. So as a long-time grower and eater of kale, a real fan, one could say (OK, maybe almost fanatic), it was really fun to dig into researching kale. Here are some of the fun facts I found.
Kale is part of the large and diverse Brassica genus (also referred to as the cole, cabbage, mustard or cruciferous family) of vegetables that includes cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, collards, turnips, kohlrabi, bok choi, mustard, rutabaga, canola and more. Of all these various species, genetically, kale most closely resembles its wild ancestor, a kale-like wild cabbage native to Mediterranean Europe and Asia Minor. Through selective breeding of this ancestor over hundreds of years, farmers created the wide variety of diverse brassica species we now enjoy today.
The ancient Greeks and Romans loved kale and spread it across their empires. New species and varieties were selected for different purposes—their leaves (like kale), their buds or flowers (like cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower), their roots (like turnips), or their oil-producing seeds (like canola and rapeseed). The most ancient cultivated brassicas were developed more than 2,500 years ago in Greece—curly and thick, flat-leaved varieties of the species Brassica oleracea (Acephalagroup). About 500 years later, cabbage and kohlrabi emerged as distinct new varieties of Brassica oleracea.
It’s purported that sometime in the Middle Ages in Eastern Europe, curly kale or collards were crossed with a variety of Brassica rapa—a kind of field mustard—and a whole new species of brassica was born, called Brassica napus, which includes the tender, flat-leaved Siberian/Russian kale as well as rutabaga, canola and rapeseed. Lacinato kale (also called Tuscan, black, cavolo nero or dinosaur kale) is part of the same species as curly kale and was developed in Italy in the 1700s. And at some point a very heat-tolerant, wavy, flat-leaved variety was developed in Portugal, called Galician kale or “couve galega.”
And it’s not over yet! Seed breeders are always coming up with improved varieties, and recently, even a new form altogether: a hybrid between curly kale and Brussels sprouts called Kalettes®, introduced to the U.S. market in 2014 after 15 years of traditional cross-breeding by Tozer Seeds out of Great Britain.
Because of its origins and long history, kale is very popular in many parts of Europe to this day. Despite its warm-climate origins, kale thrives in cool, damp climates and is very coldtolerant.
Because of this, it was an important winter famine food throughout Northern Europe during the Middle Ages and, hence, is still commonly consumed in Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Denmark and Sweden. Traditional dishes from these regions are all very hearty and comforting, like colcannon, Irish or Danish or Swedish creamed kale, and German Grünkohl (kale, kielbasa and potatoes cooked in duck fat with mustard).
Portugal, Italy, Croatia and Turkey all have iconic dishes that feature kale as well. Caldo verde, a Portuguese potato kale soup (see our recipe here!). Minestrone and ribollita, hearty stews from Italy made with beans, pasta or stale bread, Tuscan kale and other vegetables. Kelj cuspajz, a thick Croatian kale stew with potatoes, bacon, and paprika. And kivircik lahana, a Northern Turkish sautéed kale dish with onions, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and olive oil.
Curly kale was brought to the U.S. by English colonists in the 1500s, Siberian kale by Russian traders via Canada in the 1800s, and Tuscan kale by Italian immigrants in the 1800s. America hasn’t historically embraced kale with lots of traditional dishes like the Old World, but as my father-in-law would note, haute cuisine and the hippie whole food culture sure has latched onto it the last few years. Yep, kale mania has reached our shores, and it’s come a long way since Bo Muller-More started the “Eat More Kale” campaign with his catchy t-shirts and bumper stickers back in 2001. At that time, pretty much no one in mainstream America had heard of kale. I remember 2011 being the year of kale chips, when everyone at the Dane County Farmers’ Market started buying three bunches of kale at a time. The farmers had no idea what was going on until we heard that Gwenyth Paltrow had made kale chips on the talk show Ellen, sparking a nationwide craze that has since launched several commercial varieties of packaged kale chips.
Bon Appétit magazine named 2012 the “Year of Kale,” with highend restaurant chefs and home gourmets alike going crazy over it. According to Blue Apron, we’ve seen a 400 percent increase in kale on restaurant menus since 2008.
October 2, 2013, marked the first National Kale Day, started by Columbia University psychiatrist Dr. Drew Ramsey, who has studied kale’s effect on the human brain. He found that regularly consuming the powerful mix of nutrients found in kale can act as a strong natural antidepressant. It’s high in vitamins A, B complex, C, K, fiber, minerals, and antioxidant/anti-inflammatory flavonoids and other phytonutrients, which studies have found likely help prevent cancer, lower cholesterol, help with weight loss, and promote overall good health.
All those impressive modern nutritional findings combined with kale’s ancient and rich culinary traditions certainly have me convinced that my kale habit is a good one and not just for hipsters and health fanatics. “Eat More Kale” indeed! Maybe I can even make a convert out of my father-in-law.