Kale doesn't strike me as such a weird vegetable, but I do find it weird that more Americans don't eat this magnificently hued leafy green. Pictured above is red Russian kale from the Tomatero Organic Growers' stand at the Noe Valley Saturday farmers' market. I first developed regular kale cravings while living in Brazil, where they like to chop their couve up into ribbons and sautée it with lots of garlic. Below is some Brazilian kale, which may be closer to collard greens (specifically couve mineiro for those that means anything to), sidling up to a tasty portion of fried manioc:
If you can accept "dark green" as a flavor, that is what kale tastes like to me. Besides being the heartiest of winter greens, kale is also ready to pump your system full of anti-oxidants, beta-carotene, vitamins K & C, calcium, and other healthful nutrients. One day, I'd like to see a vitamin death match between kombucha and kale... This wild cabbage cousin is also said to be an extremely hardy crop, a good addition to winter vegetable gardens; perhaps I'll plant a few of these black-green roses in my tiny backyard garden patch next to my thriving endives and mustard greens. My inspiration is the kale I spotted growing in the hillside garden that Dona Linda Nemer planted at Casa Mariana, the poet Elizabeth Bishop's former home where I stayed for awhile in the summer (their winter) in Ouro Preto, Brazil:
Besides sautéeing my kale, I also like to put it in soups. The recipe below (adapted from Alice Waters's Chez Panisse Vegetables) is for a Portuguese soup called caldo verde that also became a staple of my past Brazilian life. It's basically kale, potatoes, and fried ham and is perfect for a cold winter evening, though you wouldn't know it was winter in the Bay Area with this week's record-breaking 80-degree weather. Alice doesn't include the ham, gesturing instead toward an optional garlic sausage, but the caveman hedonist in me had to add it back in.
1 bunch kale
2 pounds boiling potatoes (I used Russian banana potatoes, which is a post for another day)
2 quarts water
1 tsp salt
extra-virgin olive oil
a small slab o' ham or bacon
optional: other root vegetables (I added carrots here; you can also try turnips, Jerusalem artichokes, turnips, rutabagas, parsnips, etc.)
Chop the naked stems off of the kale, then wash it - you don't want gritty kale in your soup! Then I usually roll the kale up into a kind of cigar roll and chop it thinly into what's known as a chiffonade:
Then peel the potatoes and dice them into small cubes. My friend Leslie gave me this vicious orange monkey peeler—it likes to gloat over its handiwork. Bring the water to a boil with the salt. Meanwhile, dice your preferred salty meat up into tiny pieces and fry it in a pan to as black a crisp as you like (I prefer burnt edges, myself). When the water boils, add the potatoes, and when it returns to a boil, cover the pot and cook for 2 more minutes. Then add the kale and cook for about 2 minutes longer, until it wilts nicely into the soup. Add more salt if needed and a splash of olive oil. I also add a little freshly ground pepper.
Don't forget to toast some fresh crusty bread to dip into your soup while you're waiting for it to cool down. Potato-based soups always burn my tongue! While I do hold kale close to my heart and have even adopted it as the first half of my vegetable name (Kale Daikon), there are still others out there whose passion extends far beyond my paltry devotion. Try the blog i heart kale for starters. Or if you've got some January wanderlust and frequent flier miles (or good Internet travel deal skills), get yourself over to northwest Germany where the social clubs hold what's known as Grünkohlfahrt or "kale tour" (yes, German gets the prize for most charming name for kale, Grünkohl, plus add "fahrt" and it's an instant party). At these kale festivals, kale is consumed alongside sausage and schnapps, and the lucky kale king is crowned. I couldn't think of a better way to spend my January.