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Kale: Disrespected Garnish Steps Up to the Plate
by John Hershey
by John Hershey



John Hershey is a dad, gardener, writer, and lawyer (in that order). He lives in Denver, Colorado, with his wife and two young sons.

John's humorous essays on gardening appear in many newspapers and magazines, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Christian Science Monitor, GreenPrints, and Warm Earth (Australia).


August 22, 2010

Sometimes I feel like a misfit. My values often seem at odds with what mainstream culture considers good and worthwhile. For example, I’ve heard of “Jon & Kate,” but I have successfully avoided knowing anything about them because I instinctively know on the most visceral level that giving them even a second of my attention would be a complete waste of time.

Also, I do not accept the conventional wisdom that the summer gardening season begins to wind down when a storm dumps two feet of snow in the yard. And now that winter is here, I’m still growing lots of food, because unlike my society as a whole, I love and respect the most cold-tolerant of garden veggies: kale.

Kale is my favorite vegetable to grow and eat. This time of year, I love to watch its strong leaves push up defiantly through the snow. But recently I ran into my friend kale at an unexpected place: a wedding reception.

At such events I try not to stray more than a few yards from the buffet table, except for periodic visits to the open bar. Otherwise I might not have noticed the kale. There was a plate of disgusting triangular sandwiches—white bread filled with some viscous meaty substance—that I wouldn’t dream of eating, no matter how many trips to the bar I’d made. But hidden underneath these “delicacies” was a thick layer of beautiful crinkly kale leaves. And when the nasty sandwiches were all gone, the kale remained, untouched and unnoticed.

Kale is much more nutritious and delicious than the hors d’oeuvres it supported. But it wasn’t even meant to be eaten. Like the vast majority of commercially grown kale in this country, it was used as a mere garnish.

Needless to say, the whole wedding was ruined.

At least for me it was. It breaks my heart to see kale used as a serving tray. It’s an attractive plant, easy and fun to grow, tastily versatile in stir-fries, soups, lasagna or any other dish. Packed with iron and other nutrients, it’s just about the healthiest thing you can eat. Kale is practically the perfect food, yet our society treats it as the Styrofoam packing peanut of the culinary world.

Part of kale’s problem is that its benefits are counterintuitive. When we hand our friends a bag stuffed with kale and Swiss chard from the garden, we tell them that dark leafy greens are a great source of antioxidants, which neutralize the free radicals in our bodies. Yikes, they may think, what does that mean? Neutralizing sounds kind of scary, though I suppose it makes sense that chard, like all things Swiss, would favor neutrality.

But the concept of “antioxidant” can be off-putting. Oxidant has to do with oxygen, right? How can that be bad? And those antioxidants are so negative: OK, so you’re against oxidants. Fine, but tell me what you’re for. On the other hand, free radicals sound like positive things. Free is good. Why do the antioxidants hate our freedom? And radical? That’s like, totally radical. Dude. Some of my best friends are free radicals! The point is, by the time you figure out how good for you kale is, you’re so hungry you just pull into the drive-thru.

But kale doesn’t deserve this. Kale embodies the best traits Americans are known for: toughness, tolerance, stout stems. Like us rugged individualists, kale is a bit rough around the edges. It’s the headless ancestor of more advanced cabbages like cauliflower and broccoli, but it endures because it’s such an easy and beneficial vegetable to grow.

Kale is the shark of the vegetable world: Simple yet powerful, it has survived unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs.

Kale is so hardy that with just a little protection in a crude cold frame, it can grow year-round in our climate. Unlike my wimpy tomato and pumpkin vines, which shriveled in the first cool breeze this fall, kale loves cold weather. Frost actually sweetens its flavor. What does not kill it makes it yummier.

We foodies and gardeners should fight back and work to improve kale’s image. Grow it, eat it, extol its virtues at cocktail parties and PTA meetings, give it away in big bunches to your relatives, coworkers and poker buddies.

Feed it to your children. Start a pro-kale youth movement so there will be hope for the next generation. Try growing “dinosaur kale,” whose bluish leaves look and feel like reptile skin. I have a highly controversial theory: Kids love dinosaurs. If this hypothesis turns out to be true, your children should be snorfing dino-kale as fast as you can pick it. OK, that doesn’t work with my kids either. They love to grow and harvest kale. It’s the eating part they’re not that into. But it’s a start, and there’s no law that says I have to disclose to them all the ingredients in their spaghetti sauce and smoothies.

Finally, next time you’re at a wedding reception, inaugural ball or bowling tournament and the caterer puts kale under the appetizers, complain that the platter is upside down. Use the cocktail weenies as garnish and eat the crunchy kale. Speak truth to power and demand some rice vinegar to sprinkle on it.

You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one. There are utopian communities where kale gets the respect it deserves. The Germans recognize the health benefits of kale, for instance, although they do generally fry it in goose fat.

A kale-worshipping subculture appears to exist in northwestern Germany. In towns like Bremen and Oldenburg, the social event of the season is the Grühnkohlfahrt. That’s German for what your digestive system does when you eat too much kale. No, it actually means “kale tour.” During this sacred annual ritual, residents and tourists make the rounds of country inns, consuming large quantities of kale, sausage and schnapps. Then they anoint a “kale king.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m calling my travel agent.

If this were the kind of article that contained useful information, I would tell you how to prepare some fancy gourmet recipes with kale. But I’m not qualified to do that. All I can do, based on my amateur experience growing and eating it, is proclaim my feelings for the garden vegetable that sticks with me throughout the seasons: “Kale, I love you, man!”

Or maybe that’s just the schnapps talking.

Your own personal Grühnkohlfahrt

Kale goes especially well with onions, white beans, potatoes and garlic. Of course, I think everything is great with garlic. I suspend garlic cloves in my Jell-O. When House Minority Leader John Boehner recently said the public option in the health care proposal was as appealing as a “garlic milkshake,” he meant it as an insult. But I thought, “Hmm, that actually sounds pretty good. I may just have to try that!” But I digress. The point is, kale has so much nice flavor and texture, making a simple yet great side dish is super fast and easy. (And I don’t really make Jell-O.)

KALE CRISPS

Chop 2 bunches rinsed and dried kale into 1-inch ribbons. Toss in a big mixing bowl with ¼ cup olive oil. Add 1 teaspoon sea salt and squeeze in the juice of half a lemon. Massage the kale mixture vigorously for a couple minutes. Drizzle in 1 tablespoon honey or agave nectar and massage for another couple minutes. Spread kale pieces on the trays of a food dehydrator, go for a hike or bike ride for 6 or 7 hours, then come back and enjoy some tangy kale crisps!

SAUTÉED KALE WITH ONIONS

Chop a bunch of homegrown or organic kale (conventional leafy greens have lots of pesticide residues) into 1-inch ribbons. Slice an onion into rings. Toss them in a skillet with 2½ glugs of olive oil and sauté on medium heat for a few minutes until the onions are soft and the kale is a gorgeous bright green. Transfer to a dish and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Squeeze some fresh lemon juice over the dish just before you serve it. Not only does the lemon taste great here, but the vitamin C converts the iron in the kale into a form that’s easier for your body to absorb.

KALE STEW

In a pot, sauté a chopped onion in some olive oil for a few minutes. Cut up two or three potatoes and/or sweet potatoes into bite-sized pieces and toss them in, along with some chopped red bell pepper, several cloves of minced garlic, a half teaspoon each of turmeric and black pepper. Sauté for a couple more minutes, then throw in a bunch of sliced kale and two cups of liquid (vegetable stock, coconut milk, white wine, whatever). Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer on low heat for about a half hour, until the potatoes are very tender. Ladle into bowls and sprinkle fresh parsley and more turmeric on top. For a delicious variation, substitute a can of white beans for the potatoes.

Sausage and schnapps are optional.

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