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Kale

Why Eat It
Varieties
Availability
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

Kale, like other members of the cabbage family, is a good source of vitamin C and is rich in phytochemicals, including sulforaphane and indoles, that may protect against cancer. Levels of beta-carotene--and other nutrients--in leafy greens appear to be linked to the presence of chlorophyll, the green pigment produced by photosynthesis that signals that this green vegetable (unlike the paler cabbage-family cousins) is also rich in beta-carotene.

Kale has a substantial mineral content, providing manganese as well as some iron, calcium, and potassium. There's antioxidant vitamin E in the flavorful leaves as well.

For years, kale and other "cooking greens"--a term referring to a group of leafy green vegetables from several different plant families that are distinguished by their pungent bite and abundant nutrients--have been appreciated mainly in Southern-style cuisine. But kale also figures largely in the cuisines of Europe, and can be substituted for spinach (with some adjustments in cooking time) in just about any recipe you like. Try it in soups, pasta sauces, stir-fries, omelettes, or on its own (sauteed with garlic) as a delicious side dish.

Varieties

Kale resembles collards, except that its leaves are curly at the edges. In addition, it has a stronger flavor and a coarser texture. When cooked, it doesn't shrink as much as other greens. The most common variety is deep green, but others are yellow-green, red, or purple, with either plain flat or ruffled leaves. The colored varieties--sometimes called salad savoy--are most often grown for ornamental purposes, but they are edible. However, they do have a stronger flavor than regular kale. Kale is a hardy plant; it can be left in the ground over the winter, and the flavor actually improves after a frost.

Availability

Kale is available year round, but like most greens, it has a seasonal peak, from approximately January through April. Kale bought in the supermarket is usually pretty sturdy (i.e., the stems may be too tough to eat), but kale from a farmers' market or your own garden is likely to be more tender, possibly tender enough to use raw in a salad.

Since many vegetables are most abundant in the summer and fall, kale helps fill the seasonal gap with a nutritious fresh vegetable. Frozen chopped kale is also available.

Shopping

Kale should be kept in a chilled display case or on ice in the market, as it will wilt and become bitter if left in a warm environment. Choose the small-leaved specimens for tenderness and mild flavor, especially if the greens are to be eaten raw; coarse, oversized leaves are likely to be tough. Look for a fresh green color; leaves should not be yellowed or browned. Purchase only moist, crisp, unwilted kale that is unblemished by tiny holes, which frequently indicate insect damage.

Kale stems are edible, so check to be sure that this part of the plant is plump and moist, not withered or collapsed.

Storage

Kale develops a stronger flavor the longer it is stored, so use it within a day or two of purchase. Wrap the unwashed kale in damp paper towels, then place it in a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator crisper.

Preparation

Whether serving it raw or cooked, wash kale before using, as the leaves and stems are likely to have sand or dirt clinging to them. Trim off any roots, then separate the leaves and swish them around in a large basin of cool water. Do not soak. Lift out the leaves, letting the sand and grit settle; repeat if necessary.

If the stems are thin and tender, you can just trim off the tips and cook the stems with the leaves. If they are somewhat thicker, but still tender, cut them off, chop them, and cook a few minutes before adding the leaves. If the stems are really tough, remove them, along with the midribs (the part of the stem that extends into the leaf). You can easily stem kale by folding each leaf in half, vein-side out, and pulling up on the stem as you hold the folded leaf closed. If the stems are very tough, you may need to trim them off with a paring knife.

Whenever possible, use the cooking liquid from kale in a sauce or add it to a soup; a significant amount of the nutrient content of greens is released as they cook.

As a rule, it's best to cook greens as quickly as possible, but kale needs a bit of time in the pot to mellow its flavor. When sauteing, for instance, it's best to blanch the kale first to develop its natural sweetness.

Blanching: Drop the prepared kale into a large pot of boiling water and cook just until wilted. Drain and cool before squeezing out excess moisture (cool under cold water if not serving immediately or continuing with another cooking process). Cooking time: 15 minutes.

Braising: To give kale a rich flavor, after sauteing, add a little broth, cover the pan, and continue cooking, then uncover the pan and cook, stirring, until the liquid evaporates. Cooking time: 10 to 30 minutes.

Microwaving: This is a good substitute for blanching, as a preliminary step before sauteing or braising kale. Place 1/2 pound of greens (washed but not dried) in a microwaveable dish; cover loosely and cook until tender. Cooking time: four to seven minutes.

Sauteing: If kale is blanched first, it can be sauteed quickly in a small amount of oil. Whenever you use a nonstick pan, 2 teaspoons of oil should be sufficient for 3 cups of chopped greens. In addition, kale can be "sauteed" in stock, if you are careful to stir and toss it constantly; be prepared to add more stock to the pan as it evaporates. A generous quantity of finely chopped garlic is the traditional seasoning for sauteed kale. Chopped onions or leeks are tasty alternatives. Cooking time: three to 15 minutes.

Simmering: Simmer the kale, covered, in seasoned broth until tender; to preserve nutrients, after the greens are cooked, set them aside and reduce the cooking liquid to use in a sauce. Cooking time: 10 to 30 minutes.

Steaming: Young, tender kale cooks quickly enough to be steamed in just the water that clings to the leaves after washing. Steam more mature kale leaves whole or coarsely chopped. Place the washed kale in a heavy skillet and add 1/2" of water or broth; cover and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the greens are wilted. Kale can also be steamed in a vegetable steamer over boiling water. Cooking time: anywhere from two to 15 minutes.

Nutrition Chart

Kale/1 cup cooked

36
Total fat (g)
0.5
Saturated fat (g)
0.1
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.3
Dietary fiber (g)
2.6
3
Carbohydrate (g)
7
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
30
Beta-carotene (mg)
5.8
Vitamin C (mg)
53
Manganese (mg)
0.5


Date Published: 04/20/2005
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