Go directly to kale: It's easy, cheap, nutritious, versatile

Morning Glory Kale Muffin, made with pureed kale.
Morning Glory Kale Muffin, made with pureed kale. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 12, 2013

Red, green, or purple. Curly, smooth, dinosaur, or lacinato. Siberian, baby, whatever - it's all kale, and it's clearly all the rage.

It's on practically every menu, at both fine-dining establishments like Fork, where Eli Kulp includes kale "crisps" in a green salad, and at Morgan's Pier, one of the hippest menus of the moment, where George Sabatino offers kale croquettes. The Cedar Point Bar & Kitchen in Fishtown is shaking up kale martinis.

All this from the green mostly seen as a sturdy salad-bar liner just a few years ago.

Tom Culton, an organic farmer from Lancaster County popular with local chefs, grew dinosaur kale for two years before he sold it to anyone.

"People didn't know what the hell to do with it," he says. Nowadays, if he doesn't grow it? "I catch hell," he says.

So, what is it about this green (or red or purple) - formerly seen mostly in its curly, fibrous form as a garnish - that has made it a foodie's favorite vegetable?

It's easy to grow, relatively cheap, available year round, and, perhaps most important, hailed by nutritionists as a "superfood" packed with Vitamins K, A, and C.

It also holds up to many cooking techniques without losing its flavor or texture.

Home cooks have caught on, buying it up at its relatively low price per pound ($1.29 a pound at ShopRite).

Just about every new cookbook includes a few kale recipes, and two books were published this spring dedicated entirely to the vegetable: Kale: The Complete Guide to the World's Most Powerful Superfood (Sterling) and  Fifty Shades of Kale (Harper Collins) - and no, it's not quite as racy as the other title.

With recipes for chocolate kale fudge pops, kale pesto, kale smoothies, as well as ones for more traditional soups and long-simmered greens, these cookbooks drive home the message that it's pretty easy, and can be delicious, to cook with kale.

Casey Spacht, general manager of Lancaster Farm Fresh CSA, who has been growing kale since 2006, has tripled his production over the last seven years. In years past, Spacht would see a lot of kale piled up in the "swap box," a box that lets customers trade unwanted produce for something "better" in the weekly share. But he says, "it's very rare now to see kale in the swap box."

While kale may be a fairly new addition to some home kitchens, many families have a long history with the vegetable.

Chef Kulp of Fork remembers his Dutch mother serving him smashed potatoes and kale - "my worst nightmare." Now, kale is on his menu in every season, often in a salad or braised, as "you can get it locally year round."

Aaron Matzkin, owner of Rotisseur, started using kale in spring 2011, when he first opened his "slow fast food" restaurant. Initially, its use was convenient - they wanted to feature a side to slow-cooked poultry that was both healthier and more interesting than potato chips, but also had a good shelf life and was easy to make in large quantities. Kale chips hit all the marks.

"We wanted to have something green on the menu when we opened and we didn't have a lot of manpower to do a lot of prep. It was green, it was healthy, and it was easy to make," Matzkin says.

Chef Sean McPaul of Talula's Garden typically goes through two 30-pound cases of kale for dinner service each night. "I lean to it as opposed to chard or spinach," he says, in dishes like the popular creamed kale now on the menu. The reason behind its popularity? "It's super versatile," he says.

It can be "massaged" in a lemon dressing for a salad, a common method used by chefs, but can still keep its character when braised for two hours.

You can even put pureed kale in cupcakes and muffins like the delicious and nutritious Morning Glory Kale Muffins (see recipe).

But is kale just another fleeting trend, like so many on the food scene? Chef Kulp isn't convinced that it's just another acai or goji berry: "It is a trend, but not one that will go away."

Matzkin of Rotisseur agrees. "We're tending toward getting more done in less time," he says, "Look, here's the food I can get everything I need in one bite. That is what is super-attractive to people."

Morning Glory Kale Muffins

Makes 12 muffins

1/2 cup kale, cooked, steamed, or blanched until tender, then pureed with 2 tablespoons almond milk in food processor

11/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg or cinnamon

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 cup orange juice

1/4 cup virgin coconut oil

1/2 cup agave syrup

1 egg

1/2 cup milk or unsweetened nondairy milk (such as almond milk)

1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract

1/2 cup shredded carrots

1/2 cup chopped walnuts or other nuts (optional)

1/2 cup raisins or dried cranberries or dried or fresh blueberries (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

2. Prepare standard muffin tins with 12 cupcake liners.

3. In a food processor, puree kale with two tablespoons or so of the milk.

4. In a large bowl, sift together flour, nutmeg, baking soda, and baking powder.

5. In the bowl of the food processor, add juice, coconut oil, syrup, egg, milk, and vanilla extract, pulsing ingredients until smooth.

6. Add liquid ingredients to dry ingredients, mixing only until combined.

7. Fold carrots and any optional ingredients into batter, being careful not to overmix.

8. Fill prepared muffin cups 2/3 full with batter. Bake for 17 to 22 minutes, or until muffins are springy to the touch. Allow finished muffins to cool 20 minutes or so before removing.

-From Kale: The Complete Guide to the World's Most Powerful Superfood, by Stephanie Pedersen (Sterling, 2013)

Per muffin (without optional ingredients): 156 calories, 3 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 5 grams fat, 14 milligrams cholesterol, 128 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.


Serves 8

One 10-ounce bunch kale, stemmed and roughly chopped (about 10 cups)

6 carrots

1 red, yellow, or orange bell pepper, cored, seeded, and diced or thinly sliced

1 1/2 cups kale-onaise (see note)

1. Fit a food processor with the shredder attachment. Shred the kale and carrots and transfer both to a large bowl. Add the bell pepper and kale-onaise and toss well. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour, up to overnight, before serving.

- From Fifty Shades of Kale, by Drew Ramsey and Jennifer Iserloh (HarperCollins, 2013)

For kale-onaise: In a food processor, combine 2 cups packed chopped kale, 1/2 tsp. sea salt, and 2 garlic cloves. Process until finely chopped. Add 1 cup mayonnaise and zest and juice of one lemon. Process until smooth. Makes 3 cups.

Per serving: 187 calories, 3 grams protein, 10 g carbohydrates, 16 g fat (2 g saturated), 8 mg cholesterol, 591 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.

Kale Pesto With Toasted Walnuts

Serves 8

2 cups packed torn kale leaves, stems removed

1 cup packed fresh basil leaves

1 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup toasted walnuts

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

   1. In a food processor, combine kale leaves, basil leaves, and salt. Pulse 10 to 12 times, until the kale leaves are finely chopped. With the motor running, drizzle in the olive oil. Scrape down the sides of the processor. Add the walnuts and garlic and process again, then add the cheese and pulse to combine. Toss with your favorite pasta and serve immediately.

   - From Fifty Shades of Kale, by Drew Ramsey and Jennifer Iserloh (HarperCollins, 2013)

Per serving (about 1/4 cup): 139 calories, 4 g protein, 3 g carbohydrates, 13 g fat (2 g saturated), 4 mg cholesterol, 1 g fiber, 279 mg sodium.

Almond and Kale Smoothie

Makes 1 generous serving

1 packed cup torn kale leaves (discard the thick rib in the center of the leaf)

1 cup unsweetened almond milk

1 tablespoon almond  butter

1 tablespoon soaked raw almonds (see note)

1 date, pitted

1 tablespoon coconut  oil

1. Blend everything in a powerful blender until completely smooth and drink immediately.

- From It's All Good: Delicious, Easy Recipes That Will Make You Look Good and Feel Great, by Gwyneth Paltrow and Julia Turshen (Grand Central Life & Style, 2013)

Note: To make soaked almonds, soak raw almonds in plenty of water for at least half a day.

Per serving: 350 calories, 8 grams protein, 19 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 30 grams fat, no cholesterol, 209 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.

Kale Salad With Slivered Brussels Sprouts and Sesame Dressing

Makes 3-4 servings

1 bunch Tuscan kale

5 teaspoons light sesame oil

Sea salt

4 brussels sprouts

1 plump clove garlic

1 tablespoon brown rice wine vinegar (or wine vinegar)

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon sesame seeds,  toasted in a dry skillet  until   golden

2 pinches red pepper flakes

Slivered chives or green onions, to  finish

1. Slice kale leaves off their ropy stems and discard stems. Working in batches, stack the leaves, roll them up tightly lengthwise, and then thinly slice them crosswise into narrow ribbons. Put the ribbons in a salad bowl with 1 teaspoon of the light sesame oil and a quarter-teaspoon of salt. Squeeze the leaves repeatedly with your hands until they glisten.

2. Discard any funky outer leaves from the brussels sprouts. Slice them paper-thin on a mandoline, then toss them with the kale.

3. Pound the garlic with 1/8 teaspoon salt in a small mortar until smooth. Stir in the vinegar, then whisk in the remaining sesame oil and the soy sauce. Pour the dressing over the greens and toss well.

4. Just before serving, toss with the sesame seeds, pepper flakes, and the chives.

- From Vegetable Literacy, by Deborah Madison (Ten Speed Press, 2013)

Per serving (based on 4): 109 calories, 3 grams protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, no sugar, 7 grams fat, no cholesterol, 400 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Contact Michelle Dembo at 215-854-4214 or mdembo@phillynews.com.

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