By Mark Mulcahy
It's funny how things go in cycles.
In the 1700's and early 1800’s, kale
, oats and barley made up the bulk of the Scottish diet. As a matter of fact, the common green curly kale we find in our produce departments today is also known as Scotch or Scotch Curled kale. Since it was such an important part of the diet - and due to the extreme weather conditions they dealt with – the seeds were traditionally planted in a small, circular, stone-walled enclosure called a "plantie crub." Once established, the seedlings were then transplanted into larger stonewall yards known as kale yards. (If you were to walk the highlands today, you would still see these stone structures all over the islands, despite many being in ruins.) This was the standard, until the potato showed up and changed everything. Kale moved to a less prominent role in their diet and the potato, which was cheap to grow in their poor soil - and highly nutritious - became one of their chief sources of food.
Although they appear very different, kale, cabbage
, kohlrabi, cauliflower
, and Brussels sprouts are all the same species of plant. These plants are all known botanically as members of the species Brassica oleracea. The only difference between these plants is the differences that were introduced over thousands of years of human cultivation and selective propagating. As a matter of fact, when you add the kale variety designation of acephala to Brassica oleracea it translates to mean "cabbage of the vegetable garden without a head."
Kale came and went in importance - from hero to merely an afterthought for many years. Consider the following: kale is believed to have saved many people from starving in the UK during World War II, because it’s easy to grow and hearty. Just 50 years later, in the late 90's, I worked with a grower in Tennessee who grew hundreds of acres of green curly kale for a local all-you-can-eat restaurant chain...who only used it to decorate their salad bar.
Today, it is one of the most celebrated greens on the planet. It’s found in everything - from salad bars to chips to smoothies and even on most mainstream restaurant menus in some form or another - and it should be! Kale's deep color means it contains lots of carotenoids, a group of plant pigments that includes beta-carotene and lutein, known to combat heart disease, cancer, and cataracts. Plus, a one-cup serving provides twice your daily requirement of vitamins A and C, 20% of calcium, and 10% of iron. Per calorie, kale has more iron than beef.
Here are a couple of easy prep tips:
First, take the leaves off of the stems; I like to hold the kale upside down by the stem and strip the leaves off with my hand. Try this at home!
For easy cutting - stack the leaves on top of one another, roll them into tight bundles, and slice diagonally into thin ribbons.
So what about the stems, you might ask? They are actually quite good and loaded with lots of nutrition, so use them too! Finely chopped, they can be sautéed along with onion and added to many dishes or as a side dish of their own. I like sautéed kale stems added to burritos. If you want to get the most bang for your nutritional buck, let your kale sit after you've prepared it, for about 5 minutes before cooking. If you have some Melissa’s organic lemons around the house, sprinkle with a little lemon juice while they are sitting before cooking as it can further enhance its beneficial phytonutrient concentration.
Now, on to cooking! I usually give my kale a very quick steam, but another new favorite way is to braise it. Braising tenderizes and adds a deeper flavor to your kale of choice.
To braise, slow cook the following on low heat: 1 pound of kale greens in 1/2 cup of vegetable broth for about 10- 20 minutes, or until greens are tender.
If you want to get into the holiday spirit, you can always make the old Irish favorite: Colcannon. Here is one I recently adapted from a recipe I found at Williams Sonoma
2½ pounds Melissa’s Baby Dutch Yellow® Potatoes
, peeled and quartered
Salt and freshly Ground Pepper, to taste
8 Tablespoons (1 stick) Organic Unsalted Butter
¾ cup Organic Whole Milk
4 Bacon slices, ½ inch dice
, thinly sliced
1 large Melissa’s Organic Leek
, white and light green portions, halved lengthwise, rinsed well and thinly sliced (or 1 bag Melissa’s Cleaned and Sliced Leeks
1 bunch Melissa’s Organic Curly
or Red Russian
Kale, about ¾ pound, stemmed and coarsely chopped
1 small Head Organic Napa Cabbage, about 1 pound, cored and coarsely chopped
1/8 teaspoon Mace or freshly grated Nutmeg
Put the potatoes in a large pot, add water to cover the potatoes by 2 inches and generously salt the water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce the heat to medium and cook until the potatoes are tender when pierced with a knife, about 10 minutes. Drain well in a colander.
Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over low heat, combine the butter and milk and heat until the butter melts and the mixture is hot, 8 to 10 minutes.
Set a potato ricer over a large bowl and press the potatoes through in batches. Fold in the milk mixture in two additions. Season with salt and pepper. Cover the bowl with aluminum foil and set over a large saucepan of barely simmering water to keep warm.
Heat a heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium heat until hot. Add the bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned and crisp, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a paper towel-lined plate. Set aside.
Pour off all but 3 Tbs. of the fat from the pot. Return the pot to medium heat, add the shallots and leeks and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the kale and toss just until wilted but still bright green, about 3 minutes. Add the cabbage and toss until tender-crisp, about 8 minutes. Sprinkle with the mace and the bacon, and season with salt and pepper. Stir the potatoes into the cabbage mixture and serve warm.