Kale Primer

My son and I were watching Family Feud Canada recently (I know how lame that sounds, but it is good, fun, mindless entertainment. And Gerry Dee is a great host.) One of the questions in the Fast Money round was “Name a trendy health food.” Kale was the number one answer. 

Leafy greens have been on trend for a while now. Anecdotally, it seems to me that kale has the highest profile. And why not? It is extremely nutritious and surprisingly versatile. Unlike some leafy greens, it holds its shape when steamed, making it a good choice for a warm side dish. It can also be served raw and even added to smoothies. The bunches of kale sold in grocery stores tend to be rather large, but don’t let that put you off. You can always freeze kale for use later in a smoothie or soup. Here are some basics about kale for those new to this vegetable. 

Taste and Texture

Kale is bitter, for sure. I love bitter foods, and kale is one I eat just about every day, but it may take some time to adjust to the flavour if you are more accustomed to greens like spinach or romaine lettuce. Kale is also more fibrous and tougher than spinach or lettuce. That is why some of the packaged salads you see in stores use baby kale; it’s not as hard to chew. 

But not all kale is the same. Different varieties have different textures. Curly kale is exactly that–curly with very tough leaves. Red kale is very similar to curly, but purple in colour. My personal favourite is Tuscan kale, aka lacinto or dinosaur kale. Tuscan kale, pictured below, is a darker green than curly kale. It is far more tender and less bitter. I find it is perfect for all uses, so when I write a kale recipe, it’s Tuscan that I recommend. 

Regardless of the variety, kale has very thick, tough stems that have to be removed before serving. The most direct method is to rip the leaves away from the stem, which is, honestly, a very cathartic process after a tough day. My method is to fold the kale in half lengthwise then slice along the stem with a sharp knife to remove it.

Serving Kale

Like all vegetables, kale should be washed thoroughly in cold water before serving. Because it is so tough, you need to soften it somehow before eating. You can steam it for about 5-7 minutes or marinate it in a vinaigrette for the same amount of time. (For a recipe that uses marinated kale, see my Easy Kale Salad.)

Massaging kale is a trendy preparation technique, but I use Tuscan kale almost exclusively, so I find marinating works just fine to soften it. Massaging sounds messy to me, but it might be necessary for tougher varieties of kale. To massage kale, sprinkle it with a bit of salt and an acid, either lemon juice or vinegar, then rub it between your fingers until it softens. Apparently there is such thing as too much massaging, so be gentle–no Swedish massage here.

Freezing Kale

Kale can be frozen, but you have to blanch it first. To blanch any vegetable, you need a large pot of boiling water and a bowl of ice water big enough to hold everything after boiling. If you want to freeze it in individual portions, you’ll also need a baking sheet lined with parchment. Here are the basic steps:

  1. Bring a large pot of water to boil,
  2. Chop kale into large large pieces then drop it into the boiling water. 
  3. Allow it to boil for 2-3 minutes, until it starts turning bright green. 
  4. Drain it and quickly transfer it to a bowl of ice water. This step is essential for stopping the cooking process. If you don’t do it, the boiled kale will get overcooked and wilted. 
  5. After a couple of minutes in the cold water, drain the cooled kale and squeeze out excess water. (Make sure the kale feels cold to the touch.)
  6. The blanching process greatly reduces the volume of the kale. You can freeze it in one big lump if you think you will be using it all at once, say, in a stew or soup. If you want smaller portions for use in smoothies, you can freeze it in individual portions on a baking tray lined with parchment. Press the kale into a measuring cup–for example, a ¼ cup, which is good for smoothies–then transfer each measured amount to the parchment-lined pan. Freeze it for a few hours, then transfer it to a freezer bag or container.   
Tuscan Kale

Kale image by Crystal Smith. Kale sketch by Mariia Sultanova | Dreamstime

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