Kale Finds Its Way Home

I didn’t know what kale was before it became popular as a “superfood,” and I barely knew what it was after it became the butt of video jokes, most of which involved dumping a plate of dark, curly greens into a trashcan. Because I always liked what I thought of, what I’d been told, was kale, I figured it was high time I found out.

What I knew and enjoyed was specifically cavalo nero, the favored green in Tuscany. That’s more than mere name dropping – in Tuscany, it bordered on self-defense. Cavalo nero was everywhere, in salads, in pastas, especially in soups – like the region’s signature ribollita made with the white beans called cannellini. I never had what I was told was cavallo nero – “black kale,” some with good English helpfully translated – without enjoying the finished dish. I never gave a lot of thought to whether I enjoyed the kale itself.

Recently, I set about trying to correct that.

The suspicions that I had, just visually, that kale at our supermarket isn’t quite the same as “black kale” proved to be correct. I actually bought black kale at an outdoor market in Florence once, when I had access to a kitchen. I tossed it with penne and chopped tomatoes and olives, and it was great. I’ve also bought “baby kale” at home, usually mixed with baby spinach and baby Swiss chard, to make my own version of ribollitta. That was good too

Adult kale usually has a faded, uninspiring green tint when found in the produce section, typically alongside Deep South favorites like collard and mustard greens, which it somewhat resembles. Its stalks are tough and its leaves are rubbery when uncooked, thus explaining the popularity of the tender baby version.  Kale is another of those greens, along with fresh spinach, that fills your shopping basket when raw and barely fills a teacup when cooked.

Still, especially if you don’t like it, a little kale can go a long way. As it turns out, I like kale. A lot. Though not necessarily a lot of kale.

The kale we know is a relative of cavalo nero, making the translation in Tuscany correct as far as it goes, but it’s actually a type of leafy cabbage. It started appearing in the Eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor more than 4,000 years ago and was understood to be nutritious, so in that sense what ancient Greeks and Romans believed was confirmed a long time later by our science. It made its way to Western Europe and England by the 14th century, largely on the strength of being easy to grow.

A USDA botanist named David Fairchild, famous as America’s first “food spy,” brought kale from Croatia in 1912. It found a small following in this country but a huge one later in England, where it was a go-to in backyard Victory Gardens during World War II, a source of essential nutrients during food rationing. It remained largely unnoticed in the United States until the idea of “superfoods” was born, the science-backed concept that some foods are better than others when it comes to holding off cancer, heart disease and other woes the flesh is heir to.

Kale finally came into its own. Don’t pay attention to those videos featuring a trashcan. Cook the stuff for pastas or soups, using only the softer leaves and throwing away the stalks. (If you’re making stock, you can toss them in too.) And even if you’re whipping up a fresh, crisp green salad with kale involved, give it a quick wilting – its green will get brighter – before you move on to Step B.   

BUTTERNUT SQUASH & WILTED KALE SALAD

Mango Ginger Habanero Ranch:

½ cup buttermilk

½ cup sour cream,

½ cup good-quality mayonnaise

2 (or more) tablespoons Fischer & Wieser’s Mango Ginger Habanero Sauce

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon onion powder

1 teaspoon lemon pepper

2 cups cubed butternut squash

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and black pepper

1 tablespoon lemon pepper

1 teaspoon paprika

½ cup orange juice, divided

10 (approx.) stalks fresh kale

½ red onion, thinly sliced

Make the dressing by whisking together all ingredients. Let the flavors mingle while you do the rest. Over medium-high heat, lightly caramelize the butternut squash cubes in the olive oil until golden on the outside and tender on the inside, 10-12 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, lemon pepper and paprika. Add about ½ the orange juice to help the squash cook, glazing as it does.

Remove the caramelized squash to a bowl and tear the kale leaves from the thick, tough stalks, discarding the stalks. Season with salt, pepper and lemon pepper over medium-high heat, adding the remaining orange juice to help the leaves wilt, 3-4 minutes. Spread the kale over 4 salad plates and top with the red onion slices and then the butternut squash. Drizzle with the dressing and sprinkle with additional lemon pepper, if desired. Serves 4.

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