Kale used to be cool. TV shows would use it as code for young adults who are conspicuously health conscious. It was chopped in salads, steamed, sauteed, baked and even toasted into crisps. How did it reach this height?
Mari Uyehara says it all began on Oct. 24, 2007. “Melissa Clark, the author of the New York Times column A Good Appetite, had discovered a completely unfamiliar dish at the Brooklyn farm-to-table restaurant Franny’s, and her column that week, titled 'If It Sounds Bad, It’s Got to Be Good,' was devoted to trying to convince readers that this alien dish was actually delicious," Ms. Uyehara reported in her article posted on the TASTE website on Oct. 24, 2017.
This "bad" sounding dish was the work of Franny’s chef de cuisine at the time, Joshua McFadden, (who later wrote “Six Seasons” from which I’ve used a couple of his recipes in this column.) He was trying to create a Caesar salad, but the romaine lettuce didn’t look good. But, he had kale.
Ms. Uyehara points out that in Italy, lacinato kale (you might see it as cavolo nero, Tuscan kale, or dinosaur kale) is a braising green and not usually eaten raw in its country of origin.
So, Chef McFadden removed the ribs and cut the leaves into thin ribbons, then added olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, shredded Pecorino and chile flakes, and let the salad sit for five minutes so the acid of the lemon juice and moisture of the oil softened the tough leaves.
But, wait, there’s more! He then showered it with more cheese, olive oil and breadcrumbs when the salad was served. The New York Times writer called it “a veritable raw foods epiphany,” which she started to crave “the minute I left the restaurant.”
Kale salads soon started appearing at restaurants in New York and California, and suddenly it was everywhere, including McDonald's.
But the magic soon faded. Amanda Mull wrote in her Sep. 30, 2019, Atlantic article "The Saddest Leafy Green" that “After kale briefly overtook spinach as America’s favorite cooked green in mid-2014, Google’s measure of interest in kale has steadily declined.”
She reports that kale is currently at less than half the search popularity of its 2014 high. What happened to kale as king? Most likely, home cooks didn’t know how to prepare it, so their dishes didn’t turn out very tasty.
As Chef McFadden demonstrated in his first dish, kale is tough and needs to be sliced and the fibers broken down somewhat to be enjoyable. Or it needs to be cooked to soften it as Italians have done for centuries.
So, I’ll offer a salad to show you the massage method for raw leaves and then a couple of different ways to cook it to turn it back into that culinary delight that The New York Times first discovered.
Kale Salad with Carrot Ginger Dressing
Adapted from Love and Lemons website by Jeanine Donofrio
This is an attractive website with great food photography by a wife and husband team. Jeanine is a recipe developer and author of two bestselling cookbooks and is the voice of the website. They don’t make a big deal about the fact that all the recipes are vegetarian. The goal seems to convert the carnivores by offering them tasty dishes that just happen to forget to add meat.
Carrot Ginger Dressing
Make the dressing ahead so it has time to chill in the fridge before adding to the salad
½ cup chopped roasted carrots, from 3/4 cup raw carrots
1/3 to ½ cup water
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 teaspoons minced ginger
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1 ½ cups roasted chickpeas These are cooked or canned chickpeas, dried, then mixed with extra-virgin olive oil and salt then roasted on a sheet pan at 425° for 20-30 minutes. You can add other spices (curry, nutmeg, etc.) while they are still hot.
1 bunch curly kale, stems removed, leaves torn
1 teaspoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 small carrot, grated
1 small red beet, grated*
½ watermelon radish, very thinly sliced
1 avocado, cubed
2 tablespoons dried cranberries
¼ cup pepitas, toasted
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Make the dressing and roast the chickpeas:
Preheat the oven to 400°F and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Toss the chickpeas with a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle with pinches of salt and pepper. Place the carrot pieces for the dressing in their own corner on the baking sheet to roast alongside the chickpeas. Roast for 25 to minutes, or until the chickpeas are browned and crisp and the carrots are soft. Set the roasted chickpeas aside. Transfer the carrots to a blender and add the water, olive oil, rice vinegar, ginger, and salt. Blend the dressing until smooth and chill in the fridge until ready to use.
Place the kale leaves into a large bowl and drizzle with the lemon juice, ½ teaspoon of olive oil, and a few pinches of salt. Use your hands to massage the leaves until they become soft and wilted and reduce in the bowl by about half. Add the carrot, beet, watermelon radish, half of the cubed avocado, cranberries, pepitas, a few more good pinches of salt, and a few grinds of pepper, and toss. Drizzle generously with the carrot ginger dressing. Top with the remaining avocado, more dressing, the roasted chickpeas and sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Season to taste and serve.
Thai Coconut Soup with Sweet Potato and Kale
Serves 4-6 people
Adapted from "A Beautiful Plate" website by Laura Davidson
The start of fall seems like the right time for a comforting soup and this fragrant, vegan Thai coconut soup is an easy version of Tom Kha Gai (chicken galangal soup.)
Serve with fresh herbs, lime wedges, and sliced chiles if you want to bump up the heat.
2 stalks lemongrass
1 teaspoon raw virgin coconut oil
½ medium yellow onion thinly sliced
12 ounces cremini baby mushrooms, stemmed and sliced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 (14-ounce) cans of full-fat coconut milk
1½ cups water or up to 3 cups for a lighter broth
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves minced
1 large, sweet potato chopped
1 jalapeno pepper stemmed and diced
1 small bunch cilantro (about ½ cup) stems diced and leaves chopped
2 limes, zest removed, and juiced
tamari or soy sauce, for seasoning (optional)
4 cups loosely packed kale chopped
2 cups cooked jasmine rice
½ cup fresh mint leaves
Sliced red chile peppers, serrano peppers, or sriracha sauce
Prepare the lemongrass by cutting off the root end and the tough upper stem of the stalks. Smash the stalks with the side of a wide chef's knife to loosen the layers. Pull off the thick outer layers and dice the inner, tender parts. This should yield about ¼ cup chopped lemongrass. Set aside.
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion, mushrooms, and ½ teaspoon kosher salt and cook, stirring occasionally, for 8 minutes, or until softened.
Stir in the lemongrass, coconut milk, 1½ cups water, ginger, garlic, sweet potato, jalapeño, and cilantro stems. If you prefer a lighter broth, add up to 1½ cups more water.
Simmer over low heat for 20 minutes, or until the sweet potatoes are fork-tender. Add the lime zest and juice. Taste, then add an additional ½ teaspoon of salt, if desired, and tamari (or soy sauce), if using.
Add the chopped kale and simmer just until wilted, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the cilantro leaves just before serving. Serve over the warmed rice, with fresh mint, cilantro and chile peppers, if using, and tamari (or soy sauce) on the side.
Quinoa Meatballs with Tomato Sauce and Tuscan Kale
Adapted from Matthew Accarrino’s recipe in Food & Wine, February 2017
I like making meatballs but had never made them with quinoa so this was a great recipe to keep the vegetarian theme going, even though I hadn’t planned it that way. The meatballs need to be fairly small, not those giant meatballs you get at some Italian-American restaurants. This seems like a lot of steps but you can do each section on a different day and bring the pieces together to cook when you’re ready.
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1 cup quinoa, rinsed and drained
2 tablespoons dry white wine
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons each finely chopped basil, parsley, scallion, and dill
2 large eggs
1/2 tablespoon whole milk
1/2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons Panko breadcrumbs (you can buy these at the store and have them available whenever you need breadcrumbs)
1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (not the grated stuff in a can), plus more for garnish
1/4 cup fine semolina
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 onion, finely chopped
5 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 cup dry white wine
One 28-ounce can whole tomatoes in juice (preferably San Marzano), tomatoes chopped and juices reserved
Pinch each of dried oregano and crushed red pepper
3 tablespoons chopped basil, plus more for garnish
Freshly ground black pepper
1 bunch of Tuscan kale (8 ounces), stemmed and chopped
Make the pilaf
In a medium saucepan, heat the olive oil. Add the onion and cook over moderate heat until softened, about 8 minutes. Add the quinoa and cook, stirring, until toasted, about 2 minutes. Add 2 cups of water along with the wine and salt and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat until the quinoa is tender and the water is absorbed for about 20 minutes. Spread the quinoa onto a large rimmed baking sheet to cool, then transfer to a medium bowl and stir in the herbs. Set aside 1 cup of the quinoa pilaf.
Make the quinoa meatballs
Preheat the oven to 375° F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with the milk, olive oil, and 2/3 cup of water. Add the reserved 1 cup of quinoa pilaf along with the breadcrumbs, the 1 cup of Parmigiano, the semolina, onion powder, garlic powder, salt, and pepper and mix well.
Form the mixture into 26 1 1/2-inch meatballs, using about 1 tablespoon of the mixture for each. Transfer to the baking sheet. Bake the meatballs for 10 to 12 minutes, until browned on the bottoms, then turn and bake for 10 to 12 minutes longer, until browned all over.
Make the tomato sauce
In a medium enameled cast-iron casserole, heat the olive oil over moderate heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until softened, about 6 minutes. Add the wine and tomato juices and cook until the liquid is reduced by one-third, about 8 minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes, oregano, and crushed red pepper and simmer over moderately low heat for 20 minutes. Stir in the 3 tablespoons of chopped basil and season with salt and black pepper. Add the kale, cover, and cook over moderately low heat until it begins to wilt, about 5 minutes. Add the meatballs to the casserole and simmer until the kale is tender and the meatballs are heated through, 10 to 15 minutes
Spoon the quinoa pilaf into shallow bowls and top with the meatballs and sauce. Garnish with chopped basil and grated Parmigiano and serve.
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Ken Morris has been cooking for comfort for more than 30 years and learning in kitchens from Alaska to Thailand to Italy. He now cooks and writes from his kitchen in Napa. Email email@example.com.