Kale's new season

The strawberries and citrus fruit that Joe Bartenfelder is unloading at the Waverly farmers' market this bitter cold Saturday morning come from far away. But his deep-green, tightly curled kale is from right here in Maryland.

"It's still our kale," said Bartenfelder, who operates farms in Fullerton, in Baltimore County, and Preston, on the Eastern Shore, where this batch of kale was grown. "Which is unusual, since it is February."

Even for kale, a cold-weather crop for which Maryland's climate is perfect, harvests past Thanksgiving Day are noteworthy. But this mild winter has meant that Marylanders will be able to buy fresh fall kale at farmers' markets almost until the spring crop emerges.

That's good news for the home cooks, gourmets and restaurateurs who, after embracing spinach and Swiss chard, have come to appreciate kale for the sturdy green texture it adds to cooking and its nutritional abundance.

"I grew up eating greens," said Joretha Burrell of Baltimore, as Bartenfelder stuffed the hearty vegetable into a plastic bag. Four pounds for $3. "Now I put it in front of my kids."

For Burrell and other home cooks who grew up on kale but may be newly aware of its nutritious reputation, it is more than just a sentimental food. "I feel like [my children] are getting the vitamins they need," she said. "And it helps with the digestion if you are lactose-intolerant."

Kale comes from the cabbage family, but it has just as much in common with greens like mustard, collard and turnip.

It is Southern food. In this case, Southern Maryland, where wives and mothers for years have cooked it with smoked ham and some onion and potatoes, or stuffed it in a corned ham for holidays.

"Stuffed ham is mostly a St. Mary's County dish," said Mary Raley of Raley's Town and Country Market, whose stuffed-ham recipe has been filmed by the Food Network. "We make it for Thanksgiving and Christmas and by special order. I can't begin to describe the flavor for you."

But cooks have come up with many other uses for kale. Ned Atwater of Atwater's Ploughboy Soups in Belvedere Square cuts it up for everything from chili to stew to Hopping John.

"I love it," Atwater said. "I think if we all ate a little bit every day, we wouldn't need any other vitamins."

Deep green, blue or purple, flat or tightly curled, kale long has been used as a garnish in salad bars or deli cases because of its durability. But it probably has more nutritional value than anything around it.

A half-cup of cooked kale has only about 20 calories, but it provides a full day's supply of vitamins A and C and as much calcium as a half-cup of milk. And there is evidence the body absorbs the calcium from kale more easily than it does from milk.

It also has phytochemicals, which protect plants from disease and may decrease the risk of certain cancers in humans. And the recent snow actually improved its flavor.

"It doesn't mind the cold or the snow," said Bartenfelder. "Everyone wants the frost to hit it. That actually makes the kale sweeter. People are talking about how good it is tasting."

Dave Myers, extension agent for Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties, said, "There is nothing better than the taste of fresh-cut kale." While some localities embrace it more than others, Myers said, "There is more acceptance of the leafy greens everywhere. We're not just eating iceberg lettuce anymore."

Indeed, Gourmet magazine included a recipe for kale, sausage, cheese and pasta in a recent issue, and Fine Cooking magazine also offered a gratin recipe with kale to tempt the pickiest eater.

"There is only one secret to cooking kale," said Susie Middleton, editor of Fine Cooking, "and that is you have to cook it for 10 to 12 minutes. It isn't going to wilt quickly like spinach. You have to simmer it or braise it."

But you don't have to doll up kale with cream, bread crumbs and cheese. "I simmer it gently in some chicken stock with a few cloves of crushed garlic and some red-pepper flakes," Middleton said.

Kale must be cut away from the tough center stem, but it then can be chopped in big chunks or a nice julienne. The Red Russian or Dinosaur varieties are mellower than other varieties and can be lightly steamed or added to a stir-fry. Dense, curly kale can hold its own in soups and stews.

That's what brought Atwater to the Waverly market this Saturday morning. He likes to gather seasonal vegetables for his soups and stews, and kale is perfect.

"It is inexpensive, and it is a good winter addition to the soup bar," said Atwater. Later, he stirred handfuls of chopped kale into a 20-gallon pot of vegetarian chili.

"It goes with a lot of things," he said. "It is a very good balance to potatoes, cheese, ham or bean soup."

Atwater said he would not have thought about adding kale to his soups and stews 10 years ago. "I think greens, in general, are more mainstream," he said. "People who are into cooking are more educated these days. And you keep hearing over and over how good kale is for you."

Though kale is prized for its sturdy texture and color, it is also a meaty side dish with a strong flavor. The authors of Joy of Cooking wrote, "It deserves to be appreciated as much as spinach."

If kale is easy to cook, it is even easier to grow.

Like lettuces and spinach, kale can be harvested young, when the leaves are tender. Or the outside leaves can be cut, preserving the main plant for continuous harvesting. For some gardeners, the spring kale crop comes from the same plant that overwintered from fall.

John Scheeper's Kitchen Garden Seeds offers four kinds of kale, including the heirloom Tuscan Lacinato kale, prized for its dark color, size and leaf texture.

"It is an easy crop to grow," said Myers, the extension agent. "It is pretty forgiving. It doesn't deplete the soil. A foolproof crop."

And a foolproof vegetable.


Cooking tips for tasty kale

  • Kale comes in shades from deep green to pale lavender, with leaves that range from flat to tightly curled.
  • Select crisp, moist bunches with firm leaves. Avoid limp, torn or yellowing leaves. Kale should be kept in a chilled display or on ice in your grocery store.
  • Store, unwashed, in the coldest section of the fridge for two to three days, but use before leaves are limp or it will be very bitter. Rinse carefully in lukewarm water to remove dirt or sand.
  • The leaves must be torn or cut away from the heavy stem, which can be used in stock or composted. Cook until tender, but not mushy, about 6 to 8 minutes for thin leaves and 18 to 25 minutes for densely curled leaves. Undercooked kale can be unpleasantly chewy. Red Russian and black kale, also known as Lacinato or Tuscan kale, are more tender and need less cooking time.
  • Kale can be steamed, blanched, boiled, braised, stir-fried or sauteed. Add some aromatics to the pan before sauteing. Uncooked kale can be minced and frozen, too.
  • Kale can be substituted for spinach or cabbage in a recipe or added to pasta, potato, bean or vegetable salads.
    Creamy Winter Greens GratinServes 4 as a side dish 1 1/4 pounds kale (which reduces to about 2 cups of cooked kale) 2 tablespoons butter (divided use) 1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus a pinch (divided use) freshly ground black pepper 1 cup heavy cream 2 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled 2 1/2 ounces bacon (about 3 strips) or 1 1/2 ounces thinly sliced pancetta 1/3 cup freshly grated cheese: Parmigiano-Reggiano or a combination of Parmigiano and another hard cheese like Gruyere, Emmentaler or aged Gouda Trim tough stems of kale and roughly chop leaves to yield 6 cups tightly packed. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil, submerge all of the greens and cook until tender, about 8 minutes. Drain well and spread on a towel to absorb excess moisture. If necessary, squeeze them gently to remove excess liquid. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Have ready a 4-cup ceramic gratin dish or casserole dish (any shape is fine as long as the dish is shallow). Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter and toss it in a small bowl with the bread crumbs, a pinch of kosher salt and a little ground pepper. Set aside. In a medium saucepan, bring the cream and garlic to a boil over medium-high heat (watch that it doesn't boil over), immediately lower the heat and simmer vigorously until the cream reduces to about 3/4 cup, 4 to 8 minutes. (Don't over-reduce.) Take the pan off the heat and remove and discard the garlic cloves. Let the cream cool slightly, stirring occasionally to keep a skin from forming. Season with 1/4 teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of fresh pepper. Meanwhile, in a large nonstick skillet, cook the bacon or pancetta over medium heat until crisp and browned, about 7 minutes. Transfer to paper towels and carefully pour off most of the excess fat in the skillet (but don't wipe it clean). Return the skillet to medium heat, add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter to the skillet and let it melt. Add the cooked greens, season with 1/4 teaspoon salt if using bacon (omit the salt if using pancetta) and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Transfer the greens to the gratin dish and spread them evenly. Crumble the bacon or pancetta over the greens. Sprinkle on the cheese. Pour the seasoned cream over all and top with the buttered bread crumbs. Bake until the gratin is brown and bubbly, about 25 minutes. Let rest for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.Courtesy of Susie Middleton, editor, Fine Cooking magazine susan.reimer@baltsun.com Recipe search   Search over 3,000 recipes in our archive
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