Dr. Strangegreen

By: Jeff Davis, Freelance Writer and M*A*S*H Nerd

Drink lots of water. Exercise regularly. Get enough sleep. Avoid trans fats, sugar, dairy, and happiness. Take the stairs to the Bikram yoga spinning studio. Eat a diet consisting primarily of dark green, leafy vegetables and organic sawdust. Yeah, yeah. We know.

Well, as one who travels through life holding onto the escalator rail with one hand and a bacon cheeseburger with the other, I can’t help you adhere to most of the goody-two-shoes advice we all know we should follow. But I can help you get more of those beneficial, dark green, leafy veggies into your diet. Yes, gentle reader, I can help you learn to love kale.

Everyone seems to be talking about kale, but Jim Gaffigan pleads, “Can we stop with the kale propaganda? That stuff tastes like bug spray! Kale is a superfood, and its special power is tasting bad. Kale is so good for you! It’s like a really bitter spinach with hair.” While hilarious, this tirade resonates primarily with an audience made up of people who, I’d wager, have not actually tasted kale, particularly kale prepared properly. Just like any food, kale requires the right preparation, cooking, and seasoning to taste its best. And yes, kale can actually be delicious.

While “kale propaganda” has helped the leafy stuff explode in American popularity over the past decade, this dark green superfood has been a staple in the cuisine of many cultures for hundreds or even thousands of years… in fact, until the end of the Middle Ages, kale was one of the most common green vegetables in Europe. The iconic Portuguese soup, caldo verde, is basically just shredded kale cooked with potatoes in a chicken or vegetable broth, sometimes with sausage. (And it is very good, by the way.)

Kale is high in vitamin K and has healthy amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin B6, folate, manganese, thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, vitamin E, iron, calcium, potassium, and phosphorus. Okay, we get it… it’s good for you. But how do you make it actually taste good? I’ve narrowed it down to three key kale tips:

  1. Don’t buy pre-cut, packaged kale. It may seem more convenient, but trust me, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. Why? Because 99% of the time, packaged, pre-cut kale contains not only the delicious leaves, but a large proportion of the tough, woody stems, which are definitely NOT what Alton Brown would call, “Good Eats.” By the time you’ve cooked the stems close to anything resembling tender, the remaining greens will be reduced to a greyish, sulfurous glop that would send the most hard-bitten school lunch lady running for cover. This is the primary reason why people say they hate kale.So, do yourself a favor and buy whole bunches of kale (curly leaf or purple are the most common varieties in the US), wash, and cut the stems out with a sharp knife. Use the stems for vegetable stock, or feed them to your pet bunny, or let your kids swordfight with them. Safety glasses, please!
  2. If you want to eat kale raw, salt and “massage” it first. Mature, raw kale can be a bit tough and possibly slightly bitter. After you wash and de-stem it, cut it into whatever size pieces you like (I prefer thin shreds for soups as well as salads), put it into a large bowl, and sprinkle a little olive oil and some salt over it… then massage it with your hands, squeezing it and evenly distributing the salt. This helps tenderize the kale and draws out some of the more bitter liquid. Allow the kale to sit for 10 minutes or so before draining any liquid and adding the rest of the ingredients to your tenderized kale. Try it… it works! (If you’re trying to cut down on sodium, you can rinse the kale with cold water and drain well before using.)
  3. If you’re cooking your kale, don’t overcook it, and season it properly. This takes some trial and (hopefully not too much) error, but it’s best to sauté, steam, or even microwave/steam your de-stemmed kale until just tender and still bright green (or bright green/purple if using one of the purple varieties). It can be a little toothsome but you don’t want it tough or leathery, and you also don’t want it soggy and brown. While it’s hot, add a little butter or olive oil, some good salt and fresh pepper, and some fresh lemon juice. This combo can turn almost any properly cooked vegetable into a delicious delight, and kale is no exception. (Bonus tip: try adding a little freshly grated nutmeg.)

I think you will find these tips helpful in turning the popular, if much maligned, kale into a regular favorite in your kitchen. Tired of spinach? Try fresh sautéed kale with garlic. Weary of collard or mustard greens? Try the same recipes with kale (and remove the stems first). Bored with your eggs? Try a kale omelet or frittata. Shuddering at the thought of choking down one more mixed green salad? Try this winning kale salad my wife makes. Here’s to smooth kale-ing!