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Kale is an excellent source of vitamins and fiber.

Thom Desanto, Stockfood.com

Lowly kale has its moment

  • Article by: KRISTIN TILLOTSON
  • Star Tribune
  • August 10, 2012 - 1:24 PM

Kale is the Jeff Bridges of vegetables -- been around forever, utility player, not the flashy type. Until lately.

Since being crowned prom king of locavore fads, kale has been putting on airs. All of a sudden, it's cozying up to caramelized onions and being photographed slathered in chanterelles.

Easy to grow and touted as the ne plus ultra of vitamin- and antioxidant-packed superfoods, kale is being used by chefs in just about everything. At Mill Valley Kitchen in St. Louis Park, for example, you can really kale it up -- there's the baby kale salad with manchego, pine nuts and lemon-chile vinaigrette, the grass-fed beef filet with kale, scalloped potatoes and cipollini onion, the scallops with lemon kale, and a side of kale with garlic and Parmesan.

Home-roasted kale chips have become a popular DIY snack food (Gwyneth Paltrow made them on "The Ellen Show"). The once lowly leaves have inspired their own T-shirt, reading "Eat More Kale." It's so darned trendy that Slate essayist Scott Jacobson sarcastically dubbed it "now the only food worth the trouble of digesting."

"People really are crazy for kale," said Susan Berkson, a spokeswoman for the Minneapolis Farmers Market. "They're asking for it more, so our growers are growing more, and more variety, too -- we're seeing the curly kale, the purple, red, dinosaur, Russian."

But kale has been around the Western world since some roving Celts brought it back to Europe from Asia Minor in about 600 B.C. Why all the interest now?

"It's loaded with things that are good for you, and if people are going to eat their greens, they want them to pack a punch," Berkson said.

The rise of Community Supported Agriculture (more commonly called CSAs) has also contributed to kale's newfound popularity. Because of its hardiness, the leaf has been popular with growers, who stuff their customers' boxes full of the green stuff along with tip sheets on what to do with it. Today there is even "The Book of Kale," by Sharon Hanna (Harbour Publishing).

Not everyone sings kale's praises. Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten recently proclaimed it "not designed . . . for human consumption" and added that "the current kale craze is a violation of the Natural Order."

Alex Roberts, chef/owner at Restaurant Alma and Brasa, observes that kale can be "polarizing. But as more people learn how to cook it, how to coax out its seductive flavor, more will like it. It's like Brussels sprouts, when people first tried caramelizing them."

Roberts recommends starting with lacinato, more commonly known as dinosaur or Tuscan kale, "because it caramelizes really easily, and people really like it."

Kale is full of vitamins A, C, K and B6 and a good source of iron, folate and calcium. And let's not even get started on the percentage of daily fiber it can provide if not cooked into mush. Yet Minneapolis organic-eating pioneer Brenda Langton remembers that not so long ago, most Americans didn't consider it fit to eat.

"It used to be kept in coolers to use as garnish because it didn't wilt like lettuce. That was its only purpose," she said.

Langton, who was into kale a couple of decades before it was cool, has some advice for newbies who find the raw leaves a little too earthy for their tastes.

"You don't need to saut it. That's a common mistake," she said. "Braise it with a quarter cup or so of water, or use apple juice if you want it sweeter."

Another tip, from the website www.kaleeffect.com (purveyor of those T-shirts), is to separate the leaves from the stems right away, to ward off bitterness.

Hardy kale is from the same vegetable family as collards, but tends to be a darker, more grayish-green, and usually has a stronger, chewier taste. If you get a hankering to grow your own, it's still doable this season -- and so easy. Kale is self-seeding, grows at will, and can even be planted indoors in pots.

One thing that's extra-great about kale in Minnesota, Langton said, is that it can take our extreme temperature shifts:

"It grows when it's snowing; it grows when it's hot."

Not only that, Roberts said, but some varieties "actually get to tasting better after a cold snap."

Oh, kale. Is there anything you can't do?

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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