Is kale the new bacon?
Well, no, you might say, not as tasty, not as divinely salty nor as seductively dangerous, nutritionally speaking.
Still, kale is everywhere, and not just as a long-cooked side like collards or other tough, strong-tasting greens. We are eating kale baked as a crunchy snack — kale chips — and raw in salads. We see it on menus everywhere, grilled and topping shrimp and grits in New Orleans, mixed with cheddar cheese, apples, corn bread croutons, "moonshine" raisins and cider vinegar at Yardbird in Miami Beach, and in a salad dressed with mango masala vinaigrette at Edison: Food + Drink Lab in Tampa. Edison chef-owner Jeannie Pierola says the ubiquity has something to do with wide availability, but it must be more than that.
It's cool to eat kale.
Just last month, an article in the New York Times — not the food section but the Style section — declared kale salad the "fashionable plat du jour" at the season's big social events.
"Kale creates a younger, hipper feel as opposed to something like classic haricots verts tied up," Liz Swig said in the New York Times. Swig was chairwoman of a recent arts fundraiser gala in New York. On the menu? Kale tossed with pecorino and lemon.
It may be hip, but kale is also strong, as in flavor. It's often described at bitter, which is why it's traditionally cooked to mellow and sweeten it, or reserved for rabid juicers who swear by its power. U.S. nutrition guidelines recommend about 2 cups of dark green, leafy vegetables a week. Among all the choices, kale packs the most nutritional punch with high levels of vitamins A, C, and K, plus manganese and antioxidants. Eating it raw preserves all its natural attributes.
But eating raw kale isn't for everyone. The leaves can be fibrous, and gnawing them in public might be considered tres gauche. Ellen Kanner, who writes the Edgy Veggie column for the Miami Herald, suggests showing the leaves a little tenderness by way of a gentle massage with olive oil. Seriously.
"Drizzle a little oil into your hands and gently rub it into the leaves. The warmth and pressure of your hands work their magic, and after a minute or two, the kale will turn bright and pliable," she writes.
There are several varieties of kale, but the three most popular are curly, sometimes called frilled or even ruffled; the long, slender lacinato kale, also labeled Tuscan or dinosaur because of its bumpy leaves; and Russian kale, which is red. They have the same nutritional makeup and slightly different flavors. For all of them, the ribs can be most bitter, so it's best to remove those.
When shopping for kale, know that the smaller leaves are more tender and mild tasting. Wash the kale just before using or the moisture will heighten deterioration. To get the most nutritional bang, prepare kale soon after buying.
Often in Florida, we see kale in prewashed, prechopped bags. This is good for soups or to add to stir-fries or smoothies. And it's also fit for making pesto for pasta or to spread on a sandwich. But, if you want to make kale salad, look for fresh bunches at the store or farmer's markets.
In her new book, Kale (Sterling, 2013), author Stephanie Pedersen of New York calls the leafy green a "superfood," a label we've heard before for blueberries, salmon, soy, walnuts and oats, among other foods. She claims it's an aid in weight loss because the fiber makes you feel full. Good for diabetics because it is slow to turn to sugar. Beneficial for arthritis sufferers because its omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants act as anti-inflammatory agents. The list goes on.
Plus, now, it's cool to eat kale. Well, until the next big thing comes along. Shall we make a prediction for lima beans?
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.