Unconventional Ingredients: Kale

Kale isn’t exactly unconventional. On the contrary, it’s been touted as a superfood so often within the past several years that it’s become old news. You can find it at almost every grocery store, not only fresh but also frozen or as chips. I’ve even heard it used as a girl’s name. So why label it here as an “unconventional ingredient”?

I’m willing to bet that if you’re new to cooking, kale is a food you would rather avoid, which means it’s unconventional enough as far as your personal kitchen is concerned. Unless you’re a kale-eating veteran, you’ve probably noticed that raw kale is one of the least appetizing vegetables in the produce section, right up there with the wheatgrass shots you can add to your order at Jamba Juice. Kale in all of its mature forms is tough, grassy, somewhat bitter, and laced with thick stems that will make your jaw ache with the chewing of them. So forget “unconventional”; why profile it at all?

As to that, I hope you’ll indulge a brief personal anecdote. (If not, skip to the large header below.) I’m a big believer in the notion that food can influence health in all sorts of ways, from immunity to energy levels, and I’ve done my share of research about different dietary options. Over the past few years I’ve looked into paleo, Whole 30, GAPS, veganism, vegetarianism, DASH, and quite a few others, partly out of sheer curiosity and partly to see what I could do to increase my mental stamina during long work days or improve various aspects of my health (spoiler alert: kale is endorsed by basically every health-benefit-promising diet on the planet). Eventually, I gave up and decided to proceed in the spirit of Tara Stiles’s “Make Your Own Rules Diet”, which is less tongue-and-cheek than it sounds and operates on the premise (I’m paraphrasing here, liberally so) that your body knows what food it needs and will tell you if you will only shut up and listen to it. So I asked myself what sounded good, hoping it wouldn’t always turn out to be ice cream. In fact, what sounded good was kale: lots and lots and LOTS of kale. This was such a stark departure from all of my previous associations with this vegetable that I’ve decided to share my experience in the hopes that you will be similarly successful.

How to Make Kale Salads Work for You

If you currently hate raw kale, there are two things you must do in order to make it palatable: (1) pair it with things that are not kale; and (2) massage the kale. Of these two steps, the second is more important.

“Massaging the kale” is just what it sounds like: after washing your kale and tearing or cutting it into bite-sized pieces, you throw it into a bowl and squeeze it repeatedly. If you’ve just washed the kale and spun it dry, think of this exercise as wringing out excess water. You’re going to squeeze the leaves until they break down and start to wilt, which will make them much easier to chew. I’ve heard it said that you should massage kale for several minutes, but to each his own: massage the kale until its texture is more like spinach and less like raw broccoli stalks. If you didn’t remove the ribs from your kale when you tore it into pieces and you find that these are so thick and tough that you can’t break them down, consider either removing them altogether or chopping them into finer pieces.

When composing a kale salad, you need to think about texture on a level that you probably don’t consider when you’re working with lettuce. Because kale can be so fibrous and stiff, you need to make a point of including other elements that will be even sturdier. You’ll be more turned off by the kale if every rough edge against your tongue is a stalk or a leaf; instead, include celery, a crisp apple, or toasted pumpkin seeds, all of which are meant to crunch and are pleasing when they do. My favorite kale salad consists of kale with apples, golden raisins, and celery, all tossed together in a homemade dressing that is basically a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, a splash of olive oil, a pinch of salt, a drizzle of honey, and a half inch of fresh, grated ginger, all beaten together with a fork. If I get my kale to a soft enough consistency, I can eat this two or three times per week. Other possible pairings include fennel, orange, roasted vegetables such as broccoli or corn, and any kind of toasted nut.

How to Make Kale Smoothies Work for You

Color is key when it comes to kale smoothies. Here’s the formula to bear in mind: kale + anything that isn’t green = brown. It is true that kale is delicious paired with orange juice and a fresh Cara Cara orange (these are in season now!), but the resulting smoothie will look like something that belongs in your sewage system. If you don’t want to deal with that result, buy the greenest kale you can find and pair it with things like green apple, cucumber, honeydew melon, avocado, fresh ginger, honey, or yogurt. Your smoothie won’t be particularly sweet, but it also won’t be brown and the ginger will go a long way towards improving the flavor. (You’ll notice that I’ve paired ginger, honey, and apple with kale in both my smoothies and salads. These three ingredients have been key for me in transforming the kale.)

How to Buy and Store Kale

You can purchase kale in three main varieties: curly green kale; red kale (which is also curly); and Lacinato kale (also called cavolo nero or dinosaur kale), which is a deep forest green color and which has long, straight leaves. (The photo at the top of the page shows red kale on the left and Lacinato on the right.) With either of the curly varieties, buy the bunch that has the least amount of yellowing and/or spotting on the leaves. With Lacinato, look for vivid coloration and minimal tears around the edges.

When you get home, remove all twist ties or rubber bands from the kale and discard any leaves that have obviously begun to wilt, as these can spoil the rest. I like to store mine wrapped in paper towels or linen napkins to absorb any excess moisture. They do need to stay in the fridge, and you should wash the leaves before using them.

Other Kale Options

As I mentioned previously, you can also find kale in the frozen foods section of most grocery stores, where it makes a great stand-in for spinach, and you can also buy (or make) kale chips. (I tried making the chips once several years back and mine were so underwhelming that I decided it wasn’t worth a second attempt, but go with your preferences.) Kale works very well if you massage it and then toss it into a soup or scrambled eggs shortly before serving, and you can find baby kale (which is a whole different animal, much more tender) in the pre-washed greens sections of most large grocery stores.

In Conclusion…

Kale is a great option once you start to work with it. It contains far more nutritional value than lettuce and can usually be purchased more cheaply than baby greens like arugula and spinach. It will keep for the better part of a week in the fridge if you store it properly, and it can pair with a wide variety of different foods. Plus, it will almost certainly work with your diet! Give it a chance and see if you don’t surprise yourself.

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