Green Giant

Lately, there seems to be a proliferation of all things kale. From chips to smoothies to salads, the leafy green is landing on just about every chef’s menu and in every grocery store, including the local A&P. So why after 2,000 years of cultivation has the cruciferous vegetable suddenly found itself in the spotlight?

Because when it comes to healthy food, kale is the Holy Grail.

According to the deluge of studies in recent years extolling its virtues, the nutritional powerhouse does just about everything that’s good for our bodies – from preventing cancer to controlling blood pressure, lowering cholesterol and protecting our eyes and nervous system. Wait, there’s more.

The green giant is also high in fiber, fights fat and is packed with heaps of nutrients. With only 33 calories for one cup of chopped kale, it’s a dieters dream come true.

“Kale is rich in iron and one of the most nutrient-dense vegetables available,” Dr. Susan Blum writes in her new book, “The Immune System Recovery Plan: A Doctor’s 4-Step Program to Treat Autoimmune Disease.” “It is high in beta-carotene, vitamin K, vitamin C, calcium and phytonutrients. For your adrenal glands, kale provides lots of B6 and for your liver, it offers lots of antioxidants for incredible additional support for your detox pathways.”

Plus, says Mary Gocke, director of nutrition at the Blum Center for Health, “The fiber in steamed kale is very good at binding bile acids, which lowers cholesterol.”

It’s also loaded with carotenes, a family of compounds related to vitamin A which Gocke says supports your immune system.

The superfood is not just good for you. It’s easy to grow, even during the cold winter months when veggie selection is scarce.

Jeremy McMillan, executive chef at the Bedford Post Inn, attributes part of kale’s rising popularity to its accessibility.

“Kale grows well in three of the four seasons and is useful in its different forms based on whether it’s grown in spring, summer or fall. In areas like the Hudson Valley, it grows fantastically and so people notice it more at their local market and farm stand.”

Kale belongs to the Brassica family, a group that includes cabbage, collard greens, Brussels sprouts and broccoli.

Many varieties of kale and cabbage are grown mainly for their ornamental leaves, which are brilliant white, red, pink, lavender, blue or violet in the interior of the rosette. But the types most supermarkets offer is a variety of Russian red kale, very dark green Tuscan kale called lacinato or dinosaur and the more abundant light green curly kale.

“I find them all to be unique and different in their own way,” says Rui Correia, chef and co-owner of Douro on Greenwich Avenue. “Typically, the darker the leaf, the more intense the flavor. I like using them all in different preparations to achieve different flavors.”

For Correia, kale hits close to home. “Being Portuguese, I was raised on kale soup, ” he says about caldo verde, which is typically served on special occasions, such as wedding and birthdays.

Ethan Kostbar, executive chef of Moderne Barn in Armonk, likes his kale in soup, too.

“My favorite variety is Tuscan kale. It’s a bit softer than the others and can easily be eaten raw. Ideally, I like using it in soups and salads. The recipe I use most is gigante bean Tuscan kale soup, utilizing seasonal vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, garlic and fennel, topped with parmesan croutons.”

Kale is a hit with clients, too, says Alison Awerbuch, Abigail Kirsch catering chef and partner.

“Since we have seen a heightened awareness on healthy eating and healthy lifestyles, ingredients that were not often used in the past have now become very popular, kale being one of them. We actually get client requests for including kale in their menus and have developed numerous dishes that either showcase kale or use it as a secondary ingredient.

“Guests tend to not feel guilty when eating anything prepared with kale.”

The vegetable standout can hold up to bold flavors. So that’s why Awerbuch says she loves using it in Caesar salads with a garlicky anchovy dressing; tossed in pasta dishes with sausage, fennel and red pepper flakes; or lightly oiled, seasoned and quickly charred on the grill.

McMillan says his favorite way of preparing kale depends on what stage it’s in.

“When it’s young and tender, it is great raw and dressed with loads of acid and salt. As it matures, it works beautifully charred quickly on the grill and when fully mature it’s a dream braised.”

But like most greens, kale can have a level of bitterness, which McMillan says matches well with salt and vinegar. “We usually go toward anchovy and red wine vinegar or lemon and pecorino to balance the flavor and texture.”

To find the freshest kale, look for firm, deeply colored leaves with hardy stems. It’s best to store it, unwashed, in an air-tight zipped plastic bag for up to five days in the refrigerator. Gocke suggests adding lemon to raw kale to help break down the roughness of the leaves.

“What I love most about kale is that I can add it to any salad and I know it will create another layer of texture and flavor,” says Marc Lippman, the executive chef of culinary operations at the Castle Hotel & Spa in Tarrytown.

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