What Is Kale?

It’s not just the green stuff underneath the cruise-ship seafood spread

Lacinato Kale

There’s a kale craze sweeping through the collective consciousness of eaters everywhere. Why and how could that be? There are many reasons, but the most important one, from the perspective of the cook, is this: Do it justice, and it turns out to taste pretty darn good.

As with many unfairly maligned foods, it just needs a chance. It’s true — painful first memories of coughing up frilly little bits and pieces of raw, curly kale probably don’t do it for most people. But, it’s all about execution. Take a nice bunch of cavolo nero (that’s otherwise known as Tuscan kale, dinosaur kale, or Lacinato kale), tear out all of the tough stems in the center, and crumple it up like a piece of paper — exactly what the powers-that-be (read, television personalities) tell cooks not to do with all the other fragile greens. Well, this one’s definitely not fragile — just the opposite, as a matter of fact. It’s in need of some major tenderizing. Take out the day’s major frustrations on it. Toss it with a reasonably creamy dressing (it’ll stand up nicely to a true Caesar salad dressing) and it’s now fit for human consumption. Try it. (Photo courtesy of Elaina Samardzija)

It’s not just good in salads, though. This versatile and nutritious relative of the Brussels sprout is also found in soups, pasta dishes, and even in a reinterpreted version of coleslaw. It pairs beautifully with white beans and makes a great snack when toasted in the oven briefly. (Photo courtesy of Will Budiaman)

The Tuscans, however, were onto this cruciferous green long before the American public. In Tuscany, cavolo nero has been a staple of the diet since the 18th century, where it is simply cooked with olive oil and garlic or incorporated into ribollita, a minestrone thickened with chunks of stale bread. Other varieties of kale include the aforementioned curly kale and the more recent ornamental kale, also known as salad savoy, which has green, white, or purple leaves and a gentler flavor.

The health benefits of kale cannot be overstated. It is an excellent source of vitamins A and C as well as manganese, and it is nearly unrivalled as a source of vitamin K, a primary agent in blood clotting. It is also a good source of antioxidants, has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, and is a good source of LDL-lowering fiber. When shopping for kale, always look for strong, vibrant-looking leaves with no holes or yellow spots. Bunches with smaller leaves are preferred, since they have a more delicate flavor. Store in the refrigerator no longer than five days; in fact, it is best to use kale right away, as the bitter flavor will intensify as time passes. Wash only just before using, and remember to remove the tough stems.


So there you have it: Kale isn’t just for decoration, it’s meant to be eaten. The next time life throws you lemons, take a bunch of kale, crumple it up, and make salad.