Until 10 years ago, I had never heard of kale. I never ate it growing up, never noticed it at supermarkets, never saw it on restaurant menus. How times have changed! Last week when I dropped into the Green Thumb in Water Mill, I found no fewer than six varieties of the leafy green, including White Russian, Red Bor, Siberian White, and Lacinato (also known as Tuscan), crowding the bins.
What is behind this surge in kale’s popularity? Because it tolerates the cold and is easy to grow, it has long been a favorite of farmers and gardeners. Kale is believed to fight inflammation, lower cholesterol, and prevent cancer. As more of us seek out locally grown, nutritionally superior produce, its reputation has increased. It doesn’t hurt that glamorous chefs from Alice Waters (Whole Wheat Spaghetti with Kale) to Marcus Samuelsson (Gingery Creamed Kale and Cabbage) to Bobby Flay (Sauerkraut-Style Grilled Radicchio and Kale) have featured it at their restaurants, in their books, and on their TV shows.
It’s easy enough to incorporate kale into cold weather cooking. Sauteed, it can be stirred into pasta or served as a bed for lean fish fillets or chicken breasts. Chopped kale softens nicely when stirred into chicken soup or creamy risotto. Using it during the warmer months, when we crave raw vegetables, is more of a challenge, since raw kale leaves can be a bit bitter and tough. But confronted with the bounty in Water Mill, I was determined to come up with a summery way to enjoy local kale over Memorial Day weekend.
My first efforts were not terribly appealing. I had heard that a tall, cold glass of kale juice really hits the spot after an hour and a half of hot yoga, but when I tried this (the juice, not the yoga), I was alarmed by the mixture’s powerful aroma and sharp flavor. Stripping raw kale leaves away from their stems and tossing them with oil and vinegar was an improvement, but my kale salad, even with the stems removed, lacked the tenderness of arugula or spinach salad.
I had read somewhere (perhaps it was a yoga magazine) that massaging my kale leaves would break down their tough cellulose structure and make them less bitter and more yielding. Sure enough, when I looked online I saw plenty of recipes instructing to “massage kale until it softens and wilts” and “grab bunches of it in both hands and squeeze.”
I was fully prepared to massage some kale for tonight’s dinner, so I returned to the Green Thumb yesterday for my first victim, I mean bunch. But sitting between mature bundles of Red Winter kale and kale raab (the seed shoots and flowers of spring kale plants) was a basket overflowing with baby Lacinato kale leaves. After discreetly sampling a leaf, I determined that baby kale was tender and mild enough to use without a preliminary spa treatment.
For a better salad, I wanted to add another ingredient or two to balance kale’s assertive flavor. My usual strategy for improving the taste of salad greens is to just add some bacon. But I reminded myself that I was dealing with a superfood. I was determined to take a more virtuous route this time around. Serendipitously, as I approached the cash register a Green Thumb employee was carrying the season’s very first strawberries in from the field behind the stand, a full two weeks earlier than strawberries are usually available. Sweet and juicy berries might contrast nicely with the kale. Balsamic vinegar and honey in the dressing would enhance the flavors of both the kale and the berries. Some crumbled fresh goat cheese would add richness without breaking the nutritional bank. I had a plan.
The combination of astringent leaves, sweet berries, and creamy cheese was everything I had hoped for. I don’t know for sure, but I bet it would be just the thing after an hour and a half of hot yoga. If you want to enjoy some kale this weekend, you can give it a try.
Kale with Strawberries and Goat Cheese
I couldn’t resist bringing home an extra bunch of mature kale for an experimental massage. Maybe it was the power of suggestion, but the leaves did taste better after I had worked them over for a minute or two. If you are going to use larger leaves for your kale salad, try to buy a milder variety such as Lacinato. Taste a piece after stripping the leaves away from the stem. Depending on how old and large the leaves are, they might not require a rub-down.
8 cups baby kale leaves, or 8 cups larger kale leaves, tough stems discarded, briefly “massaged”
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 ½ teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
¼ teaspoon salt
Ground black pepper
1 ½ cups strawberries, stemmed and sliced
3 ounces fresh goat cheese, crumbled
1. Place kale in a large bowl.
2. Whisk together oil, honey, salt, and pepper to taste. Drizzle over kale and toss to combine.
3. Divide dressed kale among salad plates. Top each portion with some strawberries and goat cheese and serve immediately.