Jane Says: Make Your Kale Taste Good

Our food advice columnist has easy ways to make this dark green taste amazing.

fresh kale
Kale: You know it's good for you, but can it be delicious? (Photo: Charlotte Observer/Getty Images)
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

I could write about cookware, cast-iron or otherwise, until the cows come home, but it’s important to keep things in perspective. It’s a means to an end, remember? And it all comes down to what works for you and what makes the food you like to cook taste delicious.

Speaking of food, Joe D. Barbee wrote in with a request for recipes that make kale taste good. A former vegan, he is now in hunter-gatherer mode, which sounds like it gets you outside but is lots of work. Wear sunscreen! And a hat.

Generally speaking, the beauty of pot greens is that each one has its own personality. At one end of the spectrum are turnip greens, with their spicy sharpness, and mustard greens, which have a more radishy heat. At the other end, are lush, satiny beet greens and mellow collards. Kale falls in the middle, but it’s far from bland. Even curly kale—so common, many people gaze past it, unseeingly, at the supermarket—results in depth of flavor when stirred into vegetable or barley soups or layered in a casserole or savory pie.

I know you’ve seen the variety called lacinato (a.k.a. Tuscan kale, black kale, cavolo nero, or dinosaur kale), with its dramatically tall, crinkled leaves of greeny-blue-black. (If you shop at farmers markets, you may also see a rainbow lacinato, with jewel-colored stems, as well.) Lacinato’s drama quotient extends to the Flavor Department as well: Its deep, meaty sweetness is prized by chefs and home cooks alike. No matter where you shop, this is likely to be the most expensive kale you’ll find because of its relatively low yield and the length of time it takes to reach maturity.

But is it ever worth it. In fact, lacinato is a really smart use of your food dollars. One of the darkest of the brassicas (which include collards, mustard greens, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and cabbage), lacinato is packed with vitamins A, K, and C as well as calcium, protein, and high concentrations of two types of antioxidants—flavonoids and carotenoids.

Joe asked specifically if kale fortifies the mitochondria in our cells. There are so many factors at play—including the nutrient content of the soil in which the kale is grown, its maturity, how it’s prepared, how often you eat it, whether you’re washing it down with a pitcher of margaritas—that I think it’s enough to say kale (in particular, lacinato) is one of the most nutritious vegetables on the planet, and on the molecular level, we need all the help we can get, right? By the way, if a perfectly healthy person thinks there’s something wrong with her mitochondria, would she be labeled a mitochondriac?

So sorry. No, really.

Joe just wants to be able to enjoy the damn kale.

Availability: Kale is at its sweetest after a frost, and it’s hardy enough to overwinter beautifully. That means it’s really delicious now, so you are all in luck. The different varieties are usually interchangeable, so buy whatever is freshest.

Prep notes: Standard practice is to strip out the stems and center ribs before cooking, but if the kale is fresh and not overly mature, I don’t bother. I always rinse the leaves, though, even if it’s labeled “prewashed.”

How to Cook: Incorporate kale into soups like white bean or minestrone, or as a filling for ravioli or a rolled pork roast. It has a great affinity for the flavors of Italy, India, the Middle East, and West Africa. My favorite weeknight method is something I learned from the cookbook author and teacher Georgeanne Brennan at her cooking school in Winters, California.

Quick-Braised Kale à la Georgeanne Brennan

Serves 4

This makes a great side for almost anything, but don’t sell it short. It’s full-flavored enough to fork into pasta, potatoes, or white beans, or provide a velvety layer of goodness between a fried egg and a thick piece of toast.

1¼ pounds kale (1 large bunch)

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons chopped pancetta

2 finely chopped garlic cloves

Coarse salt

A pinch of red-pepper flakes

1. Stack the kale leaves and trim the ends. Fold the leaves in halves or thirds and put them in a pot just big enough to hold them. Fill the pot about one-third full of water, cover the pot, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until you can easily pierce the stems with a fork, about 20 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, open the mail and pour yourself a glass of wine.

3. Drain the kale, rinse under cold water until cool enough to handle. Squeeze out the excess liquid and chop. Return the greens to the pot, along with the oil, pancetta, garlic, about ¼ teaspoon salt, and red-pepper flakes. Cook over moderate heat until sizzling and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Got a food question for Jane? Leave it in the comments, and she’ll choose one to answer next week!

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