Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Good tidings and kale for all

Renee Studebaker, Renee's Roots

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Kale and Sweet Potato Terrine offers colors of the season with sweet and savory flavors.

It's kale season, and if you're a fan of this leafy green, you've probably been snapping up red Russian and lacinato bouquets at farmers markets and grocery stores around town.

If you subscribe to a community farm share, your box is probably overflowing with the stuff. If you're a budding urban farmer, you've probably got it growing all over your yard.

And if you're none of the above, you're probably wondering why I'd even want to write about such a vegetable. Well, I'll tell you. Kale might be a cold season crop, but with the growing grow-your-own and small-farm food movement, it has become one hot vegetable.

This ancient, slightly bitter-tasting cole crop, a cousin to cabbage and collards, has become a treasured ingredient among locavores and fresh food aficionados. Last weekend, when I arrived at the downtown farmers' market, several farmers had lots and lots of bunches of kale; by the time I left about an hour later, almost every bunch had been sold. If you Google "kale recipe," you'll get about 1.6 million hits. ("Kale recipe Austin Texas" produces more than 360,000 hits all by itself. Of course, I realize that this number could mean that a lot of Austinites like to write about kale, or it could mean a handful of folks write about it over and over again.) For comparison, "Swiss chard recipe" brings about 600,000 hits, and "collard greens recipe" turns up 240,000. "Turnip greens recipe" barely breaks 100,000. Even ramps, touted by some as the new "it" vegetable for 2010, get only about 350,000 hits on a search.

For a lot of foodies, chefs, urban garden writers and bloggers, it seems that kale is the new arugula. Kale sauce. Kale pie. Kale chips. Kale purée. Kale juice. Grilled kale. Kale smoothie. Kale gravy. Kale, kale, kale.

I am a latecomer to kale. For several generations, my family, like a lot of Southern and Texan families, ate turnip greens, collard greens and occasionally mustard greens during the winter months, but never kale. During my young adult years in Austin, my only kale encounters happened at Whole Foods or Wheatsville Coop. Maybe you remember the curly green sesame oil-flavored side dish in the cold case, the one that screamed "Eat me. I'm healthy." I ate it several times a month and felt virtuous, but I didn't fall in love.

Lately, however, the earthy green flavor of kale is growing on me (although it will never replace Swiss chard or spinach on my list of favorite edible greens). Since I turned my front yard into a vegetable garden, I've been planting a lot of kale. To be honest, I didn't expect to enjoy eating it as much as I enjoyed looking at it. With its shades of gray-green, purple and dark red, kale is one of the best-looking vegetables in my garden between December and April. And now that I've grown accustomed to its taste, I've decided it's going to be a kale Christmas at my house.

Care to try a cup of kale punch?

rstudebaker@statesman.com; 445-3946

Recipes

Like other cool-weather greens, kale combines well with many winter menu flavors, including sweet potatoes, tangerines and pecans:

Kale and Sweet Potato Terrine

This would make a great holiday brunch dish or an appetizer. Or cut it in squares and set it out with cocktails. Note: Twice while I was working on this recipe, drop-in guests arrived just in time to take a taste. Both tasters asked for extra bites.

2 Tbsp. sweet red pepper, seeded and chopped

2 Tbsp. shallots, chopped

Olive oil for sautéing

2 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped

Salt to taste

Butter

3/4 cup pecan pieces

2 Tbsp. light brown sugar

1 Tbsp. fresh tangerine or orange juice

1 large sweet potato, peeled and sliced very thin, longways

About 6 oz. goat cheese

6-8 stalks red Russian or lacinato kale, blanched and drained (remove tough stems)

1/4 cup of pomegranate seeds (optional)

Preheat oven to 365 degrees. Sauté pepper and shallots with olive oil over medium heat until soft and just barely caramelized. Add garlic and a pinch of salt and cook a minute or two longer. Remove from pan and set aside.

Melt about 1 Tbsp. of butter in pan and add pecans, sugar, juice and pinch of salt. Cook and stir over medium low heat until sugar is dissolved. Remove half of pecans and set aside. Continue cooking remainder of pecans until they are lightly browned. Butter a small shallow casserole dish (I use a glass Pyrex dish that holds about 3 cups). Place an overlapping layer of potato slices on bottom of dish. Spread cheese evenly on top of potatoes. Then spoon shallot and pepper mixture evenly over cheese. Spread overlapping layers of kale. Then top with another layer of potato slices, followed by a layer of sugared pecans. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until dish is bubbly around edges and pecans are brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly. Turn dish over onto a serving platter and tap dish until terrine drops onto plate. Top with reserved toasted pecans, pomegranate seeds if using and serve warm or chilled.

Kale Chips

Kale lovers (and even a few kale haters) have been raving about this dish for several years. Now that I've got a garden full of kale, I decided to give these baked chips a try. They're good, but as my friend and regular recipe taster Stella says, "They're good. But it's still kale."

Preheat over to 325 degrees. Wash and dry several stalks of kale (curly, lacinato or Russian). Fold leaves in half longways, and using a chef's knife, slice off stem. Then turn leaves and cut across the middle. Toss the stemmed and quartered kale leaves in a tablespoon or so of olive oil and a pinch or two of salt. Spread leaves in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake about 10-15 minutes, or until leaves are crisp. Allow to cool and serve immediately. 4 appetizer servings.

Ginger Kale Punch

If you're not a regular juicer, this might sound strange, but it's quite good. For a cocktail gathering, add sparkling white wine.

1 part kale juice (wash and dry kale before juicing)

1 part tangerine juice (peeled and seeded)

1 part sweet apple juice (Fuji or Pink Lady; leave peel on)

1/8 part or less fresh ginger, peeled and sliced before placing in juicer

Agave syrup or honey to taste

Pinch of salt

Pomegranate seeds (optional, for garnish)

Put first 4 ingredients through a juicer. Pour juice ingredients into a pitcher; add sweetener and salt. Chill until ready to serve. Best if served within two hours after juicing. Garnish with pomegranate seeds. (For pulp-free kale juice, a juicer works best. In a pinch, you can put ingredients in a blender and then press mixture through a strainer.)

— Renee Studebaker

How to choose and store

Choose kale bunches with deeply colored leaves that aren't wilted or yellowed. Store kale in the fridge for up to two days. Wilting occurs when kale dries out or gets too warm. Sometimes it's possible to revive a droopy bunch of kale by snipping a little bit off the stem ends and then standing the leaves in a glass of water, like a flower bouquet. It's best to eat fresh kale as soon as possible because its flavor and nutrient value begins to decline after a couple of days. If you have more kale than you can eat, share some with your friends or a local food bank. Or freeze it. If you blanch kale before freezing, it will keep longer, up to six months.

How to grow your own

Cabbages and kales prefer cool weather and actually taste better (sweeter) after light frosts. They grow best in full sun in soil that has been amended with plenty of organic matter, such as compost, well-rotted manure or leaf mold. If you're planting from seed, be sure to keep the seedbed consistently moist until the seeds germinate and the seedlings appear.

Pick outer leaves as you need them and kale will keep producing new inner leaves. Tender young leaves are best for salad, or to give a raw green crunch to cream soups. Older leaves are best cooked.