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Kale takes the spotlight as foodies hail its health benefits

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After years of being relegated through the purgatory of forgotten foods, kale has found itself in the spotlight for the first time in decades and is ready to prove it belongs there permanently. A crop of the ancients, kale has been cultivated for over 2,000 years and was the precursor to modern-day cabbage, brussel sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli. Easy to plant, harvest and propagate, kale was a favorite of both the Romans and the Greeks. The leafy green fell out of favor in many cultures in the last century, as more exotic cruciferous vegetables became popular.

But now, foodies and nutritionists alike are hailing kale, citing its health benefits as well as its culinary versatility.

Kale's nutritional value is impressive. One cup contains 180 percent of the recommended daily does of Vitamin A, 200 percent of Vitamin C, and 1,020 percent of Vitamin K. All three vitamins are antioxidants that help protect the body from certain types of cancer. Kale's unusual amount of vitamin K in particular helps the body with such various functions as blood coagulation and bone health. Kale is also rich in calcium and iron.

Kale's renaissance has been fueled by chefs who have rediscovered this versatile and inexpensive vegetable. Chef Nancy Longo of Pierpoint restaurant in Fells Point has been a fan of the vegetable for years. "People are weird about Brussel sprouts and cabbage," she says, "but are willing to give kale a try." At Pierpoint, Longo uses kale as a side to accompany her rabbit sausage. "Customers are always asking me for extra of the kale," she says, noting that she cooks the greens quickly then tosses them in a shallot and mustard vinaigrette.

Chef John Lyle, executive chef and founder of Chosen Spot Pop-ups, a traveling restaurant that goes from farm to farm in California's Sonoma County creating stylized and unique dining experiences, is much more enthusiastic about kale's return exclaiming "Kale is the new bacon!" in an email interview. Lyle does go on to say that in a time when so much importance is being put on foods for being artisanal, "Kale is without pretense. It's not a wimpy plant." He says that his customers are enthusiastic about dishes with kale. "Right now I can sell it on a menu," Lyle says, "Six years ago not so much. I can remember servers rolling their eyes when I said the word knowing they would be explaining to customers what kale is all night. I for one am grateful kale is getting its time to shine."

One Baltimore area farmer jokingly says she's the reason for kale's surge in popularity. "I've been trying to get people to buy it for 10 years and they are finally listening," says Joan Norman of One Straw Farm in White Hall, Maryland. Norman, who helped pioneer the Community Supported Agriculture concept in Maryland and grows kale at her farm, gives credit to her CSA members for helping to increase kale's profile locally. "Once people learn one or two kale recipes, they share with friends and it spreads like wild fire," she says. "People react like it's a new vegetable because they finally know how to use it."

To celebrate the return of this bold brassica, I've come up with three recipes that feature kale's versatility. All are simple enough for anyone to make at home. So whether you are trying kale for the first time or are soon to be inundated with bags of the stuff from your local CSA, you'll have a few go-to recipes that are a delicious way to celebrate this leafy dynamo.

Kale with pappardelle and sun-dried tomatoes

Kale with pappardelle and sun-dried tomatoes

Kale adds depth to a bright summery plate of wide pasta. Don't be afraid of the anchovies. They are essential to this easy dish and will not add a fishy flavor.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 white onion, medium dice

10 cloves garlic, sliced into thin rounds

10 sun-dried tomato slices (packed in oil), sliced length-wise into 1/4 inch wide pieces

1/4 teaspoon chili flakes

2 anchovies

1/4 cup water

1/2 pound dried pappardelle pasta

1 bunch curly or lacinato kale, stemmed, washed and chopped into 1/2 inch square pieces

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/4 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for shaving

1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

Salt and pepper

1 In a large pot of water over high heat, add enough salt to make it taste like sea water. Heat until boiling and then turn water down to a simmer.

2 Heat a sauté pan over high heat for one minute and add olive oil. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the onion and sauté for one minute or until translucent on the edges. Turn the heat down to medium and add the garlic, sun-dried tomatos and chili flakes. Cook for two minutes, then make a hole in the mixture around the center of the pan and add the anchovies to it. With the back of a spoon, mash the anchovies up until they start to fall apart. Stir mixture together and then add the water. Scrape the bottom of the pan with the spoon to dislodge all of the brown bits created while cooking.

3 Add the pappardelle to the simmering water and turn up the heat until the water reaches a boil. Cook pasta until al dente.

4 To the sauté pan add the kale and cook for 4 minutes. Then add lemon juice, grated cheese and pine nuts. Mix to combine.

5 Strain the pasta and quickly place back into its pot and cover with the kale/ tomato mixture. Toss together until thoroughly combined. Sason to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately and garnish with shaved Pecorino Romano.

Pro Tip: To make this dish heartier, cooked sausage, meatballs or a soft boiled egg (added after plating) would all be welcome additions.

Kale and white bean soup with Italian sausage

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound sweet Italian sausage

2 leeks, dark green part removed, cut in quarters length-wise, washed and sliced

12 cloves garlic, minced

1 fresh bay leaf

1/4 teaspoon chili flakes

6 cups vegetable stock

1 bunch curly or lacinato kale, stemmed, washed and roughly chopped into ½ inch pieces

2 cans cannellini beans, drained

2 sprigs sage, finely chopped

1 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped

Salt and pepper

1 Heat a large pot over medium-high heat. After a minute add the olive oil. When it starts to shimmer add the sausage. Break the sausage up into smaller chunks with a spoon while it is sautéing. When the sausage is browned, remove from the pot with a slotted spoon and reserve in a bowl. Add the leeks to the remaining oil and cook for one minute before adding the garlic, bay leaf and chili flakes.

2 Turn the heat down to medium and cook ingredients for two minutes. Add kale and stir to combine. While the kale mixture is cooking, roughly mash one can of the beans with your hands and add to the stock. After the kale mixture has cooked for five minutes, add stock/ mashed bean mixture, whole beans, sausage, sage and thyme. Bring soup to a boil and turn off. Taste the soup and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve with garlic bread.

Pro Tip: Add the finished soup to a blender and puree mixture until smooth for a velvety cream-like soup without the extra calories.

Garlic bread

Italian bread, cut into 1-inch thick rounds

Olive oil

1 clove garlic, whole

Pre-heat the oven to broil. Place rounds of bread on a sheet pan and brush with olive oil. Place bread into the oven and broil until tops of toast are crispy and brown with slightly burned edges. Take out of the over and let cool for 2 minutes. While still warm, rub the garlic over the top of the toast until you are satisfied with the amount of garlic flavor. Serve immediately.

Fennel- and chili-flavored kale chips

This is a kale dish that even the kiddies can get behind. The crunchy and delicate kale chips are brightened by the fragrant fennel, spicy chili flakes and salt. Lacinato kale holds up better because it is thicker, but curly works just as well and becomes light as gossamer. Kept in a dry, covered container they will last up to a week.

2 tablespoons fennel seed

1/4 teaspoon red chili flake

2 teaspoons kosher salt or 1 teaspoon table salt

2 bunches curly or lacinato kale- stemmed, washed and dried thoroughly

2 ounces olive oil

1 Place the fennel seed, chili flake and salt In a coffee/spice grinder or a mortar and pestle. Grind or crush until the ingredients are a fine powder. Place aside until needed.

2 Pre-heat the oven to 250 degrees. Working in batches, add kale, oil and fennel/ chili/ salt powder into a large mixing bowl. Work all of it together to get the kale completely covered in the oil/spice mix. Place the kale on a sheet pan with a wire rack insert and space the kale out so it is all in one layer. Put pan into the oven for 15 minutes, then turn the sheet pan 180 degrees and return to the over for another 15 minutes. Take the kale out of the oven and let it cool for 10 minutes. Eat immediately or store in a container.

Pro Tip: Crush the kale chips up into a powder and toss with popcorn to create a fennel/chili/kale flavored popcorn. The powder is great on buttered noodles as well.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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