A trendy leaf. Too trendy, some might say. There are restaurants in San Francisco serving kale a dozen different ways. No longer prescribed just by knowing nutritionists and severe dinner ladies, today it belongs to a cult of popularity that extends to Hollywood A-listers. On this veg, if nothing else, Gwyneth Paltrow and I see eye to eye.
Kale is wonderful. Spinach with bite. It has a nutty, ever-so-slightly peppery flavour, and is tough enough to retain textural interest after cooking (unlike spinach, which folds in the heat of battle). But that same texture has also been, for some, its undoing: undercook it and it can be tough and abrasive in the throat; seriously overcook it and the deep green colour will turn a depressing grey; boil it and you risk a sulphurous, waterlogged pile on your plate, like sea reeds.
For the best results, consider taking the time to strip the curly leaves away from the tough white stalks, or ribs. If cooked until properly tender in a soup or stew, they’ll be fine, but otherwise are good for little other than the compost bin. Seek your kale out at the grocer’s and look for a dark green colour and a bushiness in the leaves. It should resemble a cumulous cloud. Avoid the supermarket bags of pre-chopped stuff if you can, as they tend to spoil quickly and make the exercise of removing the ribs too time-consuming to bear.
Stews are this veg’s natural home, like in the Portuguese caldo verde, where it is paired with chorizo and potatoes (traditionally, this dish is made using a specific variety of kale – couve gallego – and with water rather than stock for a flavour that’s as comforting as it is pared-back). Or swap the chorizo for prosciutto, and potatoes for butter beans, in this equally sustaining alternative.
The joy of eating kale is tied up inextricably with knowing how much good it is doing you – not for nothing has it become the darling of the clean-eating brigade. Packed with vitamins A, C and K, omega 3 fatty acids and more calcium, gram for gram, than milk, it can do apparently anything, from lowering your cholesterol to protecting against cataracts and helping to prevent cancer. Plus, it has enough iron to give you superpowers: if Popeye had guzzled a can of kale when in need of strength, he would still have been turbo-charged three episodes later. Little wonder it’s enjoying time in the limelight – and has pride of place in Pret’s ‘supergreens’ sandwich.
There are numerous varieties – including Dinosaur, Redbor and Russian – and the leaves can be smooth, serrated, flat or curly. Kale is generally dark, inky green in colour, but some types have a blueish tint mixed in with the green, such as Tuscan kale, or cavolo nero, which is perhaps the trendiest of the family. Try it in this unusual recipe from the River Cottage, in which it is combined with peaches, cashews and ricotta.
Kale feels equally suited to Asian as European cuisine. Use in your stir fries when the bok choi and choi sum are all gone, or indeed in a ramen, as Jamie Oliver does in this miso-flavoured super noodle ramen with kale and barbeque mushrooms. One of my favourite ways to eat it is as crisps, served up in little bowls to pick on with drinks at the start of a meal: drizzle over olive oil, dust with five-spice powder and sea salt, and then roast in the oven until blackened and crispy for an addictive snack.
There are countless other ways to prepare this veg: in pastas, topped liberally with parmesan or pecorino; raw in salads, where just a little olive and salt rubbed vigorously into the leaves a few minutes before adding other ingredients will help tenderise and soften; and even in drinks – not to add kale to one’s smoothies is, after all, to commit a crime against millennial respectability. But I like kale best served in its own right as a side or a starter, perhaps in an Italian manner with red wine vinegar, with an Levantine lemon tahini dressing or tossed in a very English bacon butter.
One of its celebrity fans, Kevin Bacon, has declared: “A day without kale is like a day without sunshine.” As we head towards colder, shorter days, we can’t rely on the weather to be kind. But I plan to keep up my spirits living by a simple rule: “kale tomorrow and kale yesterday – and always kale today.”