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As the green du jour on everyone’s shopping list, kale can't fail

  • Savory Kale Scones with squash and Cheese adapted from "The Book of Kale: The Easy-to-Grow Superfood," by Sharon Hanna (Harbour Publishing). (Courtesy Christina Symons/MCT)

    Savory Kale Scones with squash and Cheese adapted from "The Book of Kale: The Easy-to-Grow Superfood," by Sharon Hanna (Harbour Publishing). (Courtesy Christina Symons/MCT) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Tuscan Kale with White Beans adapted from "The Book of Kale: The Easy-to-Grow Superfood," by Sharon Hanna (Harbour Publishing). (Courtesy Christina Symons/MCT)

    Tuscan Kale with White Beans adapted from "The Book of Kale: The Easy-to-Grow Superfood," by Sharon Hanna (Harbour Publishing). (Courtesy Christina Symons/MCT) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kale and edamame fritters adapted from "The Book of Kale: The Easy-to-Grow Superfood," by Sharon Hanna (Harbour Publishing). (Courtesy Christina Symons/MCT)

    Kale and edamame fritters adapted from "The Book of Kale: The Easy-to-Grow Superfood," by Sharon Hanna (Harbour Publishing). (Courtesy Christina Symons/MCT) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Savory Kale Scones with squash and Cheese adapted from "The Book of Kale: The Easy-to-Grow Superfood," by Sharon Hanna (Harbour Publishing). (Courtesy Christina Symons/MCT)
  • Tuscan Kale with White Beans adapted from "The Book of Kale: The Easy-to-Grow Superfood," by Sharon Hanna (Harbour Publishing). (Courtesy Christina Symons/MCT)
  • Kale and edamame fritters adapted from "The Book of Kale: The Easy-to-Grow Superfood," by Sharon Hanna (Harbour Publishing). (Courtesy Christina Symons/MCT)

Kale is the Jeff Bridges of vegetables — been around forever, utility player, not the flashy type. Until lately.

Since being crowned prom king of locavore fads, kale has been putting on airs. All of a sudden, it’s cozying up to caramelized onions and being photographed slathered in chanterelles.

Easy to grow and touted as the ne plus ultra of vitamin- and antioxidant-packed superfoods, kale is being used by chefs in just about everything. At Mill Valley Kitchen in St. Louis Park, Minn., for example, you can really kale it up — there’s the baby kale salad with manchego, pine nuts and lemon-chile vinaigrette, the grass-fed beef filet with kale, scalloped potatoes and cipollini onion, the scallops with lemon kale, and a side of kale with garlic and Parmesan.

Home-roasted kale chips have become a popular DIY snack food. The once lowly leaves have inspired their own T-shirt, reading “Eat More Kale.” It’s so darned trendy that Slate essayist Scott Jacobson sarcastically dubbed it “now the only food worth the trouble of digesting.”

“People really are crazy for kale,” said Susan Berkson, a spokeswoman for the Minneapolis Farmers Market. “They’re asking for it more, so our growers are growing more, and more variety, too — we’re seeing the curly kale, the purple, red, dinosaur, Russian.”

But kale has been around the Western world since some roving Celts brought it back to Europe from Asia Minor in about 600 B.C.

Why all the interest now?

“It’s loaded with things that are good for you, and if people are going to eat their greens, they want them to pack a punch,” Berkson said.

The rise of Community Supported Agriculture (more commonly called CSAs) has also contributed to kale’s newfound popularity. Because of its hardiness, the leaf has been popular with growers, who stuff their customers’ boxes full of the green stuff along with tip sheets on what to do with it. Today there is even “The Book of Kale,” by Sharon Hanna.

Not everyone sings kale’s praises. Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten recently proclaimed it “not designed ... for human consumption” and added that “the current kale craze is a violation of the Natural Order.”

Alex Roberts, chef/owner at Restaurant Alma and Brasa, observes that kale can be “polarizing. But as more people learn how to cook it, how to coax out its seductive flavor, more will like it. It’s like Brussels sprouts, when people first tried caramelizing them.”

Roberts recommends starting with lacinato, more commonly known as dinosaur or Tuscan kale, “because it caramelizes really easily, and people really like it.”

Kale is full of vitamins A, C, K and B6 and a good source of iron, folate and calcium. And let’s not even get started on the percentage of daily fiber it can provide if not cooked into mush. Yet Minneapolis organic-eating pioneer Brenda Langton remembers that not so long ago, most Americans didn’t consider it fit to eat.

“It used to be kept in coolers to use as garnish because it didn’t wilt like lettuce. That was its only purpose,” she said.

Langton, who was into kale a couple of decades before it was cool, has some advice for newbies who find the raw leaves a little too earthy for their tastes.

“You don’t need to sauté it. That’s a common mistake,” she said. “Braise it with a quarter cup or so of water, or use apple juice if you want it sweeter.”

Another tip, from the website www.kaleeffect.com (purveyor of those T-shirts), is to separate the leaves from the stems right away, to ward off bitterness.

Hardy kale is from the same vegetable family as collards, but tends to be a darker, more grayish-green and usually has a stronger, chewier taste. If you get a hankering to grow your own, it’s still doable this season — and so easy. Kale is self-seeding, grows at will and can even be planted indoors in pots.

One thing that’s extra-great about kale in winter states, Langton said, is that it can take our extreme temperature shifts:

“It grows when it’s snowing; it grows when it’s hot.”

Not only that, Roberts said, but some varieties “actually get to tasting better after a cold snap.”

Oh, kale. Is there anything you can’t do?

Related

Nutty Kale Penne

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Nutty Kale Penne Serves 6 Salt 1½ pounds kale, leaves torn from stem and center ribs (discard stems and ribs) ½ cup sliced almonds ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil 3 large garlic cloves, minced 1 medium onion, chopped ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes Salt and black pepper 1 pound whole-wheat penne ½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano ¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted …

Savory Kale Scones With Squash and Cheese

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Makes 8 to 10 These are dropped by the spoonful, but you could also use a cookie cutter or knife to make triangles or other shapes. 2 cup kale leaves, loosely packed 2 cup unbleached flour ½ teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon baking soda ½ teaspoon baking powder 1 tablespoon sugar 1/3 cup cold butter 1 egg ¾ cup buttermilk ½ …

Kale With White Beans, Roasted Garlic and Basil Vinaigrette

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Serves 4 to 6 Add a handful of pepitas (raw pumpkin seeds) for extra crunch.8 c. Tuscan kale, trimmed and cut in chiffonade (in thin strips or shreds) 1½ cups cooked cannellini or other white beans, drained 3 whole heads of garlic, roasted, cloves removed and skinned 6 to 8 red radishes, quartered 6 small tomatoes, quartered Flat Italian parsley …

Kale and Edamame Fritters  With Gorgeous Green Chutney

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Makes 16 to 20 fritters, 1½ cups chutney 1 cup frozen shelled edamame 1 heaping cup kale leaves 1 teaspoon salt, plus a pinch or two, divided 1 teaspoon ginger root, minced ½ teaspoon ground cumin 2 tablespoons water 2 eggs, separated 2 tablespoons flour ½ teaspoon baking powder Vegetable oil for frying 1 cup cilantro, coarsely chopped ¼ cup …

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