February and March make for dreary offerings, with one notable exception. Kale is a versatile green that serves as a fine inspiration for a soup or a stew, a pasta or a gratin. Because the leaves of this Brassica family vegetable are so sturdy, kale stands up to longer cooking than do chard and beet greens. And while greens like spinach and chard readily suffer from overcooking, stewed kale has a sweet flavor.
Kale is in the same family of vegetables as cabbage. (Italians call black kale cavolo nero, or black cabbage.) Like its cousins, kale is packed with health-promoting sulfur compounds, and it has been found to have the greatest antioxidant capacity of all fruits and vegetables. It’s an excellent source of vitamins K, A and C, as well as manganese, and a very good source of dietary fiber, calcium, iron and potassium. All of this nutritional value comes in a low-calorie package.
Supermarkets generally stock curly kale, the variety with the sturdy, silvery green, ruffled leaves. At farmers’ markets you’ll find several other varieties, including the dark green cavolo nero, plum-red Redbor kale and red Russian kale, which has purplish leaves and red veins. They can be used interchangeably unless otherwise specified.
Kale can be simmered for long periods, or it can be blanched and then quickly pan-cooked in olive oil. Long-simmered kale yields a sweet, nourishing “pot liquor” that you will want to sop up with bread or even sip with a spoon. Kale loses its bright color as it simmers and the flavor of the leaves is strong, but the overall effect is sweet and comforting. The pan-cooked kale is brighter, both in color and flavor, but it will yield much less to serve, because kale loses volume when it’s blanched. Simmered kale, on the other hand, first collapses in the pan, then swells as it cooks.
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