A Better Shade of Kale

When fashion and food collide it's usually bad news for food.
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Curly kale
Curly kale

I was country before it was cool - and locavore and ecological and a farmers' market girl - and it's been fun to watch the parade of editors, hipsters, and chic mammas pick up on my passions, from raw milk to backyard chickens, not to mention Dolly Parton, Iris Dement, and George Jones. But in food, I care more for taste than for any other attribute, and when fashion and food collide it's usually bad news for food.

According to the New York Times, kale is having a "fashion moment."

Sorry to disappoint you, style reporters: heartland supermarket executives knew this a while ago; for a couple of years, they've been asking me, "What's the next kale?" They hope I'll slip them an insider's tip -- maybe "Blauhilde," a purple pole bean of German heritage you'll find making a quiet comeback with Amish farmers, and any minute now, with roof-gardening, plaid-clad chefs. But I don't cook, shop, or (for that matter) work that way. I care about things that serve the body and mind while pleasing the eye and palate. This is why the kale craze leaves me cold.

Don't mistake me. Kale and I are old friends. I've spent many long November afternoons in the fields cutting kale with a paring knife, washing it in icy water, and packing it in wooden-slatted bushel baskets for Saturday markets. It's a beautiful plant, noble looking, with a distinctive sturdy habit at a distance and a complex texture at close quarters. The leaf comes in a hundred shades of green, blue, black and lavender. I love the dense blue-grey kales of my farming youth, the curly Red Russian of our later years, and the embossed Tuscan kale I first saw at my own farmers' markets in London.

I like to eat kale as much as gaze on it. It's tasty braised in sweet cider with apples and onions. I love it with Italian sausages and white beans, or simmered in chicken stock with a good diced ham. For lunch, give me a large bowl of black kale sautéed with cayenne pepper and garlic. I'll top that with a glug of good olive oil. Shave Parmigiano Reggiano over those leftovers the next day, add brined and roasted walnuts, and you're looking at one of my favorite dishes.

Let me get one thing off my chest. Kale does not belong in brownies. Those who stash vegetables in baked goods (look up Beet and Kale Chocolate Cupcakes) are a) sneaky and b) crazy. "Sneaky" is an objective description, by the way. "Crazy" is a slur. Teach your children how vegetables taste; don't teach them the opposite, as the creators of these recipes boast: "You won't even taste the vegetables!"

Nor would I ever eat kale raw, which is the hot ticket on the society circuit (a place I've never been, which is not to say I'd reject an invitation). I've no inherent objection to kale's 15 minutes, and fully expect "the next kale" to be feted any minute. There are a dozen other leaves, from beet greens to Swiss chard, radicchio to endive, which pack a similar punch nutritionally, and they all clean up well for a party. I'll be cheering them on.

Mostly I object to raw kale, on both aesthetic and nutritional terms. Raw kale is too tough to chew (a fact on which there's wide agreement) and doesn't taste as good as properly cooked kale (merely my opinion).

Cooks make a big effort to render raw kale tender. They buy "baby" kale leaves, but it's still pretty tough, I don't favor immature vegetables; they lack the flavor I seek. Cooks also marinate it, with modest results, in my view.

Cooking naïf that I am, I've just learned about a third trick.

At a small party the other night, we heard beautiful piano (Schuman, Schubert) and opera (Rigoletto, Rossini). First, there was large table of lovely food, prepared by a friend of the host, a chef who'd just flown to New York City from his home in the Israeli countryside. He'd spent the morning shopping for produce at the Union Square Greenmarket, and then prepared it in that natural, home-cooking way that good cooks cook. Next to gorgeous cheeses, nuts, olives, shaved pork and fresh breads were five artful salads with perhaps ten different leaves, including sharp and bitter flavors from plants I love, such as tender pea shoots and radishes. It was all delicious. There was, of course, a kale salad, with a Caesar dressing and pine nuts -- a fine match for kale, by the way -- but I just kept chewing and chewing, like a sheep. "How do you keep it from being too chewy?" I asked the chef disingenuously. (I rated it fairly tough.) "I massage it."

"Perhaps we'll do that after dinner," said my husband, a cheesemonger. Rob has better taste than I do, and would never order a kale salad. I assumed that leaf-massage was an esoteric practice of super-chefs and rawists, but no.

In the produce section a few days later, I overheard a group of enthusiastic male cooks. One was explaining to a fellow shopper how to prepare a vegetable she didn't know well. "Massage it with salt and olive oil and let it rest," he said. I looked up from the organic lemons to see four muscled New York firefighters in full gear, one holding an armful of lacinato kale.

If you don't choose to cook kale for the flavor and texture, perhaps you'll consider cooking it for superior nutrition. "Many human toxins occur naturally in plant foods," writes the anthropologist Marvin Harris, in Toward a Theory of Human Food Habits. One family of toxins, called oxalates, is found in high concentrations in the cruciferous family (which includes kale), in spinach, carrots, beet greens, mushroom, peas, rhubarb, cocoa, and tea. Oxalates interfere with absorption of potassium and calcium.

Cooking destroys most oxalates. That's why I cook kale and all its cruciferous cousins, including cabbage, collards, broccoli, and cauliflower. I dabble with raw spinach salads and raw carrots (usually pickled), because I love their flavor. But as a general rule, I reduce oxalates at the stove.

Another hip food is kale juice. The juice bar on my block says that about one pound of kale goes into a sixteen-ounce cold-pressed juice. The $12 price tag aside, hard-core juice drinkers might consider portion control. Is it wise to consume one or more pounds of raw kale a week, with all its oxalates intact and without any of the fiber nature gave greens? Those with a heavy juice habit are not practicing moderate omnivory - the only diet worth honoring with the term "diet," as in, "a way of life."

Drinking a lot of fresh, raw juice is like any other food rut, and I've known a few. Americans, it seems, have a weakness for silver bullets and nutritional extremes. I call the syndrome "Amerexia Nervosa" - our national eating disorder. Its symptoms are an obsession with nutrition and general anxiety about the effect of food on one's health or one's ethical purity.

One expression of this disorder, which experts have also termed orthorexia -- the need to be nutritionally correct -- is the single-food focus. Women especially, and men increasingly, are prone to be monovores. Monovores are not well-balanced people. They are not merely out of balance in culinary and nutritional terms. They are also boring. "Boring" is exactly how my friend Betsy once described my eating troubles. It was a stinging comment at the time, but in time I saw that it was in fact an act of friendship.

Let's look at kale nutrition. In one cup of cooked kale you'll find lots of fiber, vitamin B6, vitamin A, and vitamin K; some calcium; plus various antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer nutrients.

Let me add an asterisk or two, not to dampen the party -- merely to inform the revelers. The so-called vitamin A is in fact carotene -- a pre-cursor that your body must convert to true and useable vitamin A, in the presence of fat. There is some calcium in kale, but it's not the most easily absorbed form. That you will find in whole dairy foods and bone broths. Calcium too, is best absorbed with fat, saturated fat in particular. Yes, saturated fat. That's the nutritional wisdom behind the pairing of greens and ham in the American South. When you prepare calcium-rich greens like kale and spinach, add a traditional fat to match - perhaps ham, butter, or feta cheese.

You'll read that there is a ton of vitamin K in a cup of kale -- far more than the recommended daily dose, which sounds great. But which vitamin, K1 or K2? The two are quite different and widely misunderstood.

Vitamin K1 helps your blood clot, among other tasks. There is vitamin K1 in leafy greens, such as kale, but note: the body needs fat to absorb it. So let's start a revolution and add olive oil to those fat-free kale dishes, cooked or raw.

There is no vitamin K2 in kale. K2 is produced in animal tissues, including the mammary glands, from the vitamin K1 found in green plants. For humans, the best sources of vitamin K2 are the fats of animals raised on rapidly-growing green grass, including hard and soft cheeses, butter, egg yolks, chicken and goose liver and goose. One plant food -- the fermented soy food called natto -- is very rich in K2. Vitamin K2 from these foods is fully absorbed, unlike the vitamin K1 in leafy greens, which is incompletely absorbed even in the presence of fat, and best absorbed in small doses of greens.

What does vitamin K2 do? It is responsible for proper calcium absorption. K2 keeps soft tissues (such as blood vessels) from becoming too calcified, or hardened, and it causes bones and teeth to be well mineralized, or strong. The K2 in breast milk gives babies and children long, strong bones by preventing the soft cartilaginous growth spots in bones from hardening too soon, before they grow properly. For men, women and children, my nutritional prescription for bone health is not more greens (though I approve of greens) but instead bone broths, whole dairy foods, and foods rich in vitamin K2.

Kale also has the ability to bind bile acids, which, in turn, lowers blood cholesterol. This effect is stronger when kale is cooked.

So, if you don't mind chewing kale like a cow chews cud, go ahead, but know that kale is more nutritious cooked, and more nutritious again when topped with a nice scoop of fat.

I hope the fancy for raw kale passes. But don't take me too seriously. My husband certainly doesn't. As I write, the Kale Caesar is still served at his restaurant -- Murray's Cheese Bar in Greenwich Village -- despite my attempts to take it off the menu. It's humbling, how modest my wifely influence is. Or maybe Rob is just more fashionable than I am.

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