All Hail Kale: Chefs, health gurus praise the superfood

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Health gurus advocate kale as a "superfood," while chefs like kale's hearty flavor and endless versatility. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

Kale Kimchi

4 cups stemmed, tightly packed kale greens

1 medium carrot, cut in matchsticks

1 small red onion, cut in matchsticks

1 tablespoon thinly sliced garlic

1 tablespoon grated ginger

1 tablespoon diced fresno chilies or to taste

1 tablespoon sambal oelek or sriracha or to taste

1/4 cup rice wine vinegar or to taste

Salt and pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a vigorous boil. Add kale greens and cook until tender but not mushy, about 5 minutes. Drain and chill under cold running water.

While the kale is cooling and draining, mix the rest of the ingredients in a large bowl. Squeeze as much water as possible from the cooled kale and add to the carrots and onions.

Add salt and pepper to taste. If you want it sharper and more acidic, add more rice wine vinegar; if more spicy, add chilies and sambal.

Note: As with any vinegar pickle, this just gets better with age. Store in a plastic container in the back of the fridge for up to 3 months.

— Chef Curtis Gamble, Bread and Wine

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Kale is the new bacon.

Think that’s going too far? Kale chips, kale salad, braised kale, fried kale, kale and eggs, pickled kale, kale soup, kale pizza, kale pasta, kale pie, kale pancakes, kale juice, kale smoothies, kale cocktails, kale ice cream and kale everything else are showing up on menus all over town.

Health gurus advocate the bitter greens as a “superfood.” Slate Magazine lampooned the all-kale diet. Bon Appetit named a kale salad its 2012 dish of the year, and kale stars in some 43,000 YouTube videos.

Kale has come a long way since it was just some curly stuff chefs used to line platters with. And of course, you can combine it with bacon.

That’s what 12-year-old Scott Hays of Evanston decided to do. He created the bacon, kale chip and tomato sandwich, layering homemade kale chips with crisp bacon and ripe tomatoes on good bread.

“Kale chips are crunchy and salty, so they remind me of bacon,” Scott says. “It doesn’t take much to remind me of bacon. Bacon is good with everything.”

The Chute Middle School sixth-grader eats kale chips with his lunch about once a week. “He told me he chased a friend of his, who is not an adventurous eater, around the cafeteria with the kale chips the other day,” says his mom, Michele Hays, who wrote about Scott’s sandwich on her blog, Quips, Travails and Braised Oxtails.

Making kale chips couldn’t be easier: Pull the leaves off their stems, toss in olive oil until well coated, add salt and lay in a single layer on a plate. Microwave about 3 minutes. They come out crispier if you microwave them until wilted and finish in a 350-degree toaster oven, Hays says, but watch carefully because they burn easily.

Eaten since prehistoric times, kale apparently fell out of fashion at the end of the Middle Ages. Until lately. Even as chips, kale is more healthful than bacon, which accounts for some of its latter-day popularity.

Like other cruciferous vegetables, kale is “good in fending off oxidation in the cells,” says Chicago dietitian Victoria Shanta Retelny, author of The Essential Guide to Healthy Healing Food. It’s high in iron, calcium and other phytochemicals, she says.

Retelney advises eating the greens with a little fat — such as the oil in kale chips — to take advantage of fat-soluble nutrients.

There are three basic varieties of kale: Curly kale, the most common, has ruffled leaves on thick stems and is usually deep green. Dark blue-green lacinato kale, also called Tuscan kale, dinosaur kale and black kale (cavolo nero in Italian), grows in long flat spears, and has a heartier, earthier flavor. Ornamental kales, sometimes called Salad Savoy (a trademark), are popular with home gardeners but hard to find at grocers; they come in white, purple, red and various green shades. You can also find baby kale, tender young leaves of any type, which are nice for salads.

“Kale is in season during the colder months so right now is a great time to experiment,” says Cesar Gutierrez, culinary director of Pinstripes in Northbrook, Oak Brook and South Barrington. “It will have a less bitter taste than buying it in the summer. Look for kale with firm, deep colored leaves with hearty stems.”

Kale needs to be thoroughly washed, and for most uses, the tough stems should be discarded, but Chef Kimberly Polsen of In the Raw in Highland Park puts them through a juicer. “It’s best to pair kale with a more watery fruit or vegetable such as apples, lemons, celery, cucumber, oranges or pineapple,” she says.