Updated date:

Exploring Kale: The Super Veggie (Plus 4 Recipes)

Author:

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

Beautiful kale in its simplest form

Beautiful kale in its simplest form

Stop the Madness!

The stuff of every child’s nightmare—the suspicious green vegetable—has invaded every corner of our lives. No matter where you go, when you dine out, if it’s green, it’s kale.

The romaine lettuce of Caesar salad has been replaced by kale, and Popeye is no doubt gulping down canned kale in place of his beloved spinach.

We are a nation obsessed with kale! There's kale salad, kale soup, kale casseroles, chips, designer t-shirts, and (can you believe it) even kale cake!

Kale birthday cake. Have we gone too far?

Kale birthday cake. Have we gone too far?

Vegetables are a must on a diet; I suggest carrot cake, zucchini bread, and pumpkin pie.

— Jim Davis (Garfield cartoonist)

Please, don't misunderstand me—I love kale. It has many health benefits (things called bioflavonoids, antioxidants, and other terms I cannot pronounce or understand).

It is inexpensive and available year-round. It tastes wonderful—but not in a smoothie, brownie, or cupcake. The current mania is turning kale into a four-letter word, the "tofu" of the 21st century.

Consider this for a moment: It isn't that long ago that kale was nothing more than the green frill that separated the rows of pork chops from the sirloin steaks at the butcher shop, and now it is ubiquitous. Let's step back and reconsider how to use (and not abuse) this culinary superstar.

Ancient Roots

Brassica oleracea (the botanical name for kale) was growing wild in the Mediterranean region of Europe. Kale is not a recent fad. As people began farming and choosing the largest plants for propagation, wild kale/cabbage plants selectively became larger and larger, until they developed into the plants we would recognize today.

In 600 B.C. the Greek philosopher Theophrastus wrote of kale in his book on plants. He revealed that ancient Greeks boiled and ate the leaves as a hangover remedy. Cato advised eating cabbage soaked in vinegar before embarking upon an evening of heavy drinking and the accepted remedy for a Roman hangover was simply more cabbage. Pliny the Elder (Roman philosopher and author) also wrote of the medicinal properties of kale.

By the 6th century B.C., the people we have named the Celts had gradually infiltrated Britain. With them came kale and its cabbage cousins. By the 5th century B.C., selective cultivation was leading to an increasingly "leafy" plant. The botanical name of the kale that we eat today is Brassica oleracea acephala which translates "cabbage of the vegetable garden without a head."

Until the Middle Ages, kale was the most popular vegetable in Europe. As a source of calcium and iron, it was a blessing to those who could not afford meat, and its hardy nature made it able to withstand even the harsh winters of Scotland and Ireland. Cabbage and kale, along with leeks and onions, were the main sources of food for the British Isles until the introduction of the potato.

In fact kale (known as kail in Scotland and cole in England) came to mean the meal itself—the main meal of the day and the Scot vegetable garden was commonly called a "kail garden."

Kailyard in Auchindrain, Scotland

Kailyard in Auchindrain, Scotland

Kale Arrives in America

It was French navigator Jacques Cartier who brought cabbage and kale seeds to the Americas in 1536. The explorers of the 17th and 18th centuries carried greens in their ship's stores for their crews to eat—the high Vitamin C content helped stave off the scurvy that was so common among sailors.

And the rest, as they say, is history!

Fast Forward to Today

Kale is just one variety of the large Brassica family. The short list of relatives is given below:

Leafy GreensEdible HeadRoot (see heat level)

arugula

brocoflower

daikon (hottest)

bok choy

broccoli

horseradish (hottest)

cabbage

brussels sprouts

radish (medium heat)

collard greens

cauliflower

rutabaga (mild)

kale

kohlrabi

turnip (mild)

napa cabbage

rapini

wasabi (hottest)

savoy cabbage

 

watercress

How to Use Kale and Cabbage

Members of the kale/cabbage family are interchangeable in most recipes. Any leafy choice in the above table can substitute for another leafy cousin. And the same can be said for the "head" versions.

The roots are a bit more complicated—rutabaga and turnip have a very mild flavor, radish is slightly more assertive, and daikon, horseradish, and wasabi are extremely hot. I would not use horseradish in the place of a turnip.

Now, with those guidelines established, let's delve into some serious (non-smoothie and non-dessert) recipes that use kale.

Kale and Brussels Sprouts Salad

Ingredients

  • 3 cups Brussels sprouts
  • 1 large bunch Tuscan kale, center stems removed
  • 1 small clove garlic
  • 1/2 cup onion, minced
  • 1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup toasted walnuts, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • Juice and zest of 2 lemons
  • Salt and black pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Thinly slice the Brussels sprouts with a sharp knife or food processor.
  2. Thinly slice the kale.
  3. Whisk together the cheese, olive oil, nuts, Dijon, lemon juice and zest, and salt and pepper.
  4. Add the Brussels sprouts and kale and toss to coat the vegetables with the cheese/lemon dressing.
Turkey kale meatloaf

Turkey kale meatloaf

Turkey Kale Meatloaf

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds ground turkey
  • 2 cups finely chopped kale
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup Italian bread crumbs
  • 3/4 cup ketchup
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  • Coat a 9- x 5-inch loaf pan with cooking spray.
  • In a large bowl, combine all ingredients; mix well. Press mixture into prepared pan.
  • Bake 60 to 65 minutes, or until no longer pink in center.
  • Let stand 10 minutes before serving.


Colcannon

Colcannon

Carb Diva's Colcannon

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds smoked pork neck bones
  • 4 cups water
  • 1/2 head cabbage or 1 bunch kale (stems and ribs removed), about 3 cups sliced
  • 2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup butter, divided

Instructions

  1. Place pork neck bones in a crockpot (slow cooker). Cover with water and cook on low for 6-8 hours or until meat is tender (3-4 hours on high). Remove meat from cooker and set aside to cool. Reserve the water in the crockpot.
  2. Chop cabbage into small (1 inch) dice and add to water in the crockpot. Cover and cook on low one hour. Drain the cabbage and set aside.
  3. When cool enough to handle, remove all bones and fat from cooked pork. Set aside.
  4. Place potatoes in a steamer basket in a large saucepan with a lid. Cover and steam over low heat until potatoes are done--a sharp knife should easily slide into the potato. When potatoes are cool enough to handle remove skins; place peeled potatoes in a large bowl. Mash until no lumps remain; add 1/4 cup butter, 1 tablespoon at a time until all butter is incorporated. Heat milk in the microwave; add to potatoes and continue to whip until potatoes are creamy.
  5. Using a large spoon stir cooked cabbage and cooked pork into mashed potatoes. Divide mixture among 4 serving bowls. Using a wooden spoon, make a well in the middle of each serving. Place 1 tablespoon of butter in each well.
French lentils with kale and shrimp

French lentils with kale and shrimp

French Lentils With Kale and Shrimp

French green lentils are unique and an absolute must in this dish. They are small and unlike brown, red, or yellow lentils that fall apart and become creamy (not a bad thing), they retain their shape. That makes them perfect for use in this main-dish salad of lentils with kale and shrimp which is as flavorful as it is beautiful.

Kale and Cabbage Trivia

  • Because cabbage requires only three months of growing time, one acre of cabbage will yield more edible vegetables than any other plant.
  • Cabbage is considered Russia's national food. Russians eat about seven times as much cabbage as the average North American.
  • Scrolls from 1000 B.C. uncovered in China mention white cabbage as a cure for baldness in men.

© 2015 Linda Lum

Comments

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on November 15, 2016:

Well I will be my son was right on the money. I asked him if he meant I was to knead the leaves. He probably was right to look at me like I was crazy but only because he did not know what knead was - 2nd definition of course.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on November 15, 2016:

Eric - Here's a long answer to a short question. If you purchase "baby kale" leaves you can eat the whole thing--it's wonderful in salads.

More "mature" kale (the kind you purchase in a bunch, like mustard greens or collards) need a bit more fussing. First cut out the central stem (don't use it in your salad, but don't throw it away either. I dice it and simmer in soup as I would celery). OK, now back to those leaves that you stripped from the stalks. Tear into bite-sized pieces. Place in a bowl and drizzle on a bit of good-quality olive oil. Now, here comes the fun part. Give those leaves a massage. No, really, using your hands work the oil into and over those leaves for 2 minutes and then let it sit for about half an hour.

I don't do smoothies so can't give you any advice on those, but I just did a Google search and found a lot of information.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on November 15, 2016:

Linda, I just looked this up. We need more variety in our salads -- I was wondering do you have to do something with it in order to break it down for proper digestion, or is that a legend?

And now; why not in smoothies?

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on August 14, 2015:

Very beautiful and interesting hub on kale and its family. You mentioned many facts unknown to us. We, here in India use more of palak and spinach and cabbage. I don't see kale here.

Thanks for sharing this beautiful knowledge. Voted up.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on August 14, 2015:

Emese - I always try to include a bit of information, history, or a story with my food topics. There is so much more to food that merely eating.

Emese Fromm from The Desert on August 14, 2015:

Great article on kale! We use it in our family (though can't abuse it with kid and teenagers around, they still don't love it), and your recipes will come in handy :). I enjoyed the way you presented it, with the history and recipes.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on August 13, 2015:

Bill, I just might take you up on that offer. Would love to see your little farm and meet you and Bev. Yes, I'm sure the rabbits love it--I know that the deer certainly do.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 13, 2015:

Come on over. We have so many plants we are giving it away. :) If I ever start feeling inadequate as a gardener/urban farmer, all I have to do is look at our kale crop and I'll feel better. And by the way, Linda, rabbits love it. :)