What’s trending in the world of vegetables? Kale. It’s everywhere—from upscale markets to corner delis, from hip restaurants to beach cafes. According to Google Trends, searches for kale recipes have nearly quadrupled in the last two years. There are even T-shirts sporting such slogans as “Kale is Kool” and “Eat Kale Not Cow.” One website carries close to 100 different designs. How about an official National Kale Day? There could be one every October if enough people sign the petition.
Kale: green power
Kale is a cruciferous vegetable, a leafy relative of broccoli, Brussels sprouts and other members of the Brassica genus. It’s especially high in vitamin K (good for bones) and beta carotene (which converts to vitamin A). Plus, it has laudable levels of potassium, manganese and fiber and some iron and magnesium, among other nutrients. One cup of cooked kale (about 4.5 ounces) has just 35 calories yet supplies about 50 milligrams of vitamin C (about 80 percent of the Daily Value) and close to 100 milligrams of calcium (a lot for a vegetable). Like other cruciferous vegetables, kale is also a source of compounds that have anti-cancer, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
There are several varieties. Most popular is curly kale with its bright green color and mildly bitter flavor. Darker “dino” kale (also known as lacinato, Tuscan or cavolo nero kale) is smoother, with long spear-like leaves and a nutty taste. Red Russian kale, with reddish-purple stalks, has tender twisting leaves and a sweet, peppery flavor, while Siberian kale has large leaves and, not surprisingly, is especially cold hardy.
From chips to dips
Marketers have jumped on the kale bandwagon, producing everything from pricey kale chips and kale dips to kale crackers and kale kefir (a yogurt-like drink). But just because a product has kale in it doesn’t mean it’s low in calories, fat and/or sodium, so always check the nutrition label.
For example, though they are dehydrated rather than fried, Rhythm Superfoods kale chips have seven to eight grams of added fat and 140 to 180 calories per ounce—as much as potato chips. Still, the fats are “healthy,” coming from such sources as sunflower seeds and tahini. The chips also supply fiber (three grams per ounce), vitamin C (35 percent of the Daily Value) and vitamin A (30 percent of the Daily Value)—but some flavors have six or seven grams of added sugar (close to two teaspoons) and about 200 milligrams of sodium. Kale chips from other companies are flavored with ingredients like olive oil, orange juice, miso, cashews, chipotle and flax seeds and have 90 to 360 milligrams of sodium per ounce.
- Look for various kinds of kale year round; younger leaves are more tender and less bitter. Frozen is an option, too.
- Serve kale lightly steamed or sautéed (boiling leaches out water-soluble nutrients, like vitamin C). Kale is a great addition to bean soup or stew.
- You can also eat kale raw, chopped in salads. More delicate varieties, like dino kale, are generally better suited for this. If you use curly kale, which is crunchier and chewier, cut out the center stems and chop the leaves finer. Letting the leaves marinate in dressing for 15 to 30 minutes before serving helps soften them. Some people “massage” the leaves with oil or dressing.
- For a healthy snack, make your own kale chips (much cheaper than buying packaged products). After washing and thoroughly drying, remove any thick stems and tear the leaves into large pieces (they will shrink down), then toss or spray them with olive oil, and, if desired, sprinkle with a little salt, garlic powder, cayenne or other seasonings. Make sure the pieces are evenly coated. Spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake in an oven preheated to 375°F until crisp, about 10 to 15 minutes, keeping an eye on them so they don’t burn.
- If you like smoothies, why not whip up a kale smoothie? Blend kale leaves with various combinations of ingredients such as frozen berries, bananas (or other fruit), herbs (like parsley), ginger and water or juice. Or make a “piña kale-ada” by blending kale with pineapple and light coconut milk. You can find lots of kale smoothie recipes on the Internet, along with recipes for kale ice pops, a great way to get kids—and recalcitrant adults—to eat their greens.
Note: Vitamin K levels can affect the metabolism of the blood thinner warfarin. If you take this drug, talk to your doctor, who may advise you to limit your intake of kale (and other high-K foods) or to keep your intake relatively constant.