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Kale: The leafy green with a health kick

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Gwyneth Paltrow is a fan of kale

Gwyneth Paltrow is a fan of kale

Kale

Kale

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Gwyneth Paltrow is a fan of kale

It's a sure sign that a foodstuff has moved from fad, to fashion, to mainstream when it turns up on the high street. Much-touted trends such as kimchi and kidneys are still hovering on the edges of the foodie big time, remaining modishly "niche". But this season's big cattlefood-to-catwalk success story is the humble kale.

Its robust, ruffled green leaves are turning up not only in supermarket "meal solutions", including Tesco's edamame pea sauté, but also in many supermarket juices. Kale, it seems, is here to stay.

So what is behind the trend? Unlike asparagus and strawberries, kale's charms are not obvious. It needs work to prepare and has a texture and flavour that might charitably be called robust. Recently kale has been sprinkled with a helping of celebrity stardust, notably from the Queen of Clean Eating Gwyneth Paltrow, who claims kale is "one of the best things you can put into your system", while the Duchess of Cambridge and Victoria Beckham are also rumoured to love the stuff.

The rationale for the kale craze is that it is stupendously nutritious, with claims that it will do everything from staving off macular degeneration to relieving rheumatoid arthritis, as well as helping control diabetes and high blood pressure.

And, yes, kale is healthy, even by the standards of other green leafy vegetables - it's a decent source of omega 3 fatty acids as well as vitamins A, C and K, and it has more calcium, gram for gram, than milk, as well as a host of other minerals and nutrients. Mind you, some of the kale-hysteria headlines need taking with a pinch of salt and a hefty dollop of butter. Kale does, indeed, have more iron per calorie than beef, but you would need to eat around 600g of boiled kale to match the amount in a 200g burger. Good luck with that.

So far, so good for you. But can it really be good eating, too? I have to admit, I've struggled with kale in the past. The problem is chiefly the texture - the throat-scratchingly abrasive leaves are like those little pom-poms of curly leaf parsley that used to turn up as garnish on 1970s restaurant dishes. And those grim, tough, white ribs took away any pleasure there might have been in the peppery, nutty leaves.

But when the Danish food writer and chef Camilla Plum pointed out to me that the Italian darling cavolo nero is just Tuscan kale, I saw the light. The key is to buy kale from a market or a veg shop where the magnificent, plumelike leaves are still intact. That way, they can be stripped easily from the tough white ribs, which are headed for the compost bin. Supermarkets perversely insist on selling kale ready chopped, which makes removing those ribs too tedious to be worth the bother. And Plum is right: most cavolo nero recipes, including the delectable zuppa di cavolo nero with white beans, work well with kale. Italians understand that kale - Tuscan or otherwise - is not a vegetable to be lightly cooked. To banish the harsh texture, it needs cooking long enough to soften properly.

That said, kale can make a good salad, too. The best bet is to massage the chopped leaves with a little oil and salt before adding the other ingredients. Pummel and squeeze them as hard as you can - counterintuitive with salad leaves, but you will be rewarded with a softer, much more toothsome salad.

The added bonus is that it positively improves with being left to stand for a few minutes (or more) as the kale becomes almost silky with time - hold off from adding any vinegar or lemon juice until the last minute though, to keep the deep emerald colour bright. Add some creamy avocado and a few seeds or nuts, and you are ready for the culinary catwalk.

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