The once overlooked leafy green vegetable, has grown in popularity in the past few years to become the new superfood du jour.
Kale has enjoyed a meteoric rise due to its abundant nutrients, versatility, hardiness, and a few key social factors.
What is Kale?
Kale, also known as borecole, is a leafy green vegetable that is available in several varieties including flat leaf, curly, leaf and spear, ornamental, and dinosaur. Many varieties of kale are coarse with unappealing coloring and taste, and can be difficult to digest. The leaves can range in color from dark green to purple to deep red. Kale is part of the same family of vegetables as cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and collard greens. Kale is grown from seeds and can be compact and symmetrical, but some varieties can grow six or seven feet tall. Kale is particularly hardy and resistant to frost, making it easy to grow in most parts of the world. There is evidence that Greeks and Romans enjoyed kale as early as the fourth century BCE. Today kale is enjoyed throughout Europe, Asian, Australia, and the Americas
Kale and Nutrition
Nutritionally, kale is a powerhouse vegetable that is considered a superfood because it is low in calories and high in nutrients like beta carotine, calcium, and vitamins A, C, E, and K. Kale also offers plenty of antioxidants, phytonutrients, fiber, and the same healthy omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and lean meats like bison. Kale is rich in minerals as well including copper, potassium, iron, manganese, and phosphorus.
Kale is Cool
Kale has achieved a level of popularity unparalleled by any vegetable and most foods in recent years. Internationally, kale is an essential ingredient in traditional dishes in many regions including Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Brazil, Southeast Africa, and Southeast Asia. In several small towns in Northwestern Germany, an entire culture has developed around kale. This includes social clubs and annual festivals and celebrations, complete with the selection of kale kings and queens. In the southern United States, kale is often served braised by itself or mixed with collard, mustard, or other greens. Many cultural factors have contributed to the kale phenomenon including numerous cooking shows, magazines, high-profile food bloggers, and celebrities like Martha Stewart, Ellen Degeneres, and Gwyneth Paltrow. Kale has also benefitted from the farm-to-table movement, an effort to promote local production of food for local consumption. Kale has even become a popular baby name in the United States. In 2008, more than 530 parents chose Kale as the name for their babies.
The dramatic increase in demand for kale is also attributable to its remarkable culinary versatility. According to Jennifer Iserloh, co-author of 50 Shades of Kale, “Kale is the king of the superfood kingdom. People are incredibly interested in health and more and more people are cooking at home—kale is cheap, versatile, and one of the best foods you can put in your body.” First and foremost, kale makes an intense addition to salads both in flavor and texture. Kale has become very popular for homemade juices and smoothies because it simply provides a big boost in nutrition for a wide variety of healthy beverages. Kale is also a popular ingredient in soups, stews, dips, and even desserts like cakes. More recently many Americans have started enjoying chips made by baking or dehydrating curly kale as a healthier substitute for potato chips. In addition to home uses, restaurants have drastically increased their use of kale, transforming it from an insignificant garnish to a celebrated feature. In fact, there has been a 400% increase in kale on restaurant menus since 2008.
Kale in the Home Kitchen
Like most fruits and vegetables, the nutritional value of kale can be significantly affected by its storage and preparation method. The following information is useful for maximizing all the benefits of kale.
- The freshest kale has firm, deeply colored leaves and hardy stems.
- Small leaves are more tender and milder in flavor.
- Washing kale before storage accelerates spoilage and nutrient loss.
- Kale should be stored unwashed and uncut wrapped or in air-tight bags.
- Kale can be stored for up to five days in the refrigerator, but it should be used quickly to avoid loss of nutrients.
- Kale freezes well and actually tastes sweeter and more flavorful after being exposed to frost.
- If leaves begin to yellow, kale should be thrown away. When the leaves turn yellow, the flavor becomes overly strong and the nutritional is diminished.
- Kale naturally contains oxalates that can interfere with absorption of potassium and calcium. Cooking destroys most oxalates.
- Certain oils and lemon juice can noticeably reduce the flavor of kale.
- Baked or dehydrated kale takes on a consistency similar to potato chips and makes a delicious and healthy snack.
While some culinary trends and superfoods are fleeting, the wildly popular kale has reached unprecedented status in the often-neglected world of vegetables. Due to its global availability, remarkable versatility, phenomenal nutritional value, and tremendous demand, kale is poised to continue its reign as the undisputed “queen of greens”.