Nov 7, 2012

Tuscan Kale, "the darling of the culinary world"

Tuscan Kale
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Many varieties of Kale grow year-round here in Hawaii. Kale provides an earthy flavor and more nutritional value for fewer calories than almost any other food around. Kale belongs to the Brassica family, a group of vegetables including cabbage, collards, and Brussels sprouts. There are several varieties of kale; these include curly kale, ornamental kale, and Tuscan kale, all of which differ in taste, texture, and appearance. The Tuscan kale variety has beautiful dark blue-green leaves, with an embossed texture, and is slightly bitter. It is a variety of kale with a long tradition in Italian cuisine. It is also known as Lacinato kale, Tuscan cabbage, Italian kale, Dinosaur kale, cavolo nero, black kale, flat back cabbage, palm tree kale, or black Tuscan palm. Tuscan kale has been grown in Tuscany for centuries. It is one of the traditional ingredients of minestrone and ribollita.

The important thing is to eat kale very fresh – once harvested, do not wash it before storing because exposure to water encourages spoilage, also don't keep the leaves in the refrigerator for more than several days before using them because its flavor becomes flat and even bitter. To prepare kale leaves for cooking, strip them from their stems. An easy way to do this is to hold the stem with one hand and run a knife along each side to free the leaves, or fold both halves together lengthwise and slice out the stem. Drop the leaves into a sink filled with cool water and swish them about vigorously to remove debris, then drain. It is usually blanched first, and then sautéed with other, flavorful ingredients; in Campanian cuisine, anchovies are often added. It is commonly used in pastas and soups, but can also be eaten raw, in a salad.

As a green vegetable, kale is just as versatile as spinach, chard or cabbage. Very young kale can be part of a salad -- this is one way to use the seedlings you've thinned from the garden -- but be sure to use only tender baby leaves. Or cut bigger leaves into thin strips and steam briefly for a few minutes to serve with butter or sour cream. One of the staple recipes in my kitchen is to sauté up chopped garlic in good olive oil just till translucent. Then add young kale leaves, stir-fry for a few minutes and pour in a little chicken stock to braise the leaves until tender. Finish by topping with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. You can stir-fry kale with pork, ginger, and garlic for a wonderful savory combination. Sautéed in a little butter or oil, good seasonings with kale include garlic, onion, ham, sausage, caraway seeds, cayenne, fennel seed, and good freshly ground black pepper. Use medium-sized or bigger kale leaves as a base for main dish soups using lentils, barley, beans, potatoes, or rice. Because it is so full flavored, kale holds up very well with strong flavored meats like country ham and smoked sausages.

In the last few years, kale has gotten a lot of new attention because of its very high nutritional value. It is about the most nutritious of garden vegetables, offering a powerhouse supply of calcium, folic acid, and vitamins A and C. Once you have discovered the beauty and culinary value of kale you'll know why it is called "the darling of the culinary world".

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Ribollita is a rustic Tuscan vegetable soup with kale and pieces of crusty bread in it. Normally it is made with pancetta (Italian bacon), but I prefer Portuguese sausage (Linguiça), because there is more flavor.
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for serving
1 mild Portuguese sausage, sliced (about 2 cups)
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 large carrots, peeled and diced
1 large stalk of celery, diced
4 tablespoons garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes
3 plum tomatoes, diced
1 large Yukon Gold potato, scrubbed, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
5 cups (packed) Tuscan kale, center stems removed, coarsely chopped
3 cups thinly sliced cabbage (savoy variety if you can find it)
1 (15 ounce) can cannelloni beans, drained
6 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
4 cups crusty country white bread, coarsely torn with crusts
salt, to taste
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan, for serving

Heat the oil in a large pot. Add the sliced Portuguese sausage and onions and cook over medium-low heat for 7 to 10 minutes, until the onions are translucent. Add the carrots, celery, garlic, the pepper, and red pepper flakes, and Italian seasoning. Cook over medium-low heat for 7 to 10 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. Add the tomatoes, potatoes, kale, and cabbage, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for another 7 to 10 minutes. Drain the beans and add to the pot with chicken stock, bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes. Add the bread to the soup and simmer for 10 more minutes. Taste for seasoning, add salt if needed, and serve hot in large bowls sprinkled with Parmesan and drizzled with olive oil. Makes 6 servings.

Tuscan Kale Frittata
4 slices bacon
1/2 large yellow onion, diced
4 cups (packed) coarsely chopped Tuscan kale
2 Yukon Gold potatoes, grated with skins on
12 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
12 ounces fresh whole-milk ricotta cheese (about 1 3/4 cups)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Cook bacon in 12-inch-diameter ovenproof nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until crisp. Using slotted spoon, transfer bacon to paper towels to drain. Pour bacon drippings into a small bowl; reserve. Return 2 tablespoons drippings to skillet. Add onions and sauté over medium heat until golden, about 4 minutes. Add kale and toss until beginning to wilt, about 5-10 minutes, stirring often until tender. Transfer kale to plate; cool. Add potatoes to skillet with 2 tablespoons of drippings. Stir fry potatoes for 10 minutes or until they start turning golden brown.

Meanwhile, Beat eggs and salt to blend in large bowl. Stir in 3/4 cup Parmesan, then kale and half of bacon and potatoes. Stir in ricotta cheese. Heat 1 tablespoon reserved drippings in skillet over medium heat. Pour in egg mixture; spread evenly. Sprinkle remaining bacon and 1/4 cup Parmesan over eggs. Cook over medium heat until frittata is just set at edges, about 10 minutes. Transfer to oven and bake until just set, about 20 minutes. Cut around frittata to loosen; slide out onto platter. Cool and slice into wedges and serve with fresh fruit salad on the side. Makes 6 servings.

Tuscan Kale Pesto
Today pesto is made with green vegetables other than the traditional basil version. Spinach, broccoli rabe, arugula, or in this case Tuscan kale is used to create a delicious variation to this classic sauce. Pesto is commonly used on pasta, but this version is also delicious served with grilled chicken or fish.
2 cups Tuscan kale, stems removed and roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
4 tablespoons pine nuts, walnuts, pecans, or almonds, toasted and lightly crushed
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (or less)
4 tablespoons Pecorino-Romano cheese
4 tablespoons Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Extra cheese for serving (if serving with pasta)

Add the kale, garlic, nuts, and a generous pinch of salt to the bowl of the food processor. Pulse a several times to combine. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil through the feed tube of the food processor. Depending on the consistency you like, you may not use all of the oil, so pour slowly. Run the machine continuously for a minute or two to obtain a very smooth consistency. Add more oil if the consistency of the mixture isn’t smooth. Add the cheeses and pulse to combine. Taste and correct for salt. Makes 1 cup.

Mashed Potatoes with Tuscan Kale
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup onions thinly sliced
4 to 6 cups Tuscan kale, stems removed and roughly chopped
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup milk, light cream, or half-and-half
2 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters

In a large skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of butter with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Saute the onions over medium heat, stirring, until translucent. Add the kale and chicken broth. Cover and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes, until greens are very tender. Add the salt, to taste, and the pepper. Add milk or cream; remove from heat and set aside. Meanwhile, put potato quarters in a medium saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain well and transfer to a large bowl. Heat the kale and milk mixture until hot. Add to the drained potatoes and mash by hand or with an electric mixer until well blended. Taste and correct for salt. Makes 6 servings.

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