Sunday, May 08, 2011

Braising Kale

At the Athens Farmers Market on Saturday mornings at Bishop Park, local farmers are loaded with kale, all of it organically grown. Particularly pretty is the "Red Russian" variety, a mauve-stemmed favorite that is young and tender. But as delicate as kale's frilly leaves appear, their flavor is assertive.

This is a cool weather green, which with some "hoop house" protection can be produced all winter in Athens and, with some shade, bears into early summer.

An open-leaf cabbage family member, kale reaches back to antiquity. It was well established in ancient Greek and Roman gardens.

Kale is thought to be close to the original wild cabbage from which it and related vegetables were domesticated. Through selection over the millennia, people have developed an entire group of culinarily important plants, all variants of a single biological species. In addition to kale, these include cauliflower, broccoli, collards, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts and red, Savoy and green cabbages.

Kale is particularly rich in vitamins and reasonably rich in calcium. Perhaps even more important is the plant's bounty of antioxidants, thought to have important anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. Boiling kale destroys some of these beneficial compounds, but steaming and stir-frying it does not.

Quickly braising kale ("braising" is a Western counterpart to Asian stir-frying) is not only healthful and fast, but brings out the young green's outstanding flavor and texture.

Kale braised with butter or olive oil is fine. Yet after a few dinings it starts to lose interest. But add some diced apple, onion and a little shredded bacon or ham, and the effect is rich and extraordinary.

Here's a simple but rewarding method for braising fresh, local kale with those ingredients. Omit the smoked meat for delightful vegetarian eating.

For kale as a side dish, I wouldn't recommend any particular wine. Wines are best chosen to pair with more central dishes in the meal.

However, if you have a kale fest, serving it over cheese grits, for example, go for a crisp, fruity white wine with some acidity like a Sauvignon blanc, Albari o or Viognier.

The recipe serves six.

Braised Young Kale with Apple

2 bunches (about 8 ounces each) locally grown kale, such as "Red Russian"

1/2 apple, peeled, cored and finely chopped

1/2 of a small onion, minced

1 strip smoked bacon or 1 (1/8-inch) slice smoked deli ham

2 tablespoons olive oil (3 if bacon not used)

1/4 teaspoon salt plus to taste

A sprinkle of black pepper

Water as needed

Rinse kale well in basin of water to eliminate sand or grit. Cut stems into 1-inch lengths and set aside. Cut leaves in half lengthwise, then cut across into 11/2-inch wide strips. Prepare apple and onion.

For bacon, cut raw strip across very thinly (chill in freezer 5 minutes for easier cutting).

For ham, cut into 1-inch wide strips, stack them up and cut across into narrow threads.

Heat large frying pan or wok to medium high. Add oil and bacon or ham, and stir and fry 1 minute. Add apple and onion.

Fry, stirring frequently, until they are softened.

Add kale stems, and stir and fry 1 minute. Add kale leaves, salt and pepper, and a tablespoon or so of water. Fry, stirring almost constantly, until kale is wilted and tender to the bite, adding a little more water as needed to keep a bit of liquid in pan.

Remove from heat. Taste and add salt, if needed.

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