Kale's vibrant, ruffled leaves are almost too pretty to eat -- but never push it aside as a mere garnish. Nutritionally, kale is a dynamo. A member of the brassica family that includes cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts, kale has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It's rich in beta carotene, vitamin K, vitamin C and calcium, and experts tell us it protects against maladies ranging from cancers to rheumatoid arthritis, emphysema, cataracts and dementia.

Kale's popularity has surged in recent years, but its appeal is nothing new. Kale predates heading forms of cabbage, and until the end of the Middle Ages, it was one of Europe's most common vegetables.

Kale's ability to survive harsh climates adds to its likability -- it actually sweetens in cold weather and is at its peak in winter months. Curly kale is most common, with leaves forming a loose bouquet ranging in color from lavender to white tinged with bright green. Look for crisp leaves, store in the coldest place in the fridge, and use quickly for best flavor. Kale is sturdier than spinach and holds up well in soups and stews. It can be sauteed, used in pasta sauces, casseroles and frittatas, and added raw to salads.

>Creamy Braising Greens Soup

1 slice thick-cut bacon, diced

1 large onion, peeled and diced

1 large carrot, peeled and diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 pound sausage, dried chorizo or smoked sausage, diced

6 medium potatoes, peeled and diced

7 1/2 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth

2 1/2 cups mixed braising greens, such as kale, Swiss chard, mustard greens and dandelion greens, thoroughly washed, stems removed, and cut into very fine strips

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/4 teaspoon hot sauce (optional)

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Finely ground black pepper

Sautee bacon in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat until crisp. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside, reserving drippings in pan.

Add onion and carrot to pan; cook over medium heat until soft and translucent, stirring occasionally. Add garlic and sausage; cook, stirring frequently, until sausage is lightly browned, about 5 to 8 minutes.

Add potatoes and broth; stir to combine. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are fork tender, about 15 minutes.

Add greens and cream and continue to simmer until soup is thoroughly heated, about 5 minutes. Add hot sauce, if using. Add salt and pepper.

Ladle into soup bowls and garnish with reserved bacon. Serves 10.

(Recipe by Tracey Medeiros).

Per serving: 260 calories, 14g fat, 40mg cholesterol, 10g protein, 24g carbs., 3g fiber, 880mg sodium.

Look for Relish magazine the first Thursday of each month in The Buffalo News.