Kale is about as unlikely a food star as you can imagine. It's tough and fibrous. Bite a piece of raw kale and you'll practically end up with splinters between your teeth. Nevertheless, kale has become a green of the moment because, given a little special care, it actually can be made not only edible but delicious.
You can cook it, of course, the lower and slower the better. But surprisingly, one of the most popular ways to use kale these days is in salads. Though kale leaves always have been found on almost every salad bar, it wasn't for reasons of edibility -- it was for decoration, because this was one green so tough it would last forever without wilting.
But the solution is remarkably simple: Give it a massage. And I mean a real massage -- a deep-tissue bone-breaker. Grab bunches of it in both hands and squeeze. Then rub them together. And repeat. It's almost like kneading bread dough.
It won't take very long -- just a couple of minutes -- but you'll be amazed at the difference. That tough cellulose structure breaks down and those leaves that once seemed so coarse and fibrous turn silky.
The flavor changes as well. That pronounced bitterness mellows, revealing some of the same depths of sweet green flavor you normally get only through long, slow cooking. In fact, the best way to know when you've massaged kale long enough is to take a bite. Taste doesn't lie.
One mark of kale's rock star status is the sheer number of varieties available. It wasn't so long ago that you found just dark green curly kale. Then came the type variously called "Tuscan," "lacinato" or "dinosaur." Now you can even find kales beautifully colored in shades of lavender and purple.
The good news is they all work equally well for salads. Provided, of course, you give them a good rubdown first.
> Kale Salad with Farro, Dried Fruit and Blue Cheese
1/4 cup farro
1/4 cup mixed dried fruit (such as sour cherries, cranberries, raisins)
1 tablespoon orange-flavored liqueur, such as Grand Marnier
1 pound kale (about 2 bunches)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese
2 tablespoons minced red onion
2 tablespoons chopped toasted pecans
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Toast the farro in a dry medium saucepan over medium heat until it smells nutty and turns golden, about 5 minutes. Add 2 cups water and bring to a simmer. Season with one-half teaspoon salt and cook until the farro is tender but still a little chewy, about 45 minutes. Drain, rinse under cold running water and gently pat dry.
Place the dried fruit in a small bowl with the Grand Marnier. Add just enough warm water to cover and set aside until softened, about 15 minutes.
Remove and discard the stems from the kale. Chop the leaves into bite-sized pieces. Place in a large mixing bowl with 1 teaspoon salt and the olive oil. Grab the leaves by the handfuls and massage them roughly. Don't be timid. When done, you'll have about half the volume of kale you started with.
Drain the dried fruit and add it to the kale, along with the cooked farro, blue cheese, red onion, pecans and vinegar. Toss to mix well, then season to taste with black pepper and more salt and vinegar, if necessary. Serves 6.
Per serving: 127 calories; 4g protein; 16g carbohydrates; 3g fiber; 6g fat; 2g saturated fat; 4mg cholesterol; 5g sugar; 688mg sodium.
> Kale 'Caesar'
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
2 cloves garlic, split in half lengthwise
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 pound kale
4 teaspoons lemon juice
1 ounce Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated or shaved with a vegetable peeler
Toast the bread crumbs: Combine them in a small saucepan with the garlic, lemon zest and 3 tablespoons olive oil. Stir to coat well. Season with a pinch of salt and place over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the crumbs have darkened and toasted, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl to cool slightly.
Remove and discard the stems from the kale. Chop the leaves into bite-sized pieces. Place in a large mixing bowl with 1 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Grab the leaves by the handful and massage them roughly. After a minute or two, the coarse, stiff leaves will turn soft and silky.
Add the toasted bread crumbs and lemon juice and toss well. Season to taste with more salt and lemon juice if necessary. Arrange on separate salad plates or on a platter and sprinkle grated or shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano over top.
Each of 6 servings: 143 calories; 2g protein; 9g carbohydrates; 2g fiber; 11g fat; 2gsaturated fat; 4mg cholesterol; 1g sugar; 500mg sodium.