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Kale’s popularity keeps on growing

Kale photographed Judith Dunbar-Hines' apartment Chicago Ill. Wednesday January 16 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

Kale photographed at Judith Dunbar-Hines' apartment in Chicago, Ill., on Wednesday, January 16, 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 29, 2013 9:46AM



Kale is the new bacon.

Think that’s going too far? Kale chips, kale salad, braised kale, fried kale, kale and eggs, pickled kale, kale soup, kale pizza, kale pasta, kale pie, kale pancakes, kale juice, kale smoothies, kale cocktails, kale ice cream and kale everything else are showing up on menus all over town.

Health gurus advocate the bitter greens as a “superfood.” “Iron Chef” contestants battled over kale. Slate Magazine lampooned the all-kale diet. Bon Appetit named a kale salad its 2012 dish of the year, and kale stars in some 43,000 YouTube videos.

Kale has come a long way since it was just some curly stuff chefs used to line platters with. And of course, you can combine it with bacon.

That’s what 12-year-old Scott Hays of Evanston decided to do. He created the bacon, kale chip and tomato sandwich, layering homemade kale chips with crisp bacon and ripe tomatoes on good bread.

“Kale chips are crunchy and salty, so they remind me of bacon,” Scott says. “It doesn’t take much to remind me of bacon. Bacon is good with everything.”

The Chute Middle School sixth-grader eats kale chips with his lunch about once a week.

“He told me he chased a friend of his, who is not an adventurous eater, around the cafeteria with the kale chips the other day,” says his mom, Michele Hays, who wrote about Scott’s sandwich on her blog, Quips, Travails and Braised Oxtails.

Making kale chips couldn’t be easier: Pull the leaves off their stems, toss in olive oil until well coated, add salt and lay in a single layer on a plate. Microwave about 3 minutes. They come out crispier if you microwave them until wilted and finish in a 350-degree toaster oven, Michele Hays says, but watch carefully because they burn easily.

Scott says, “The toaster-oven chips stay crispier sitting in my lunchbox for half a day.”

Eaten since prehistoric times, kale apparently fell out of fashion at the end of the Middle Ages. Until lately. Even as chips, kale is more healthful than bacon, which accounts for some of its latterday popularity. Kale is the new oat bran, too.

Like other cruciferous vegetables, kale is “good in fending off oxidation in the cells,” says Chicago dietitian Victoria Shanta Retelny, author of

The Essential Guide to Healthy Healing Food . It’s high in iron, calcuim and other phytochemicals, she says. “It is deep green, so it gives you a little more bang for your nutritional buck.”

Retelney advises eating the greens with a little fat — such as the oil in kale chips — to take advantage of fat-soluble nutrients.

Chefs like kale’s hearty flavor and versatility.

“I like working with kale because it can be familiar, like in braising greens,” says Chef Curtis Gamble of Bread & Wine in Irving Park, “or you can spend a little time thinking outside its classic preparations and and end up with a kimchi or pureeing it into a cavatelli.”

“It is loaded with vitamins and antioxidants, it is easy to cook with, it tastes good and it looks great on a plate,” says Carlos Collier, Chicagoland location director for Door to Door Organics, a produce delivery service. “Also, the ‘local’ trend is perfect for kale since kale is easy to grow, can be grown all year-round and in just about every climate. So that means all these people trying to eat local will inevitably be introduced to lots of kale.”

There are three basic varieties of kale: Curly kale, the most common, has ruffled leaves on thick stems and is usually deep green. Dark blue-green lacinato kale, also called Tuscan kale, dinosaur kale and black kale (

cavolo nero in Italian), grows in long flat spears, and has a heartier, earthier flavor. Ornamental kales, sometimes called Salad Savoy (a trademark), are popular with home gardeners but hard to find at grocers; they come in white, purple, red and various green shades. You can also find baby kale, tender young leaves of any type, which are nice for salads.

“Kale is in season during the colder months so right now is a great time to experiment,” says Cesar Gutierrez, culinary director of Pinstripes in Northbrook, Oak Brook and South Barrington. “It will have a less bitter taste than buying it in the summer. Look for kale with firm, deep colored leaves with hearty stems.”

“Make certain that the kale is washed thoroughly,” advises Chef Christian Fantoni of Phil Stefani’s 437 Rush. “Due to the bumpy leaf, dirt can sometimes get in, and if you cook the kale without perfectly washing it, you may taste the dirt under your teeth!”

For most uses, the tough stems should be discarded, but Chef Kimberly Polsen of In the Raw in Highland Park puts them through a juicer. “It’s best to pair kale with a more watery fruit or vegetable such as apples, lemons, celery, cucumber, oranges or pineapple,” she says.

Chop kale for raw uses, or cut it into thin ribbons, called chiffonade. “The kale is very fibrous and the chiffonade makes it easer to chew,” says Chef Moosah Reaume of The Pump Room in Lincoln Park. Stack the leaves and roll them up vertically, then use a sharp knife to slice crosswise.

Chefs disagree over the best way to handle the greens for cooking. Chef Fabio Viviani, who will open Siena Tavern in River North next month, notes that kale can get rubbery: “You have to blanch it or shave it very thin” before other cooking.

Fantoni, however, says, “Do not blanch, then braise; otherwise you risk losing the flavor of the kale.”

Chef Andrew Zimmerman of Sepia in the West Loop also cautions against overcooking: “Most cooks probably find kale challenging because they think they have to cook it to death to make up for the fact that it can be a little tough. ... Unfortunately this often means that they end up with kale that is gray, mushy and has lost any appealing quality it may have had, leaving only a bitter murky taste behind.”

Leah A. Zeldes is a local freelance writer.



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