I first encountered kale at a Portuguese Christmas dinner. But not like this.
So a little background—but if you want to jump past the story straight to the cooking, click here. My first husband was half Portuguese on his mother’s side, but looked entirely Portuguese. The German half of his genes always eluded me, probably just as well given that neither of us ever got along with his father. His mother didn’t either; when I met Karl, they’d been long divorced. Karl was born in New London, CT, then moved to New Milford before coming to New York to act. He made his living as a bartender. I knew him for exactly 5 years. We met on July 10, 1984, and he died on July 10, 1989. He was fond of saying, “The 80s are NOT my decade.”
Since my family was all in my native California when Karl and I were in love in NYC, we would spend Christmases with his mom and her many Portuguese relatives and friends near Danbury, CT. That entailed a huge Portuguese dinner, complete with Bacalhau, salt codfish, and a lot of other stuff I wouldn’t eat. Alas, I grew up picky, and before I learned to eat—which was about when I learned to cook, a few years later—even true love couldn’t get me to sample food I deemed “weird.”
But one dish passed my muster: Kale Soup. You cannot, at least in my experience, go anywhere with Portuguese cooks and avoid kale soup. It is wonderful stuff, the green leaves stemmed, rolled into tight cigar-shaped rolls, and sliced into perfect ribbons, alongside grated potatoes cooked to disintegration, and spicy linguiça sausage adding a tiny amount of fire and savory fat to the mix.
The holy trinity of kale, potatoes, and pork unite ever and again in cuisines around the world; when meat is scarce or simply opted out of, kale and potatoes do just fine. But what separates cooks who did kale before it was cool is the cutting technique. Karl’s Portuguese relatives knew this; apparently, most prep cooks dishing up inedible lacinato salads at high-end delis across the country do not.
Because kale is sturdy. Hell, it’s downright tough. It’s a winter crop, and it’s been growing for literally millenia. Dinosaur kale is a thing in more ways than one—as in, not only does it look like the stuff that friendly stegosauri tread underfoot in those 19th century engravings, they actually chomped it down.
You, my poppets, should not feel as if you need T-Rex choppers to finish your kale salad. Yet often, I do. My son brought home a bag of pre-cut kale from Trader Joe’s the other day; the leaves had been cut, but the stems kept intact. People, those stems could dent a molar. Meanwhile, those clueless prep cooks referred to earlier merrily tear the leaves into 1-inch squares and then toss it with a simple dressing. Time after time, I’ve seen kale salads languishing, unfinished, on otherwise clean plates. They looked like a great idea, but nobody had the stamina to chew, chew, chew more than a bite or two.
So here’s how you get the kale-traumatized back into the garden.
Kale: Two Musts
- Chop finely. You can do the cigar style roll, which isn’t difficult at all and looks impressive. Or you can just de-stem, stack, and chop. But cut it fine, whether you’re going to cook it or eat it raw. The only time I can countenance tearing the leaves is if you’re going to make chips, which alters the texture to a shattery crunch. For either cooked or raw dishes, I reiterate, CUT IT FINE.
2. Pamper any kale you intend to eat raw with a little oil and salt massage. You don’t need much of either. Then just put on a short-ish song—Green Onions by Booker T and the MGs is a good one—and rub, rub, rub the toughness away. (BTW, if you’re adding cabbage to the mix—a combination that works nicely and that I’m seeing fairly often—don’t massage the cabbage along with the kale unless you like really soft cabbage. I don’t. )
Kale: The Treatment
I do love this stuff, so it will be coming up a lot. For now, I leave you with my favorite super simple sauteed kale…
and an easy salad.
Either makes a welcome addition to your holiday table, a relief from the truckloads of starch and sugar, and a bounty of fiber on a day that can be a bit rough on the belly.
And watch over the next couple of months as I revisit my first husband’s family soup, as well as incorporate these glorious prehistoric leaves in other surprising ways.