On a Friday afternoon at Cashion’s Eat Place, I noticed something leafy and green simmering away in a large, shallow skillet. The scent of caramelized onions, butter and cream made me salivate.
“What on Earth smells so good?” I asked chef, pointing to the pan.
“Oh, that? That’s kale,” he said nonchalantly, like kale was supposed to always smell that good.
No way. Kale? While I love nearly all greens, I’ve always hated kale.
“How do you make it, Chef?”
“Cook the sh*t out of it.”
Chef smiled, sensing my reaction, and shifted his attention to something else on the stove. I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard.
After every tireless attempt I’d made to cook kale, the result was always the same – bitter, chewy and difficult to eat.
Even my most fool-proof recipe for sauteeing greens – olive oil, garlic, salt and crushed red pepper – failed.
I even tried blanching the kale first to mute its bitterness and soften its tough, crunchy stems. Although its chewiness was somewhat gone, it was still, well, barely edible.
I really wanted to like kale. I really did. It’s high in nearly every essential vitamin and low in calories, making it one of the best “super foods” in existence. I often forced myself to eat my disgusting plate of kale, reminding myself – just think about all of those health benefits!
I’ve been to culinary school. I know how to cook. What was I doing wrong?
Chef’s kale was unlike any kale I’d seen before. Its flavor was earthy, even slightly sweet.
To translate Chef’s words, “cooking the sh*t” out of kale means to braise it.
The key is to simmer the kale for an extended time in a small amount of liquid such as stock or wine, and then add ingredients such as caramelized onions or shallots. This way, the kale infuses the flavors and aromatics of these ingredients.
I hadn’t cooked my kale for long enough nor in anything flavorful enough for it to lose its bitterness.
My experience with Chef was the first “ah-ha!” moment I had about kale. My second moment occurred at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market just a week ago.
One of my favorite vegetable vendors, Spring Valley Farm and Orchard, was offering a variety of kale I’d previously never seen. Lacinato Kale (pictured, above), as I later discovered it was, is distinguished by its flat, wide leaves. The texture of the leaves is bumpy like scales, earning its nickname as “dinosaur” kale.
Its rich, dark green color attracted my eye. In a trance, I put down the rainbow swiss chard I was about to buy. This kale was too gorgeous to pass up.
Curly kale (pictured, left), the variety I always bought from the grocery store, was the kale with which I’d failed. Call me kale-naive (for lack of a better term), but I’d never known there to be another variety.
I had hope for this beautiful Dino kale. I would not fail to make this kale the tastiest kale I’d ever experienced.
I used Chef’s kale recipe as a guide, but made my own tweaks.
First, I separated the leaves from the stems. I wrapped the leaves up tightly and roughly chiffonaded them. You don’t have to do this, but it does look nice if you’re concerned about aesthetics. It is important, however, to separate the leaves and stems, as they cook at different rates.
Next, I lined up the stems on my cutting board and sliced them thinly.
Before I did anything else, I tried a piece of raw kale, curious about its flavor. Wow. Earthy and mild, with a hint of both sweetness and bitterness. This would be incredible in a salad, maybe with some toasted, slivered almonds, a creamy dressing of some sort…Okay, that’s another blog post.
After prepping the kale, I sauteed thinly sliced onions in olive oil over low heat. After cooking the onions down a little with salt, I started adding small amounts of chicken stock. As soon as the onions absorbed the stock, I added more. This is the same technique I learned on my first day of culinary school when we prepared French Onion Soup. (Oh, what a day that was. Slicing an onion seemed so daunting back then!)
The onions cook by absorbing the flavor of the stock. Eventually, they will begin to caramelize by turning a light brown and emitting a sweet aroma.
At this point, I added the sliced stems to the onions and let them cook briefly. I added the leaves, a good pour of chicken stock, some crushed red pepper, and then let everything simmer away.
Thirty or so minutes later, I added a touch of heavy cream. Not too much – I wanted to keep this reasonably healthy, after all. Thankfully, a little goes a long way. The cream added a richness that also tied together the flavor of the onions and the flavor of the kale.
I never thought I’d ever be this excited about kale. This was good. Really, really freaking good.
For Thanksgiving, I think this would be a perfect side dish. It’s different, and I like that. How many families can say they’re serving braised, Dino kale alongside that creepy cranberry sauce from a can? If this dish was at my Thanksgiving, I’d be going back for seconds, thirds, fourths, possibly fifths. Thank God for Turkey Trots.
(By the way, that creepy cranberry sauce is actually not half bad.)
Braised Kale with Caramelized Onions
- 1 bunch Kale, preferably the Lacinato variety
- 1 large onion
- Chicken stock
- Heavy cream
- Crushed red pepper
- Salt, pepper (the usual suspects)
- Prep kale and onions, as I mention in my post above or however you prefer.
- Over medium heat, start onions in olive oil or butter. Add a little salt and cook the onions until they soften. Add a little chicken stock and turn down heat slightly. Add more stock when the pan is dry, continuing to do so until the onions have caramelized to a light brown.
- Add kale stems, cook for a few minutes, and then add the leaves and crushed red pepper. Toss together, then add a good splash of stock. Simmer over low heat, adding more stock if needed.
- Check after 20 minutes or so. The kale should be extremely tender, but not mushy. If it needs longer, let it go longer.
- Add a splash of cream and stir to combine. Check for seasoning, and that’s it!
Georgeanne Brennan. Great Greens: Fresh Flavorful and Innovative Recipes. http://books.google.com/books?id=fRBbX-G3XW4C&pg=PA30#v=onepage&q&f=false