Most of us have overlooked kale at the grocery store because it isn't something mom made us eat when we were kids, and admittedly, it may not be the most appetizing or familiar of vegetables. But get past its rather reptilian texture and distinctive flavor and you are rewarded with a nutritional bounty that would surely make Popeye grin.
What makes this stout-leafed cousin from the wild cabbage family so nutritionally superior? It's low in calories, high in protein, rich in antioxidant vitamins, fiber and minerals: A botanical superstar.
"I think that with the growing research about the importance of green vegetables in our diet and the rising popularity of vegan and raw foods, spinach is good, but people might have gotten bored with it," says Annie Hoy, outreach and communications manager with Ashland Food Co-op.
Compared with Popeye's spinach, kale is the Arnold Schwarzenegger of vegetables. It is packed with major health benefits like cancer-fighting antioxidant vitamins A, C and K. The body uses vitamin K for blood clotting and bone health, and according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a diet rich in vitamin K can reduce the overall risk of developing or dying from cancer.
"In our juice bar, kale is very popular," says Hoy. "The Green Hornet is a big seller. It's got kale, celery, cucumber, apple, parsley and spinach. If you're trying to do a cancer-free diet, kale is so rich in antioxidants."
Researchers have identified over 45 different flavonoids in kale which, combined with its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits, help the body resist the effects of chronic inflammation and oxidative stress.
This leafy green powerhouse also contributes to cardiovascular health because the fiber content of cruciferous kale binds bile acids and helps lower blood cholesterol levels, which reduces the risk of heart disease, especially when kale is cooked rather than eaten raw.
"Kale is one of our biggest sellers," says Steve Swader, produce manager with Medford Food Co-op, who gets his supply from local organic sources. "We have three different kinds: Green curly kale, a purple or red curly kale and an Italian kale called lacinato. Lacinato, also called dinosaur or dino kale because the texture of the leaves looks like reptile skin. It seems to be the most popular, especially for juicing," he says.
Executive Chef Damon Jones with Larks Restaurant in the Ashland Springs Hotel finds creative ways to incorporate kale's unique taste and texture in his culinary offerings.
"I use it mostly in soups and as sides," Jones says. "It goes great with halibut. We use it with bacon and that's a pretty good combination. It also goes really well with potatoes and one of our most popular soups is kale, potato and sausage. It's also good with beans and lentils."
Jones uses five or six different varieties, depending on what local suppliers have available. "I like to use the dinosaur kale, the lacinato," he says. "It tastes kind of iron-y, a little like spinach, but the texture is different. It definitely has its own flavor."
Kale stores best in a plastic storage bag with the air removed. Refrigerated, it will keep for five days. Washing kale before storage encourages spoilage.
In addition to chopping leaves for salads, soups and juicing, kale chips can be a tasty and healthful snack.
"I like it sautéed, but what I really love are the chips," says Hoy in regard to kale's versatility. "You just lay the leaves on a cookie sheet and drizzle a tiny bit of olive oil on it if you want. Then put it in a low oven and cook it until it gets crunchy. You can put tamari on it, maybe a little sea salt. Or you can put it in a dehydrator and get kind of the same effect."
Chop it, sauté it or throw it in the juicer, it packs a nutritional wallop that most other vegetables can't begin to measure up to.
"It's been a progression," says Hoy, "as more people are trying to add those seven-to-nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day. If you juice it, you're getting so much of what you need in just one glass. I think there was a need and kale came on the scene with so much to offer. Kale is not just that pretty stuff on your plate anymore—you can actually eat it!"