Friday, March 22, 2013

Kale Frenzy Finds Retirees

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you must be aware of the latest culinary craze. I’m talking about the kale frenzy. Everywhere you turn, kale is on the menu, in the grocery cart, on the plate or in the news. Once a lowly garnish, it’s now a main ingredient. As a follower of pop culture, I wanted to learn more about this bitter vegetable.

My search turned up all sorts of claims for this so-called miracle green that has been around for thousands of years. It can prevent cancer! It can lower your cholesterol! It will help you lose weight! Kale cigarettes relieve stress (and they’re legal)! If you plant it in decorative pots near your front door, your house will sell above the asking price! Enough of these outrageous claims. What does botany tell us this wonder food can offer retirees?

It’s a member of the Brassicacae family—also known as cruciferous vegetables—which includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower, among others. Its genus is brassica. I can see by your glazed-over eyes that this is TMI, so I won’t go into its species. (Remember the taxonomy mnemonic: King Phillip Came Over For Good Soup.)

Kale’s soar into the stratosphere of culinary popularity is likely due to the spate of spinach recalls that began in 2006, when a number of deaths and dozens of severe illnesses were traced to tainted shipments. Spinach recalls have become annual events, with the leafy green being cited for e. coli or salmonella contamination virtually every year from 2006 thru 2012, and now again in 2013. Last month, the death knell sounded for baby spinach.

At some point, a thinking person has to give up on spinach. It was a major contributor to my weight gain when that key ingredient in the pseudo-quiche was nowhere to be found, so I gave up on the South Beach Diet. Now I’ll try substituting kale, if I can locate the recipe. My stager cleared off my kitchen counters when we listed the house for sale, and the cookbooks wound up in a box somewhere in the basement.

Kale is touted on numerous websites where health information and recipes abound. calls it a “nutritional powerhouse.” The site tells us a cup of kale has 5 grams of fiber and contains more than 100% of the RDAs for the anti-oxidant vitamins A, C, and K. It’s also a good source of calcium, B6, magnesium and lutein (for eye health). All that in just 36 calories, presuming you steam it or eat it raw. Sauce it and all bets are off.

Now that we’re experts on the virtues of kale, let’s talk about what to do with it. Use it raw, steamed, braised, pickled or baked. Eat it on its own (salads); use it as an additive (soups or pastas) or a topping (pizza); chop and bake it into something less predictable (chips).

In the, Leah Zeldes described kale as “the new bacon,” which sounds a tad extreme to me. I trust she did research to substantiate her report that “Bon Appetit named a kale salad its 2012 dish of the year,” and that the green stuff “stars in some 43,000 YouTube videos.” I’m not anal retentive enough to search YouTube to confirm her count.

The Baltimore Sun recipe for kale with pappardelle and sun-dried tomatoes sounds (and looks) yummy. (Thank you, John Houser III.) I’ve put kale and pine nuts on my shopping list, since many sites combine those ingredients in pastas, salads or snacks—all staples of retirees’ diets.

I have some ideas for using kale that haven’t made their way onto the Internet—yet. For example, mush the leaves into a gritty paste. Then use it to clean dentures. Or, in a nod to St. Patrick, add it to pale ale to make green beer. I’ll be testing ground kale as an insect repellent around my tomatoes. Likewise to deter the slugs that dine on my petunia blossoms in the dead of night. And the caterpillars that chow down on them in broad daylight.

It’s clear to me that kale will continue its rise as a darling of American cuisine. I’m going out on a limb to predict some consequences of this infatuation. Within three years, a celebrity will name her baby boy Kale. Seven years later, there will be five kids named Kale in every first grade class, and two of them will be girls. None of the kids will be named Spinach or Bacon. Bets anyone?

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