Kale has had a heyday in the U.S. ever since people figured out you don't have to cook it to eat it. Kale salads started popping up on swanky New York restaurant menus a few years ago, and now even mainstream grocery stores carry kale.
Meanwhile, in France, that bastion of haute cuisine, hardly anybody has even heard of kale, much less eaten it. But a former Pittsburgher has launched a one-woman crusade to change France one frilly-edged leaf at a time.
Kristen Beddard grew up in Sewickley as the daughter of an ahead-of-her-time mom, Sharon Hess, who did yoga and ate lots of fresh veggies before either was trendy. Ms. Beddard was raised mostly vegetarian -- and yes, she ate kale.
"In third grade, we played the game where you have to introduce yourself and add a food that matches your name," she recalled. "I remember saying, 'Hi, I'm Kristen and I like kale.' No one knew what I was talking about."
Fast-forward a decade and a half or so. Ms. Beddard had finished her communications degree at Penn State and moved to New York City to work for Ogilvy & Mather, an international advertising agency, where she met her eventual husband, Philip Heimann.
The couple started noticing that other folks in the Big Apple were starting to eat kale, too. Around 2009, "kale started to become a 'thing,' " Ms. Beddard said. "By the time we left New York City in August 2011, it was hard to go to a restaurant and not find kale on a menu."
They weren't the only folks noticing the kale explosion. Last November, Melissa Clark of The New York Times wrote, "Five years ago, before kale salads became staples on practically every restaurant menu in New York, I knew kale as a wholesome vegetable that you only ate cooked. As soon as it appeared in the raw, a star was born. Kale became the 'it' vegetable, especially when it was served in a salad that glistened with creamy Caesar dressing."
But it's not only in high-end restaurants -- it's everywhere from the White House down to Wal-Mart. The Obamas ate a kale salad (see recipe) for Thanksgiving, using kale and fennel from the first lady's famed kitchen garden, but us regular folks are eating kale, too. Baum & Whiteman International Food & Restaurant Consultants made this prediction for 2013: "Kale trickles down to mass-market feeders."
We'd argue that they're a little slow on the uptake -- the trickle-down has already happened. Juicing can be credited for part of the kale craze; kale is a popular ingredient in homemade juices and smoothies (see sidebar). The NPD Group, a market research firm, says sales of home juice extractors increased 71 percent in the U.S. last year -- and that's for a kitchen implement that on the low end costs $70.
But juice isn't the only outlet for this ruffle-edged, veiny-leafed "green" that actually comes in light green, dark green, cream, purple or black, with leaves that vary in their curliness sort of like hair, from a little wave on the edges to tight curls all over.
Allrecipes.com listed kale chips as one of the top 2012 food trends, calling them "the 'gateway drug' to adding this leafy green vegetable to every meal." Casey Dill, team leader at Whole Foods in Wexford, says the store sells kale chips in a variety of flavors and brands. Frozen kale, prepped and cut kale, and kale salad packs have also emerged on the market in the past few years, he said, as customers have learned more about kale's nutritional benefits. Here's the skinny on that: WebMD (webmd.com) says one cup of kale has only 36 calories, but it packs in lots of fiber, iron, calcium, magnesium and vitamins A, B6, C and K.
At the Good Food Awards, held in San Francisco last October to honor craft food producers across the country, one of the standout favorites was kale kimchi.
And the latest Trader Joe's circular lists a new "Kale & Edamame Bistro Salad" with this text: "You could say that it took kale 2,000 years to become an overnight success, because while it's been cultivated for at least that long, it's only in the last few years that it's become a veritable rock star of the greens world."
Except... not in France.
Ou est le whatchamacallit?
After experiencing the kale craze in New York, Ms. Beddard was shocked when her husband's job moved the couple to Paris in 2011 and there was not a leaf of kale in sight. She'd visit markets, talk to farmers and even show them photos of kale, and it was like third grade all over again: Nobody knew what she was talking about.
Spinach? Sure. Chard? Yeah. Cabbages? They were all over the markets. But no kale.
The strange thing, Ms. Beddard said, is that kale is grown and sold in Italy, England, the Netherlands, Germany -- it's not as if it's extinct across Europe. And climate is not the issue; it's a cold-weather crop, so it would grow well in Northern France. She's heard theories about kale's demise -- French agriculture used to be centered mainly in the South, so kale wasn't grown; the French don't like bitter food; kale was considered "poor food/war food" and thus fell out of favor in more prosperous times. But nobody knows for sure why it virtually disappeared from France.
The French don't even know what to call the stuff. Google Translate calls it chou frise, but when you ask for that in a French market, you get savoy cabbage, which is a far cry from kale. Ms. Beddard has also heard chou plume ("'feather cabbage,' which is actually really gorgeous," she said), chou borecole, chou vert demi-nain, chou frise non-pomme and feuilles de chou. The French media, she said, has recently taken to calling it le kale.
"I never did and still don't have an obsession with kale," Ms. Beddard insisted. But she did miss it; she had grown accustomed to eating it about twice a week before moving to France. Plus, she couldn't find an advertising job because she's not fluent in French, and she's the sort of person who needs productive work to do.
And so, The Kale Project was born.
Through web searches, Ms. Beddard discovered she was not the only expatriate jonesing for kale. But instead of just complaining, she decided to use her advertising and marketing skills to do something about it.
Her first step was to hit the social media. She created a Website (thekaleproject.com) and accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. And she began sending subscribers e-mail updates on kale's whereabouts in the farmer's markets (email@example.com).
"I actually launched the Project before I even had my first farmer on board, but that was a strategic decision," she said, noting you need to create a market before flooding said market with supply. If she'd conned farmers into growing kale with no demand for it, they'd have quit after a single year of not selling their crop.
So she first built her "kale-lover community"; then she began recruiting farmers to grow kale.
And she's seeing a difference. Farmers who have started to grow kale have been selling out of it at the markets when she trumpets the news that it's available. One farmer told an American woman that if she didn't get to his stall by 9:30 a.m. (an hour and a half after opening), his kale would be sold out. Some folks have also volunteered to become kale ambassadors in their towns to carry The Kale Project beyond the Paris city limits.
Because she has no funds, she's latched onto social media as her primary hype-generating method. But she does travel to meet with farmers and visit restaurants and markets, and in December she participated in Yelp's France Winter Food Festival, where she met more than 500 French people who for the most part had never heard of kale. And she'll be a chef at a new espresso bar opening in March in a hip area, Le Marais, where she'll make kale dishes and juices.
Paradoxically, Ms. Beddard now eats more kale than she did in the States, in part because she can finally find it, and in part because she's developing new recipes for the Project (see her recipe below for raw kale salad).
"But as with everything, moderation is key," she said. "I still love eating Swiss chard, spinach and beet greens, as well."
She's not kidding about moderation. The Atlantic Wire, in a January piece hilariously titled "You May Never Eat Kale Again," noted that kale's popularity has surged especially among fashion models, who like it because it's a food with some heft that they can chew for a while, but it doesn't make them gain weight.
"But the kale is not loving the fancy people back," the piece said, noting one doctor had treated fashion models for diarrhea from eating too much kale.
Yup, moderation. Get your kale on, France, but don't go overboard.
Chicken noodle soup with kale
In my opinion, all soup is better with kale. My favorites are kale-sausage-white bean and kale-sausage-potato. It's tough enough to stand up to soup; it doesn't turn slimy like spinach. Instead of adding it to the soup pot, I put raw kale in the bottom of the bowl and ladle the soup overtop so the kale retains its bright green color.
-- Rebecca Sodergren
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 medium yellow onion, diced
Kosher salt and ground black pepper, to taste
1 sprig thyme
6 to 7 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 1/2 cups small dry noodles, like mini shells, ditalini or elbow macaroni
1 bunch lacinato kale, tough stems removed, leaves sliced into thin ribbons
1 1/2 cups shredded cooked chicken
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce, plus more to taste
Juice of 1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons), more to taste
Warm the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the garlic and onion, and cook, stirring, until slightly softened and fragrant, about 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Add the thyme sprig and 6 cups of broth, and turn heat to high. When the broth begins to boil, add the noodles and kale. Reduce the heat to medium, and simmer for about 10 minutes, until the pasta is mostly cooked through but al dente.
Stir in chicken and cook a few minutes more to warm through. If you prefer a looser soup, add the remaining cup of broth, and cook for another minute or two until simmering again.
Add the soy sauce and lemon juice, and season to taste, adding plenty of salt, pepper and more soy or lemon juice if needed. Serve hot. Serves 6 to 8.
-- San Francisco Chronicle
White House kale salad
1 medium shallot, minced
Juice of 2 medium lemons (about 6 tablespoons)
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 cup olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
2 bunches young kale, washed and spun dry, stacked and cut into thin slices
1 bulb fennel (fronds, stems and outer layer removed or reserved for another use), cored and thinly sliced
4 radishes, trimmed and thinly sliced
2 jalapeno peppers, stemmed, seeded and thinly sliced
1 scallion, white and light green parts, trimmed and thinly sliced
4 ounces Parmigiano- Reggiano cheese, shaved or cut into slivers
4 ounces (1 cup) spiced marcona almonds (see note)
For dressing: Combine the shallot, lemon juice and vinegar in a medium bowl. Gradually whisk in the oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
For salad: Place the kale in a large serving bowl. About 10 minutes before serving, add the dressing to taste and toss to coat evenly. (You might not use all the dressing.) Add the fennel, radishes, jalapenos, scallion, cheese and almonds, tossing to incorporate. Serve immediately.
Note: Spiced marcona almonds might be hard to find in a store, but you can make your own. Whisk an egg white in a medium bowl, add 1 cup marcona almonds and toss to coat. Combine 1 teaspoon brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin and 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika in a separate medium bowl. Add almonds and toss to coat. Spread the almonds on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees until lightly browned, about 15 minutes, watching carefully to make sure they don't burn. Cool.
-- The Washington Post, adapted from White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford
Kristen's raw kale salad
1 bunch kale
Wash and remove kale leaves from stems. Chop into smaller bite-size pieces. Add juice from 1/2 to 1 lemon. Add drizzle of olive oil and saltand pepper to taste.
Kale massage time! For about 2 to 4 minutes, massage the kale with your fingertips. Massaging tenderizes the kale.
An array of toppings can be added: radishes, cherry tomatoes, almonds, carrots, dried cranberries, raisins, avocado, pecorino cheese -- the choices are endless!
-- Kristen Beddard
Orecchiette with kale, bacon, and sun-dried tomatoes
8 ounces uncooked orecchiette or other short pasta shapes (such as penne or rigatoni)
5 cups bagged prewashed kale
2 sliced center-cut bacon
1/4 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained and roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
3 large garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/8 teaspoon salt
1 ounce Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, shaved
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Cook pasta in boiling water 8 minutes or until almost tender. Add kale and cook 2 minutes. Drain in a colander over a bowl, reserving 1/2 cup cooking liquid.
While pasta cooks, cook bacon in a large skillet over medium-high heat 4 minutes or until crisp. Remove bacon from pan with a slotted spoon; crumble and set aside. Reduce heat to medium-low. Add sun-dried tomatoes, crushed red pepper and garlic to drippings in pan; cook 1 minute, stirring frequently. Add pasta mixture, reserved 1/2 cup cooking liquid, black pepper and salt to pan; toss to combine. Top pasta mixture evenly with bacon and cheese; drizzle evenly with lemon juice. Serves 4.
-- Cooking Light, December 2010
White bean & greens burgers
These spread out in the frying pan and became too thin. Perhaps we pulsed the mixture a tad too long. The flavor, however, is incredible, so with a bit of tweaking, this recipe will definitely be a repeater in our household.
-- Rebecca Sodergren
1/3 cup quick-cooking oats or quinoa flakes
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for cooking burgers
1 medium onion, chopped
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
4 to 6 ounces greens (baby or regular spinach, kale, or any variety of chard), stemmed, rinsed well and coarsely chopped
2 cups cooked or one 15- to 16-ounce can cannellini or great northern beans, drained and rinsed
2 scallions, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh dill, or 1 teaspoon dried
1 teaspoon salt-free all-purpose seasoning blend (such as Spike or Mrs. Dash)
1/4 cup wheat germ or fine breadcrumbs
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Combine the oats with 2/3 cup boiling water in a small bowl. Let stand until needed.
Heat the oil in a medium skillet. Add the onion and saute over medium heat until translucent. Add the garlic and continue to saute until the onion is golden.
Add the greens of your choice and 2 to 3 tablespoons of water for greens other than spinach. Cover and cook until the greens are wilted down but still nice and green. This will take less than a minute for spinach, 3 to 4 minutes for chard, and 3 to 5 minutes for kale. Remove the skillet from the heat,
In a food processor, combine the greens mixture with the remaining ingredients, as well as the cooked oatmeal. Pulse on and off until the mixture is coarsely and evenly chopped, not pureed.
Heat just enough oil to coat the bottom of a large, nonstick skillet. When it is sizzling-hot, ladle 1/4-cup portions of the mixture onto the skillet and flatten lightly into 3- to 4-inch rounds. As you cook the burgers in batches, fry them on both sides over medium heat until they're nicely browned. Drain cooked burgers on paper towels and keep them warm while you cook the rest of the batch.
Serve the burgers warm or at room temperature, with or without bread.
Makes 12 patties.
-- "Wild About Greens" by Nava Atlas (Sterling, 2012)
We topped tilapia with this pesto, but you can use it in any pesto-friendly dish: pasta, chicken, as a soup garnish, as a sandwich spread, etc.
-- Rebecca Sodergren
2 cups packed kale leaves
1/2 cup toasted walnuts (see note)
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup olive oil
Place all ingredients in a food processor and puree until smooth. Serve over rice, pasta or as a sandwich spread.
Note: If you don't have toasted walnuts, you can make them easily. Just spread roughly chopped walnuts on a baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees for five minutes.
Rebecca Sodergren: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @pgfoodevents. First Published February 21, 2013 5:00 AM