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Are you afraid of the dark (vegetables)?

For me, 2009 was the Year of the Vegetable. Contrary to most people, I’ve always liked most vegetables — my mom swears by weaning her children onto the pureed vegetable baby foods first, then the fruit ones, claiming that it helped her children like vegetables more than those whose parents do it the other way around. While the success rate of that experiment is something like 50 percent (I like vegetables, my brother likes… white foods), the logic makes sense to me.

What made 2009 different for me, though, is that I made a somewhat-conscious effort to not only eat a lot of vegetables (I fell off the wagon a bit in my last years of college, when my favorite vegetable was spinach and feta pizza from Madison’s Pizza di Roma), but also try new ones whenever I could. This quest to try anything that intrigued me at the grocery store or farmers’ market helped bring collard greens, Brussels sprouts (although technically, I’ve eaten and enjoyed them before, just rarely), rutabaga, jalapeño peppers, non-coleslaw-ified cabbage and fresh artichokes into my life, just to name a few.

Kale

I love this picture -- perfectly encaptures the voluptuousness of kale. Thanks to tiexano on Flickr

More or less, I enjoyed all the vegetables that crossed my palate this year (although the artichokes seemed to be more work than they were worth), but my favorite new vegetable this year was also the most intimidating for me: kale. Before trying kale in the late summer, I had already cooked traditional collard greens — cooked with apple cider vinegar, bacon, red chili pepper flakes and brown sugar — several times, so that broke down my fear of cooking with fibrous greens a bit.

Still, kale is like the granddaddy of all leafy green vegetables. It’s ridiculously good for you, mostly because of its intense dark color (which usually translates to high vitamin levels) and the aforementioned fiber (which makes it almost necessary to cook before eating unless you’re really brave). Expecting an intense flavor, I resolved to first try the kale as part of a multi-ingredient dish, which eventually led me to this soup recipe (also copied at the bottom).

Overall, the soup was very salty (not a problem for me, but fair warning) and delicious, and trying it cemented two things for me. First, that roasted vegetables and the dark bits they leave behind on pans are every bit as sinfully delicious as roasted meats — thanks to the roasting and the rich color it imparted on the veggies, this soup had one of the most complex flavors I had ever encountered in my own cooking (and I make soup more than almost anyone I know).

Second, the recipe cemented that I do in fact love kale. The flavor itself of kale is remarkably mild (with just the slightest tinge of iron) for such a dark vegetable, but the texture itself is what sold me. I had often used baby and regular spinach in my soups before, but was never sold on the texture — to me, cooked spinach struck a nerve a bit too close to when the popular green goes bad and gets a bit slimy.

Kale, though, has no such issues. When cooked in a soup or simply steamed and tossed with a light soy-based sauce (my preferred cooking method when I’m feeling less than ambitious), kale has a rich, slightly chewy texture that makes it a wonderful complement to softer parts of soups as well as stand on its own in a way that cooked spinach never could for me. I imagine it would take a fair amount of overcooking to get it to the limp state that spinach seemingly so easily gets to (especially if you are like me and tend to forget that vegetables keep cooking for a few minutes after they’re taken off the stove).

In short, kale is great and totally under-appreciated, in my humble opinion. (EDITOR’S NOTE: She’s not alone!) If you haven’t had it, I highly urge you to pick some up at a farmers’ market (it’s a great winter vegetable) or the grocery store and give it a go.

If for some reason kale doesn’t appeal to you, though, I also encourage you to take a closer look next time you’re grocery shopping and consider trying something new. Even if it doesn’t work out (ahem, artichokes), it’s invigorating to step outside your norm and try working with something unfamiliar to you. If the new food does work out, you’ll have expanded your food repertoire forever, which is a major plus for keeping variety in your diet — especially if you’re like me and live where fresh seasonal produce is tough to find in winter months.

Also, incidentally, I’m taking suggestions on my next vegetable adventure — I’ve been toying with a recipe that involves parsnips, but I’m open to just about anything. Any recommendations (with or without suggested eating methods) in the comments would be most appreciated.

(Photo by SusanV at FatFree Vegan Kitchen)

White Bean, Kale and Roasted Vegetable Soup
From Bon Appetit January 2000 (via Epicurious)
Serves 6

Ingredients:
For roasted vegetables:

  • Nonstick vegetable oil spray
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled and quartered lengthwise (baby carrots also work well, I found)
  • 2 large tomatoes, quartered
  • 1 large onion, cut into 8 wedges
  • 1/2 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick wedges
  • 6 garlic cloves, unpeeled
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil

For soup:

  • 6 cups (or more) canned vegetable broth (I use powdered bouillon and added water, which may explain the saltiness of my soup)
  • 4 cups finely chopped kale (you can remove the stems if you’re afraid they’ll be too chewy)
  • 3 large fresh thyme sprigs
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 15-ounce can Great Northern beans, drained

Preheat oven to 400°F. Spray rimmed baking sheet with oil spray. Arrange carrots, tomatoes, onion, squash and garlic on sheet. Drizzle with oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss to coat. Bake until vegetables are brown and tender, stirring occasionally, about 45 minutes.

Transfer carrots and squash to work surface. Cut into 1/2-inch pieces; set aside. Peel garlic cloves; place in processor. Add tomatoes and onion; puree until almost smooth. Pour 1/2 cup broth onto baking sheet; scrape up any browned bits. Transfer broth and vegetable puree to large pot. Add 5 1/2 cups broth, kale, thyme and bay leaf to pot; bring to boil. Reduce heat; simmer uncovered until kale is tender, about 30 minutes.

Add beans and reserved carrots and squash to soup. Simmer 8 minutes to blend flavors, adding more broth to thin soup if necessary. Season with salt and pepper. Discard thyme sprigs and bay leaf. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill. Bring to simmer before serving.)

Kale photo credit: Tiexano on Flickr

One Response to Are you afraid of the dark (vegetables)?

  1. [...] first experience with bok choy — my editor at work highly recommended it to me, and as I am rarely happier than when I am discovering a new vegetable to play around with, I snapped some up at the [...]

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