This latest installment in the Clean Plates series features kale, that darling of the health-conscious crowd and today's most fashionable cruciferous vegetable. This hearty nutritional powerhouse is a member of the cabbage family and rich in vitamins A and C, plus an excellent source of iron, calcium and folic acid. The word comes from the Scottish "kail"; in the Middle Ages it was such a staple crop that the Scots referred to ringing "kail bells" at dinnertime and used the term "kail" interchangeably with "supper."
We spoke with chef John Marsh, who's also a holistic lifestyle coach, and whose popular GreenSquare Tavern restaurant has offered a farm-to-table menu long before it was de rigueur. His fresh, beautiful, and seasonal plates celebrate the best of local produce; he dishes about cultivating 17-year relationships with farmers, how the West Coast is ahead of the culinary curve and using kale in desserts.
Why is kale your favorite ingredient á la minute?
This happens to be a damned good year for it, and it's one of my favorite vegetables. [I like] its nutritional profile and that people who think of it as a garden decoration of a parking structure at a corporation, when they're told that it's actually a great food, they're skeptical. They look at their dining partner and say, "You're ordering that?" And then they eat it themselves. There's nothing more gratifying than somebody trying something from their dining partner's plate and saying, "Oh my God, I had no idea this was good!"
Do you remember the first time you had kale?
[Laughs.] Yes, I was a cynic who needed to be converted. While I had to be introduced to it more than once, I was very young when I knew about the value of kale: My mother was conscious of her nutrition, and she ate things like collard greens, kale, Swiss chard and watercress. My father pretty much didn't. I was quick to enjoy spinach and other things that most kids my age didn't, but kale was an adjustment for me. It was chewier and more resistant, and didn't have that round character that other leafy greens did. But I caught on to it quite soon and my mom experimented with ways to prepare it.
In the recipe below, you blanch the kale first. When I eat raw kale I feel like a cow chewing on cud, it takes so long to break down. Is that why?
Not only that — I've been eating kale forever, but I only learned about three years ago that blanching it contributes to the digestability and therefore the assimilation of so many of its nutrients. I've always served cooked kale, but now I blanch or massage all my kale because I've learned (from speaking with people more enlightened than myself) that more of the nutrients are absorbed by our system when we first blanch or massage it.
How does kale fit into a healthy vision for your restaurant?
The nutritional profile is the primary reason I use it. It's a super antioxidant, and it's a great, what I call a platform food: It can be served in a variety of different ways. We sauté it in virgin coconut oil with a little sea salt, and we garnish all kinds of plates with it, like chicken, duck, game, fish. I keep serving it as long as the season permits because a lot of people will order it as a side dish anyway.
Could you tell me more about sourcing kale and your relationships with farmers?
Kale is abundant here in the Northeast. It's a very hearty crop that doesn't suffer as much as, say, corn, in difficult times. The relationship I have with all my suppliers — farmers, ranchers, fishermen, chocolatiers — it's the most important aspect of what we do. I've spent the time to build an excellent culinary staff, so we're all really good cooks. But the sourcing is essential; there are farmers I've been doing business with — some of them for 17 years.
I, my family and my business are all devoted to sustainably raised, community-supported agriculture, natural foods of all kinds, proteins that are hormone-, antibiotic-, and steroid-free, grass-fed pastured and so forth. GreenSquare is a farm-to-table restaurant.
The whole West Coast has been ahead of the curve for years. Back in the early '90s I was there with my family; my favorite place was Chez Panisse, because they're surrounded by their own garden. It doesn't get any better than that.
What is the strangest preparation of kale you've ever made or eaten?
It's not as off-the-wall as a dessert, but I've juiced kale and use it a dessert garnishing liquid or sauce. The strangest use I ever made of it is as a primary ingredient in a vegetarian lasagna, because of its fiberous character, ability to stand on its own and be recognized amongst a variety of ingredients.
Fall Kale Salad
Chef John Marsh uses only local, organic ingredients in this festive fall salad served at his NYC restaurant, GreenSquare Tavern.
¾ cup butternut squash, cut into ½-inch-cubes
2 cups kale leaves
2 tablespoons julienned radish
1 tablespoon shallot, finely minced
1 tablespoon toasted sunflower seeds
1 tablespoon toasted pumpkin seeds
¼ tablespoon Celtic sea salt
4 grinds from mill of organic black pepper
3 tablespoons Fall Vinaigrette (recipe follows)
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Spread butternut squash cubes in single layer. Roast squash 15 to 20 minutes, or until fork-tender. Remove from oven; cool.
Meanwhile, bring large pot of water to boil. Blanch kale in boiling water 30 seconds. Remove and shock leaves in bowl of ice water; remove and dry. Stem leaves and cut into 1-inch strips.
In large bowl combine squash, kale and remaining ingredients. Toss well to combine. Divide evenly between two room temperature plates and serve immediately.
Kitchen Tip: Make a great main course meal by topping with organic grilled chicken, pan-roasted wild-caught salmon or grilled wild shrimp.
Store extra vinaigrette in an airtight container. Shake to recombine.
Makes 1 ½ cups vinaigrette
1 cup olive oil
¼ cup walnut oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
¼ teaspoon salt
Combine both oils. In separate medium bowl, whisk vinegars and salt until salt is thoroughly dissolved. Stir in pomegranate molasses. Slowly add blended oils while whisking vigorously.
Story by Clean Plates Managing Editor, Tory L. Davis