The softer, sweeter side of kale

Most traditional winter crops are root vegetables, such as potatoes, beets, onions, carrots, turnips, and garlic. Cabbage, being a leafy green vegetable, is one exception to this rule. Cabbage is also more versatile than any other vegetable, as it can be served cooked, raw, and fermented.

Back in the pre-supermarket days, when people lived off their basements and fresh local chlorophyll was in short supply for many months of the year, kale was a vitamin-rich lifeline. Today, even though we have many other options this time of year, winter is still the best time to eat kale because now is the sweetest time.

I have some farmer friends who grow literally tons of kale and they say after the holidays is when they sell the most. So now, at the height of kale season, it’s time to have a kale session.

Raw kale’s crunchiness and shelf life make it useful in many ways. It can provide texture to fish tacos, a floating side on a soup, or a bed for a sandwich. But in salads, kale isn’t for everyone, because not all of us want to train our jaws when we eat our greens.

Cooking is one way to bring out the soft side of kale, and I have a recipe for kale parmesan to give you. But first I’ll borrow an oft-used coleslaw trick and tell you how to tenderize raw cabbage by massaging it in.

Kale is a nutritious addition to any salad and can be softened by massaging it. (Ari LeVaux)

Massaged Cabbage Salad

Kneading cabbage leaves with salt helps break down their fibrous structure and makes the cabbage leaves silky tough. Roasted walnuts add a savory texture, sun-dried tomatoes add chewy acidity, and grated Parmesan or Romano cheese add boldness.

Serves 4 (that said, I can eat a whole lot on its own)

  • 1 cabbage (2 lbs.)
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • Juice of one lemon (about 3 tablespoons)
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • 6 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1 clove of garlic, pressed or minced
  • 1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan or romano cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Remove the tough outer leaves from the cabbage and cut the core. Halve the cabbage, lay flat sides on the cutting board, and cut into 1/2-inch strips.

Place the chopped cabbage in a large bowl. Add the salt and lemon juice. Blend and juice the cabbage, working the salt and juice into the leaves, until soft and limp and the volume has reduced considerably.

Leave the savoy cabbage to marinate in the salt and lemon juice while lightly toasting the walnuts over medium heat until lightly browned and fragrant but not burnt. Let them cool.

While the nuts cool, add the oil, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, and cabbage cheese and mix it all together. Add the nuts, stir, taste, and season with more salt if needed. Serve garnished with black pepper and more grated cheese.

cabbage parmesan

Like eggplant or chicken parmesan—or pizza, for that matter—the focus of this dish is the interplay of tomato, bread, and cheese. You could tell the kale is in the right place at the right time, but it adds body and sweetness as it melts and quietly carries the dish. As with other Parmesan dishes, this one tastes even better the next day.

Serves 6 to 8

  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 3 cups chopped onion
  • 1 (28 oz) can crushed tomatoes or other tomato product (I use my frozen salsa)
  • 1 cabbage (2 lbs.)
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme (or 1/2 tablespoon dried)
  • 1 tablespoon oregano (or 1/2 tablespoon dried)
  • 3 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
  • 8-inch baguette section, preferably sourdough, or that amount of other white bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 1/2 cups grated Parmesan

Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed or deep skillet with a tight-fitting lid and sauté the onions, along with any meat and/or mushrooms you may wish to add, over medium heat. While this happens, toast the pieces of bread under the broiler on a baking sheet. Watch them carefully and don’t let them burn.

Once the onions are weeping and cooking, about 10 minutes, add the tomatoes (don’t throw the can), oregano, thyme, garlic, salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Fill the tomato jar with one cup of water, shake it to collect the remains, and add the tomato water to the pot.

While the onions and tomatoes simmer, cut the cabbage into “noodles.” Cut the amount of cabbage you need and place it face down on the cutting board. Cut it into pie-like wedges, slicing towards the center from various angles on the outside of the hemisphere. The cuts should be about 1/2 inch apart.

Add these cabbage noodles to the pot and cook over medium heat for about 30 minutes with the lid on, until the cabbage is tender. Add the bread cubes and cheese and mix as gently and briefly as possible. Add a final sprinkling of cheese, cook for another 5 minutes and turn off the heat. Let stand, covered, for about 10 minutes and serve.

Ari LeVaux

Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Mont.