Each year, the Green Giant Company polls Americans, state by state, to determine our country’s favorite vegetable. This year more than 5,000 people, ages 13-73, responded to the survey.
Broccoli was the runaway champion for the second year in a row, chosen by 39 states, including Washington. Seven states chose corn, with Iowa noticeably not among them.
Carrots were the only orange vegetable to win in any state, given a shout-out by Nevada and North Dakota. Maybe you thought that cauliflower had it all, but unfortunately, only voters in Montana agreed.
Alaska loves asparagus more than any other state (this was the first time that asparagus and cauliflower made the cut). Perhaps the biggest surprise was that only Arkansas admitted to loving potatoes best (it could be that most Americans don’t think of French fries as a vegetable). Idaho may be the “Potato State,” but voters there went with broccoli.
Where were peas, squash, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, peppers, cucumbers, or green beans? A small, limited poll like this is not definitive, but it does point out that when it comes to eating their veggies, Americans aren’t very adventurous.
I’m not surprised that kale failed to make the list. As a matter of fact, if Green Giant asked Americans to name their most disliked vegetable, I’d bet that kale would win by a landslide. But growing numbers of “foodies” are helping to change all that.
The underappreciated vegetable’s star began to rise when Bon Appetit magazine christened 2012 as “The Year of Kale.” It was popping up on Michelin-star restaurant menus, and had become a regular ingredient on the most-followed food blogs. Kale was making its way into salads, soups and pestos; and bags of kale chips could be found on the grocery store snack aisle.
What’s more, kale has been turning up in even more unlikely places. Ari Shapiro, host of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” announced on a show in January 2016 that “We have some breaking news from our dedicated kale coverage desk here at NPR. Starting now, Chick-fil-A has kale on its menu next to the spicy chicken sandwich and the waffle fries. It’s called the Superfood Side.”
Kale is on the menu because it’s one of the world’s most nutritious foods, rich in carotenoids and flavonoids. These substances may help prevent some chronic health conditions, including certain types of cancer and heart disease.
One cup of kale has just 36 calories, zero grams of fat, a staggering 684 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin K, twice the allowance of vitamin A, and 134 percent of C vitamins. It’s also an excellent source of calcium, iron and dietary fiber. However, those taking blood thinning medications or with a kidney problem should check with their doctor before adding more kale to their diet.
Honestly, I grew kale long before I ever actually considered eating it. Several years ago, when the idea of “edible landscaping” began showing up in gardening magazines, “Redbor” kale was everywhere. With frilly, curled leaves and deep purple stems and veins, this plant could hold its own against any coleus or heuchera. There it was, photographed in beautiful urns on front porches, or as a vegetable masquerading as an ornamental in the most sophisticated mixed border.
With dramatic foliage that’s a perfect complement not only to a range of pastels, but intense tropical colors, like orange, hot pink, indigo and deep purple, it’s a colorist’s dream. I used it often, covering lots of ground and filling lots of pots with a single, economically priced six-pack I could pick up at the garden store.
When I finally took a taste, it was a pleasant surprise. Redbor had cabbage’s sweet flavor and crisp texture. Around that time, my youngest son William, always finicky about vegetables as a child, was becoming a “foodie” himself, adding kale to breakfast smoothies, or roasting it with olive oil to make chips. He was talking about kale like I talked about basil: you can never really have too much.
It didn’t take long before I asked my husband to grow kale for us in his vegetable garden. We like the heirloom “Nero di Toscana,” often called dinosaur kale. It takes only 25 days to grow big enough to harvest as baby greens, and 25 more to mature with long, narrow, deeply rumpled dark-greenish-gray leaves that curl under.
“Red Russian” is another popular variety, with beautiful and tender serrated, blue-green leaves with purple stems and veins. Another heirloom, it was introduced to America in 1885 via Canada, brought there by French traders. The leaves stay very tender, even when mature.
Kale is a biennial, which means it will flower and set seed in the second year. When this happens, don’t miss eating a single flower bud. Snip them off just before they open, along with 3-inches of stem. If you prefer edible flowers, cut the flower head off just as the blossoms begin to open, and toss them in your salads or stir-fries.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about kale is the antifreeze that seems to run through its veins. As a survival mechanism, cool-season vegetables like kale convert carbohydrates to sugars in response to cold. Sugar water freezes at a lower temperature than plain water, making the plant’s cells are more durable. This explains why kale gets sweeter as it gets colder.
Remember last winter, with its heavy snowfalls and frigid temperatures? I had to bundle up to do it, but I harvested fresh leaves throughout the entire season. I even had enough to deliver a big bagful to a kale-loving friend every Monday.
I love to use kale in winter soups. I stock my freezer full of a sauce I make from ripe garden tomatoes and sweet onions, slow-roasted in olive oil with lots of garlic. This sublime concoction becomes the base for the Barany version of the classic Tuscan Ribollita. With the addition of white beans, big handfuls of chopped kale, carrots, and celery, and topped with umami-packed Parmesan and some rustic bread cubes, this is soup nirvana.
You can buy bags of fresh kale at the grocery store, but growing your own is easy. Sow kale seeds in early spring as soon as the soil warms to about 50 degrees, or buy starts at the nursery. Some gardeners plant a crop of kale later in the season, about 60 days before our first frost. Choose a well-drained, full-sun location.
If you’re starting it from seed, thin the plants as they grow, adding the tiny leaves to salads. Kale is a wide-body vegetable, so give it plenty of room.
To harvest, pick leaves starting from the bottom of the stem and working upward. Be sure to remove the tough mid-rib before cooking or eating. Because I faithfully harvest my plants, they resemble a palm tree later in the season, with a long, bare stem topped with a shaggy fluff of leaves.
Oct. 2, 2013, was declared the very first “National Kale Day,” and it continues to be celebrated on the first Wednesday of every October. Will kale ever take a spot on your list of favorite vegetables? You’ll never know until you try, and Oct. 2 is just around the corner.
Why not add kale to your menu that day, or order some kale seeds to plant in 2020?