Kale plants in the backyard are a show all winter long. Hardy and steadfast, they dominate a big patch of the winter garden, and lately they’ve turned seasonal warmth and light into effervescent new leaves – garden sirens beckoning me to look, to photograph and to eat. Be kale my heart may be a frivolous salute to their swirling green beauty that I’m in love with this week, but kale rolls made a few days ago turned out to be a worthy testimonial.
When my grandmother was in her late nineties and still as avid a gardener as she could be, she honed her vegetable plot down to three plants: tomatoes, zucchini and kale. She ate kale all winter long, steamed and then doused it – her word – with vinegar, which was an ever-present condiment on her table. She vigorously claimed that vinegar kept her free of arthritic pain. She walked two miles a day right up to one hundred years of age. So, vinegar it is.
Or is it genes? Whatever, vinegar is an excellent accompaniment to steamed kale. Steam it for 7 or 8 minutes with a little water, drain, add 1 or 2 tablespoons of olive oil along with some finely chopped garlic. Let that sizzle for about thirty seconds, stir in the cooked kale. Turn off the heat, splash with any vinegar and eat. (Someone gave us truffle oil a few years back and I must say a few drops of that just before serving works pretty well too.)
So this week I wanted to feast on kale both with my eyes and my stomach. I arranged leaves from several varieties in the backyard – Nero Di Toscana, White Russian, Dwarf Siberian, Winterbor, Winter Red and Fizz – and made myself another backyard bouquet.
All were started from scratch last July, planted in the garden on August 15th. They’ve lived up to their strong-willed sounding names. Any time now they’ll begin their flowering and we’ll eat Brassica florets for the next couple of months. They’ll finally be finished about the time the first round of spring greens are ready to harvest in mid-May. Eaten from October until May, that’s not a bad run, and with virtually no intervention after the August planting. Well, some slug patrol, but not even much of that is needed mid-winter.
More effort is required than for the steamed version, but I decided to try kale rolls (aka cabbage rolls). I’m not much of a fussy cook, but this can be the center of a meal and they’re absolutely delicious. Leftovers for lunch today were a feast.
It helped that I had kale growing in the backyard, and leftover cooked rice, fresh mozzarella, tomato sauce, and a small amount of ground turkey sitting in the fridge. Some things are meant to be. So I made these kale rolls. This anecdotal recipe will get you going, but add and subtract ingredients to your heart’s content in terms of meat, no meat, herbs and spices, finely chopped flavors of any kind. The dish is all about the steaming, filling and rolling of the kale.
Kale Rolls for 4 (about 12 small rolls)
15 – 17 large, whole kale leaves
1/2 # ground turkey
2 T finely chopped onion
1 t finely chopped garlic
Splash of cream or milk (maybe 3 T)
*1 C tomato sauce
1/4 C finely chopped fresh chives, parsley, oregano and/or basil (or 1 T dried herbs)
1/4 C grated Parmesan
Salt & pepper
1 1/2 C cooked rice
Optional: small pieces of cheese for the center of each roll. Mozzarella for melting on top if you have it.
Rinse and trim the kale, using only the broadest part of the leaves and cutting out the toughest piece of stem at the base of each. Place in a saucepan with a small amount of water with lid on, in a more or less flat pile. Steam leaves for a couple of minutes until they’re floppy and still bright green.
In a bowl stir together the turkey, onion, garlic, milk, 1/4 C tomato sauce, herbs, salt and pepper. Reserve 3/4 C tomato sauce for later. Sauté this mixture in olive oil until meat is just cooked through. Stir in the cooked rice and Parmesan cheese.
Drape 4 or 5 steamed kale leaves around the edge and up over the rim of a lightly oiled casserole dish.
Ready to Roll! Place steamed kale leaves on a large work surface, vein side down. Arrange pieces of kale so that the leaf will roll and hold the filling relatively well. Place 1/4 – 1/3 C of the rice mixture near the base of the leaf, plop a small bit of cheese in the center if you like, fold sides in the best you can while rolling gently from one end to the other. Voilà, kale roll. They might be rustic, no worries. Don’t be too fussy. The tendency, mine anyway, was to place too much mixture on the leaf making it more difficult to roll.
I found the rolling fairly easy and I’m not particularly handy at such things. Carefully place each beautiful green package of lusciousness into the casserole pan. Pull leaves that are lining the pan over the top more or less, add 2 or 3 tablespoons of water to the pan, cover with a lid or a piece of foil and bake at 350º for 30 minutes. (If rolls were made earlier and refrigerated, increase baking time by 10 minutes or so.) Remove foil, drizzle remaining tomato sauce over the kale rolls, add grated mozzarella, Parmesan or any cheese you like and bake for a few more minutes. Remove from oven. Sprinkle with fresh herbs if you have them. Parmesan polenta on the side is perfect.
When you have these babies sitting on your plate, you want to believe they’re winters’ best green food and it might be so. Green on many levels.
*Last summer’s roasted tomato sauce is sublime. You can make a really good roasted sauce mid-winter using canned tomatoes. Sauté some onion in plenty of oil until they’re translucent, add chopped garlic, a can of drained tomatoes, stir together, cover and roast in the oven at 350º – 375º for 30-40 minutes. Check periodically. Remove from oven, let it cool a bit, purée with a blender device of any kind and it’s sauce – which transitions into amazing tomato soup.