Kale grows on foodies nationwide

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Kale is about as unlikely a food star as you can imagine. It’s tough and fibrous. Bite a piece of raw kale and you’ll practically end up with splinters between your teeth. Nevertheless, kale has become a green of the moment because, given a little special care, it actually can be made not only edible but delicious.

You can cook it, of course, the lower and slower the better. But surprisingly, one of the most popular ways to use kale these days is in salads. Though kale leaves have always been found on almost every salad bar, it wasn’t for munching -- it was for decoration, because this was one green so tough it would last forever without wilting.

But the solution is remarkably simple: Give it a massage. Yes, seriously. And I mean a real massage -- a deep-tissue bone-breaker. Grab bunches of it in both hands and squeeze. Then rub them together. And repeat.

In just a couple of minutes, you’ll be amazed at the difference. That tough cellulose structure actually wilts, and those leaves that once seemed so coarse and fibrous turn silky.

You can feel it happening. You can see it too -- the leaves will darken and shrink to almost half their pre-massage volume.

The flavor changes as well. That pronounced bitterness mellows, revealing some of the same depths of sweet green flavor you get through long, slow cooking. In fact, the best way to know you’ve massaged kale long enough is to take a bite. The color and texture can change before the leaves are completely softened. But taste doesn’t lie.

Even better, because the massaged greens have such a wonderful texture and just the right mix of sweet and bitter flavor, you don’t need much of a salad dressing. Use a little good olive oil and a pinch of salt during the rubdown and all you need afterward is a hint of acidity -- vinegar or lemon juice -- for a perfectly balanced salad.

One mark of kale’s rock star status is the sheer number of varieties available. It wasn’t so long ago that you found just dark green curly kale. Then came the type variously called “Tuscan,” “lacinato” or “dinosaur.” Now you can even find kales beautifully colored in shades of lavender and purple.

The good news is, they all work equally well for salads. Provided, of course, you give them a good rubdown first.

Kale Salad With Farro, Dried Fruit and Blue Cheese

Total time: 1 hour. Servings: 4 to 6

¼ cup farro

Water

Salt

¼ cup mixed dried fruit (such as sour cherries, cranberries, raisins)

1 tablespoon orange-flavored liqueur, such as Grand Marnier

1 pound kale (about 2 bunches)

1 tablespoon olive oil

¼ cup crumbled blue cheese

2 tablespoons minced red onion

2 tablespoons chopped toasted pecans

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

Freshly ground pepper to taste

Toast the farro in a dry medium saucepan over medium heat until it smells nutty and turns golden, about 5 minutes. Add 2 cups water and bring to a simmer. Season with one-half teaspoon salt and cook until the farro is tender but still a little chewy, about 45 minutes. Drain (there will probably still be some liquid left), rinse under cold running water and gently pat dry in a kitchen towel.

Place the dried fruit in a small bowl with the Grand Marnier. Add just enough warm water to cover and set aside until softened, about 15 minutes. Alternatively, you can microwave them for 30 seconds and let stand for 5 minutes.

Remove and discard the stems from the kale. Chop the leaves into bite-sized pieces. Place in a large mixing bowl with 1 teaspoon salt and the olive oil. Grab the leaves by the handfuls and massage them roughly. Don’t be timid. After a minute or two, the coarse, stiff leaves will turn soft and silky. You’ll have about half the volume of kale you started with.

Drain the dried fruit and add it to the kale, along with the cooked farro, blue cheese, red onion, pecans and vinegar. Toss to mix well, then season to taste with black pepper and more salt and vinegar, if necessary.

Kale ‘Caesar’

Total time: 25 minutes. Servings: 4 to 6

1 cup fresh bread crumbs

2 cloves garlic, split in half lengthwise

1 teaspoon lemon zest

Olive oil

Salt

1 pound kale

4 teaspoons lemon juice

1 ounce Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated or shaved with a vegetable peeler

Toast the bread crumbs: Combine them in a small saucepan with the garlic, lemon zest and 3 tablespoons olive oil. Stir to coat well. There should be only a light trace of oil in the bottom of the pan. Season with a pinch of salt and place over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the crumbs darken, about 5 minutes. Transfer them to a small bowl and set them aside to cool slightly.

Remove and discard the stems from the kale. Chop the leaves into bite-sized pieces. Place in a large mixing bowl with 1 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Grab the leaves by the handful and massage them roughly. Don’t be timid. After a minute or two, the coarse, stiff leaves will turn soft and silky. You’ll have about half the volume of kale you started with.

Add the toasted bread crumbs and lemon juice and toss well. Season to taste with more salt and lemon juice if necessary. Arrange on separate salad plates or on a platter and sprinkle grated or shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano over top.

Kale Salad With Roasted Winter Squash

Total time: 50 minutes, plus cooling time for the squash. Servings: 4 to 6

1 pound section of butternut squash, unpeeled (preferably the thinner neck)

Olive oil

2½ teaspoons minced garlic (about 2 cloves)

½ teaspoon minced fresh thyme

Salt

1 ounce grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (about ¼ cup loosely packed)

1 pound kale

1 teaspoon sherry vinegar

¼ cup chopped toasted walnuts

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the butternut squash lengthwise into quarters, then seed and remove any of the stringy center. Cut the pieces crosswise into slices a little thicker than one-fourth inch. Place the squash in a large mixing bowl and add 2 tablespoons olive oil, the garlic, the thyme and 1 teaspoon salt. Toss to coat well. Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano and toss again.

Line a jellyroll pan with metal foil and scatter the squash wedges in a single layer. Roast until the squash is tender, fragrant and lightly browned, about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

Remove and discard the stems from the kale. Chop the leaves into bite-sized pieces. Place in a large mixing bowl with 1 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Grab the leaves by the handfuls and massage them roughly. Don’t be timid. After a minute or two, the coarse, stiff leaves will turn soft and silky. You’ll have about half the volume of kale you started with. Add the sherry vinegar and toss well. Season to taste with more salt and vinegar if necessary.

Arrange the greens in a low mound on individual serving plates or on a platter. Scatter the cooled squash pieces over the top. Sprinkle with chopped walnuts and serve.