There's usually a farmer at the market who's amenable to working a late-season deal on kale. This is partly thanks to timing: When farmers markets are getting ready to end for the year is exactly when the summer's planting of kale is at its peak, in quality and quantity. Kale gets sweeter with cool weather and can handle light freezing, but by the time the first frost is on the pumpkin it's mostly forgotten. By then the autumn harvest is in full swing, a distracting lineup of things like shiny winter squash and belly-filling potatoes, and the green hearty leaves of kale get left behind. But now is when I pay attention to kale with renewed interest, because it's my favorite green to freeze for winter, and now's the time.
Kale, we all know, is one of the healthiest things you can eat. It's easy to like the idea of kale, easy to like the first time one eats it. But it's also easy to tire of one's go-to recipes for anything, including kale. A season of kale overload combined with an abundance of supply means that a lot of farmers end up plowing under a lot of really good kale at the end of the season. This makes farmers ready to cut deals.
I have a pretty good kale deal going. I got into it by first identifying the grower of the best kale at my farmers market, and then asking him if he'd let me glean his field before he tills it under. Gleaning is a time-honored tradition by which the village poor people descend upon the spent fields after the farmer has harvested his crop, looking for leftovers. Asking a farmer if you can glean his field is kind of like asking Don Corleone for a favor on the day of his daughter's wedding—no Sicilian could refuse.
Though my kale farmer didn't necessarily want me tromping around his field, he didn't want the crop to go to waste either. We made a deal.
Next week he brought a kitchen trash bag to market stuffed with bright leaves of curly green kale, which is my hands-down favorite of all kale varieties for winter freezing. The leaves are tender and robust, with a delicate flavor and satisfying levels of starch. He charged me $20 for the bag, which contained the rough equivalent of about 20 $3 bunches.
"It's unwashed," he warned me, apologetically.
At home, I washed the leaves and pulled the leafy parts off the stems, and steamed them for three minutes, which is the recommended time for steam-blanching greens for storage. I then transferred the leaves to a basin of cold water to "shock" them, halting the blanching and preserving the leaves' bright green color.
The point of blanching, either by boiling or steaming, is to kill enzymes that would survive freezing and slowly digest your harvest from the inside, in the freezer.
After shocking the leaves I let them drain in a colander, gently squeezing out more water, and then packed the leaves into quart freezer bags, loosely but full. I zipped the lock most of the way across, carefully squeezing the bag so all the air escaped, and zipped it the remaining way shut, creating a poor man's vacuum seal.
I store these green bricks in the freezer, where they remain available when I need them. Most kale recipes I use begin by blanching the kale first anyway, so step one is already done.
One of my favorite things to do with frozen kale is to stir-fry it with garlic, oyster sauce and bacon or beef. It's my thinly veiled version of the Chinese classic beef with broccoli and oyster sauce. Kale holds the garlicky oyster sauce well.
Another classic is the ubiquitous golden beet and kale salad, which can be found in various forms at co-ops or natural food grocers. Poking around online I was impressed at how many versions of this recipe exist, most of which include ginger, sweet bell pepper and broccoli sprouts—all of which we skip at home, making a much less busy and more leveraged version. We even skip the olive oil, leaving the tahini in the dressing as the salad's only source of oil.
The first step is to blanch and shock the kale, per above, but only blanch for half the time you would if you were storing it. If you're using frozen kale, let a bag thaw. Chop the blanched kale as coarsely or thinly as you like (most versions of the recipe call for chiffonade, or thin ribbons). Mix your chopped leaves with grated golden beets, grated carrots, pressed garlic and whole, fresh oregano leaves.
The use of fresh oregano is our recipe's most distinctive twist, thanks to the brilliance of my sweetheart, who started doing this. All other versions I've found use dried oregano, but with fresh that salad is a whole different animal. The dressing is equal parts tahini, soy sauce and apple cider vinegar. Toss it all together with the leaves and roots, and let it marinate for at least 15 minutes.
The juxtaposition of the tahini's nuttiness and the aromatic oregano is striking and exotic, but only happens every third or so mouthful when you happen upon an oregano leaf. Every single leaf of kale, meanwhile, is drenched in a nutty, soy-saucy flavor that is tough to get sick of. This is a good thing, because I have a lot of all of the ingredients in this magic kale salad.