Slow Gardening in the Piedmont

Story and Photo by Cynthia Wood

For breakfast yesterday, I had toast piled high with leftover sautéed chard topped with a poached egg. It’s a favorite way to incorporate more veggies into my diet and use up leftovers. Sometimes I replace the chard with smushed avocado, and by early fall, my go-to green will be kale.

As a Virginian, I’ve never given much thought to the origin of kale. It’s just always been here and is as thoroughly Southern as I am. Like a dandelion, it’s been here for so long that I’ve given it honorary citizenship, as have many other people, I suspect. A new book, The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats by Daniel Stone, however, has me thinking about the origin of many common foods – mangoes, pomegranates, nectarines, as well as new varieties of cotton, grapes, and wheat.

As for kale, it’s been around since the 1600s. Kale was grown by the ancient Greeks and Romans and eventually travelled all over Europe and Scandinavia, as well as to the New World. Until the end of the Middle Ages, kale was one of several winter-hardy greens commonly grown and eaten by just nearly everyone. Kale was considered rather magical because it could withstand cold weather and remain edible.

Kale is still popular in traditional European dishes. In Portugal and parts of Spain, it’s cooked with potatoes, peppers, and a rich broth to make a hearty soup; in Sweden, it’s minced and added to mashed potatoes; in several German cities, kale is so popular that social clubs organize trips to country inns to eat local specialties made with kale; and, of course, Italians have their cavolo nero, or dinosaur kale. When kale arrived here, it was considered a practical, workday vegetable that could be used to feed the hungry when other vegetables were scarce.

Today, kale is the trendy darling of foodies. It’s massaged and eaten raw in salads, simmered in soups, added to pasta dishes, and, of course, braised for hours with a ham bone and then served with corn bread. The latest way to eat kale, and many other foods, is on toast. According to conventional wisdom, everything tastes better on toast. We even have a popular local restaurant named Toast.

To try my version of an ideal breakfast, sauté some chopped kale (or Swiss chard) in olive oil with garlic and red pepper flakes (I like Aleppo pepper flakes, but that’s just a personal quirk) until the greens are soft. Stir in some crumbled feta cheese or herbed goat cheese. Place the mixture on top of a thick slice of toasted and buttered multi-grain bread and then top it off with a poached or fried egg. Be sure to sprinkle the egg with some alderwood smoked sea salt for an extra layer of goodness.

If you want to do something more elaborate and serve the toast for lunch or dinner, add sautéed mushrooms or leftover butternut squash to the kale. Sweetpotato cubes are good too; they add bits of sweetness that complement the bitterness of the kale. If you don’t like feta or goat cheese, try using a good melty cheddar, Muenster, or even leftover bits of Comté. And if you have the time and would like to add a French accent to your creation, try poaching the egg in red wine. It’s wonderful.

Here’s to kale: native or not, it’s easy to grow and fabulous to eat.

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