I usually cycle my cooking in two phases: 1. buy groceries to make a specific dish; 2. use the leftovers to make something new and different. It’s a process that makes me feel empowered, both creatively and financially (take THAT, grocery store—I’ve turned your “garbage” into dinner for free).
Last October, I was in charge of making an enormous salad for a potluck. I needed a green that could stand up to dressing for an entire day, so I bought 5 bunches of dinosaur kale.
I didn’t want to serve the stems (they’re a little woody and “green”-tasting for me), so I stripped off the greens for the salad. I stared at the heap of stems I’d left behind, realizing that in paying for the kale by weight, I was basically paying for the stems (which I didn’t have the heart to throw away).
I suspected that if I prepared the kale stems in the style of my Italian mother and relatives who cook their vegetables “to death”—I might have a chance at transforming my woody greens into something rich and tasty.
The resulting recipe requires nothing more than good olive oil, garlic, crushed red pepper flakes, water and salt. You can go crazy and use bacon grease, schmaltz, or butter as a substitute for the olive oil—and chicken or vegetable stock in place of the water (you just may want to omit the salt).
The kale stems will become bright green within the first few minutes of cooking, but resist all temptation to take them off of the heat until they’re dull, wilted and yellow-green. Any sooner and they won’t have a chance to develop their luscious texture and rich, nutty sweetness. For a comparison, think roasted broccoli or braised collard greens.
You can hardly go wrong with this recipe, so feel free to cook the stems until tender and wilted—or shriveled and crisp, the way I like them. You may find them so tasty that you’ll start to perceive kale greens as the byproduct.
Olive oil, water and simple flavorings are all you need to transform thick, raw kale stems into a sweet, luscious green vegetable. The longer you cook them, the more they’ll wilt, shrivel and—if you’re lucky—crisp up at the ends. You can always add more braising liquid to your pan and more time to your clock, so don’t be afraid to trust in the forgiving nature of this recipe!
Keep uncooked kale stems fresh by storing them in the refrigerator in a container full of water.
Braised Kale Stems
1 bunch kale (about 12 ounces)
1/2 cup water*
2 tsp extra virgin olive oil**
1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed with the side of a knife
pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
pinch of Kosher salt
*leftover chicken and vegetable stocks are a fine substitute for water—just omit the salt from the recipe
*you can substitute half (or all) of the olive oil with bacon grease, schmaltz, butter or your favorite cooking fat for more depth of flavor
medium-sized frying pan with a lid (or a lid from a large pasta pot)
- Strip the kale greens from the stems using your hands or a paring knife. Hold a single kale leaf by the stem with one hand and turn the leaf upside down.
- If using your hands, pinch your thumb and forefinger knuckle of the other hand right where the greens meet the stem. Glide your “pinching” hand down the entire stem to release the greens. If the stems appear too large for your pan, cut them in half. Store the greens in the refrigerator for your next salad or sauté.
- If using a paring knife, hold a small paring knife in the other hand. Glide the knife (away from your body!) in small strokes down the entire stem to release the greens. If the stems appear too large for your pan, cut them in half. Store the greens in the refrigerator for your next salad or sauté.
- Heat the oil over medium heat in a medium-sized frying pan. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes to the pan and sauté for 2 minutes, until the garlic is fragrant and pale golden.
- Add the kale stems and a pinch of salt to the pan and sauté for 3-5 minutes, until the stems are bright green.
- Pour the water over the kale stems, cover the pan with the lid, and reduce the heat to medium-low.
- Simmer the kale stems for 20-30 minutes (depending on the thickness of your kale stems), stirring and checking the water levels periodically. If at any point the pan seems dry, add additional water 1-2 tablespoons at a time. Be sure to keep the pan covered.
- After 20-30 minutes of simmering, the water should have evaporated, leaving the kale stems to fry in their own oil for an additional minute or two.
- Transfer the kale stems to a plate and serve.