The verdant brassica whose frilly fronds are key to capturing other flavours. Plus, a hearty white bean soup recipe with endless customisations.
Welcome to ingredient, where once a month I take a deep dive into some of my favourite seasonal and store cupboard ingredients. This month I’m focusing on Curly Kale: once the health nut and clean eating junkie’s favourite vegetable, now an autumn \ winter staple I think is at risk of being overlooked in favour of some of the fancier brassica varieties that populate our farm shops and supermarket shelves.
Additionally, at the bottom of this post you’ll find my recipe for a hearty White Bean, Bacon & Kale Soup which is designed to keep in the fridge for a few days - the flavours improving the longer it sits - ready to be jazzed up with whatever toppings you’re in the mood for come meal time. Today we’re dressing it up with a vibrant orange-yolked poached egg, a generous spoonful of kimchee and a good drizzle of toasted sesame oil.
If you’re a paid subscriber, I’m playing with a few things including a kale salad, a warming dhal-type thing topped with lovely frills of crisped kale, I’m planning on shooting a weeknight one-pan chicken dish I’ve not made for ages but used to be a staple in our last London flat (it suited the unpredictability of the frankly crap oven), and I’m going to find out how easy or hard it is to reproduce that lovely crispy ‘seaweed’ that comes from Chinese takeaways - which is in fact fried kale - at home. If you never hear of this particular project again, it will serve as a clear indication of how it went…!
To receive these recipes, plus access all of the recipes from past newsletters as well as my Kitchen Cupboards interviews, you can upgrade your subscription here. And, if you fancy exploring the archives for more inspiration, last November we were focused on Flour, one of the most important ingredients in any kitchen, sweet or savoury!
As soon as the weather turns even vaguely crisp you can guarantee I’ll always have some sort of brassica in the fridge to pair with stews, simple suppers, and Sunday roasts. Carrots are a permanent essential, as well as leeks because J loves them so much, but cabbage? That only appears on chilly days.
You can pretty much guarantee that the brassica in question on any given week (though right now I have all three) will either take the form of a majestic, frilly savoy cabbage, stems of sultry dark Cavelo Nero, or a bunch of the I now think overlooked curly kale (though nearer Christmas brussels sprouts to sometimes make an appearance to for salads, slaws and roasting - but never boiling!)
Whilst in the early 2010’s kale had it’s moment as the health food people were clamouring to stuff into everything from smoothies to salads to snack bowls (in the form of kale chips, bonus points if these were seasoned with nutritional yeast and made in an air fryer..!) now I think it’s been relegated to just another vegetable, and one that does not have the seasonal symbolism as say, the brussel sprout, or the vibrancy of rainbow chard, or the fancy finish of the aforementioned Nero variety.
My father always turns his nose up at kale, because to him kale is the grazing crop destined as animal, rather than people feed that he used to skip school to ride his horse through fields of. He still tells me this every time he sees me digging into some.
All of this aside though, I do still love a good kale salad - there is a reason I put one on the cover of my last cookbook - if you don’t already have some to hand, go and buy a bunch of kale just to discover the joy of what happens when you massage it between your fingertips with salt and some sort of acid, breaking down the tough, fibrous leaves just enough to be good to eat in what is still a raw state, but unlike summer’s lettuce retaining enough strength to really hold up to whatever dressing you want to throw at it for however long - a perfect thing to remember as we head into the season of culinary-based entertaining.
Now, before we start discussing ways to cook with this glorious vegetable, I need to warn you of one major barriers to kale appreciation if you happen to source your vegetables from British supermarkets: don’t make the mistake of buying bags of chopped kale where it is always done too small, and you either need to painstakingly pick out all the tough bits of stem that were unceremoniously fed into the shredder, or simply put up with them. And besides, cut curly kale too small and you’ll miss the point. You want to source long, verdant, undulating stems of the stuff ready to be simply stripped off it’s fibrous core in already prepped ‘bite sized’ pieces, ready to pick up all the juices of whatever you’re serving it with in the manner of a sauce getting between the grooves of a bowlful of fusilli.
Happily, most stores have caught on and you have the option of buying the natural stuff alongside the pre-processed and pre-bagged variety.
Obviously I’ve got a brand new recipe for you below, and a few more to follow later in the month, but can I also direct you to a few hidden so deep in the archives of my blog they’re at risk of being overlooked?
Way back in 2018 when I was fresh into doing this food thing full time I did a sponsored recipe for Scala, the pesto makers where I discovered their red sundried tomato pesto is a joyous thing to stir through a pan of mussels (which just happen to be coming into season) and curly kale, where the delicious juices from both the opening shells and the punchy sauce cling in all the little kale frills making mouthfuls of it just as much of a treat as the bivalves themselves?
Going back even earlier, to 2016 when I was still living at home with my parents and I remember cooking up big panfuls of crispy kale in avocado oil, finished with Fleur de Sel for my mother and I to enjoy with every meal I piled it onto hummus toast with thyme roasted cherry tomatoes for a crispy, seasonal update on a breakfast I still enjoy today. And, if my memory serves that dish was inspired by this winter grain bowl of bulgar wheat, slow roasted cherry tomatoes and kale where the tomato juice-soaked grains again nestled beautifully in curly kale’s frills.
The point of this simple, hearty White Bean, Bacon & Kale Soup is to make a big pot of it for the fridge that will last a few days - the flavour improving the longer it sits - to which you can add different toppings and fixings depending on your mood, if you fancy a bowlful for lunch on a rainy day, or a bigger portion on a blustery evening.
We start with a leek, slowly cooked until soft in extra virgin olive oil (which will later help boost the grassy flavours of the kale) with a generous pinch of salt before lardons are added. Now, we’re not talking about pancetta here or anything fancy (though this would be the best substitute for my American reader): good old British thick cut lardons which will not just add heft to this soup, but flavour it as one of our ‘we don’t need to add stock here’ ingredients.
Now, if you go smoked or unsmoked is an important consideration. If you’re grabbing a pack for this at the supermarket, get unsmoked so you’re flavouring your soup with pure, unadulterated bacon flavour: too many smoked supermarket lardons have smoked flavourings added to them, and we don’t want any of that here (or indeed at all). But, if you’re grabbing them from a good butcher or online meat supplier where you can guarantee that your lardons have been naturally smoked, the choice is yours.
The final layer of flavour we’re adding before we leave things to simmer is the jarred beans: you want to use jarred her as you want the liquid from the jar also added to the soup to boost the flavour, a little tip I learnt when I was interviewing restaurant PR and all-round ‘person you want cooking dinner for you’ Hannah Blake.
And yes, I like the rest of the British recipe writing establishment have jumped on the Bold Bean Co. bandwagon because their jarred beans are in fact rather good, but Perello are also a worthy choice (and I actually think their butter beans have the edge!)
After you’ve simmered and seasoned this base soup, you just need to add the kale (do this just before serving, rather than all in one go because it will go grey in the fridge and become a little tough if left in and re-heated) which will add verdancy and pull this simple soup together, making it worthy of your best soup bowl. Of course other greens can be added here, but this is a love letter to kale, after all.
The soup is good as is, but depending on your mood a poached egg is also good here (no, I’ve not photoshopped it, Clarence Court just sell excellent eggs with my favourite yolks out there) and whilst it has a slightly Italian feel to it, the simplicity of the soup means that other cuisines can join the party too: for lunch earlier I upped the brassica count with a generous spoonful of kimchee (Kim Kong, as I appear to be in the mood for recommendations) and a final drizzle of toasted sesame oil for depth, nuttiness, and an extra element of fat on the tongue. I’d probably have finished the whole thing off with a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds too if I’d not run out.
White Bean, Bacon & Kale Soup (with Kimchee and a Poached Egg)
Serves: 2-3, Preparation time: 10 minutes, Cooking time: 30 minutes
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 leek, trimmed and finely sliced into half moons
100g lardons (see headnotes)
1/2 700g jar of white beans, plus their liquid
400ml cold water
freshly ground black pepper
2 large handfuls curly kale, roughly chopped
2-3 poached eggs1
toasted sesame oil
Heat the oil in the bottom of a large, heavy bottomed saucepan of casserole dish over a medium high heat. Add the leek with a generous pinch of salt and cook until softened.
Add the lardons and continue to cook until they’re cooked through and the leeks are just starting to caramalise on the bottom of the pot.
Add the beans and the juice they’re sitting in, followed by the water and some pepper. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer with the lid on for 15 minutes.
Season to taste before adding the kale and cooking for 4-5 minutes until the kale is soft.
Divide between bowls and top each with a poached egg, a generous spoonful of kimchee, a drizzle of kimchee juice from the jar, and a good dribble of toasted sesame oil.
I poach my eggs by adding a splash of white wine vinegar to a big pot of boiling water, swirling it to make a whirlpool with a spoon and dropping an egg that has already been cracked into a cup into the middle. The moment the white is set I fish it out onto a kitchen paper-lined plate and go again. For up to 4 eggs do this, and drop the cooling ones back in at the end of the last one for about 30 seconds to heat it back through before serving.