March 4, 2013

A Canuck in Kantuck: Kale on our plates

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — Kale is my new favorite four-letter word. For the past month, I have snuck this green leafy in almost dinner I’ve made: soups, pasta, on the side, in a tart, dressed up with garlic, dressed down with apple cider vinegar, on pizzas, in stews.

It’s gotten to the point where my husband will just stare and it and say, “More kale?”

“Yes, William, more kale.”

Kale and every other kind of green has become the medicine I’ve prescribed my sick husband, who was diagnosed with a very bad virus that has put him in heart failure.

When he was discharged from the hospital at the end of January, I asked the cardiologist, our beloved Dr. Thannoli, if there was anything I could feed William that would help heal his heart.

“Fruit,” he said, with a slight shrug of his shoulders. “Kiwi, citrus, berries, mango.”

So, of course, I’ve been stuffing our grocery basket and force feeding William fruit throughout the day, sometimes just handing him a Cutie and telling him to peel. Luckily, I’ve got a compliant customer and he usually just does.

But kale, I’ve become convinced, is adding an extra boost to his recovery. Not only is it cheap as all get out, it’s been crowned with the title Superfood. An average cooked cup of it contains:

• 89 percent of your recommended daily allowance for vitamin C

• 1,328 percent of your RDA for vitamin K, which keeps your blood healthy

• 354 percent of your RDA for vitamin A (beta-carotene), which is very important because it helps protect from heart disease

I like those numbers. A lot.

It’s interesting because when I was a teen working as a busgirl at the Medicine Rock Café, kale was only something they used to dress up the deep-fried mushroom appetizer if they were feeling fancy. I was entirely convinced it was only capable of being the window dressing of the dish, like a sprig of parsley or a carrot nub carved to look like a rose. I wasn’t even sure it was edible and would slide it unthinkingly into the garbage after clearing the plate.

But ever since I moved to Kentucky, I’ve understood its benefits. It started with my Williams-Sonoma American cookbook, which features a recipe for a whole pot of greens. For some reason, the recipe screamed Easter dinner to me, and since I always host that meal, I always make the dish. It involves not just kale, but collard, mustard and turnip greens too — four pounds of them in total — which I braise slowly with a ham hock.

I can hardly wait to watch William eat that this year, each mouthful theoretically perhaps making him better, the vitamins sliding down his vessels and busily going to work to repair his heart, like the Doozers in Fraggle Rock.

Cooking to make someone better, rather than just cooking to make dinner, is an entirely new experience for me. Every recipe I scour needs to either have a lot of vegetables in the ingredients list or the capacity to accept them. I’ve also turned away from things like white rice and mashed potatoes and replaced them with whole grains like farro, bulgur and quinoa, sweet potatoes or I’ve just omitted the starch altogether. Porridge has replaced toast, broccoli is now a staple in the fridge, and there is absolutely no room in our lives for salt.

As for how William is doing, it’s hard to tell. With this illness, there are very few signs you can go by that indicate the heart function is improving and not just staying the same. But when this not knowing really starts to drive me crazy and I find myself asking William how he feels about every half an hour, I head back to the kitchen, open my cookbooks and plan my next trip to the grocery.


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Now that school is out, what are your family’s summer vacation plans?

A. No major plans. We will probably hang out around Laurel County.
B. Going to the beach!
C. Kentucky has a lot of wonderful state parks, and we plan to visit a few and enjoy quality family time.
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