Comfort Food

Comfort Food

Oak Leaf Kale

Did you know that kale and quinoa were introduced to the United States at the same time?  Yep!  That is the case, and they didn’t arrive in the 1990s when we know their popularity exploded … but a hundred years before.  David Fairchild was a USDA botanist and world traveler.  He explored the world and brought 200,000 new fruits and vegetables to the United States.

Fairchild’s job was to travel around the world and find these crops, research them and make certain it was safe to bring them to the U.S.   His interest in botany came naturally.  He was born in Michigan and his father was the first president of the Michigan State University.  Later the family moved to Kansas, where his father was President of Kansas State University.  Both universities had strong agricultural programs and Fairchild had first-hand knowledge of the lackluster foods of America at that time.  The Smithsonian Institute initially funded Fairchild’s travels, but after a few years, President William McKinley’s administration absorbed the project as part of the USDA.  We can thank David Fairchild each time we peel a banana, pop the pit out of an avocado or drink a beer.  Yes, he traveled to Germany, made friends with some of the men who guarded the fields of hops and managed to ‘steal’ some to bring back home!  Thank you!

I owned a big restaurant in the 1980s and I purchased cases of kale.  We didn’t eat it!  We used it to line our salad bar (the first salad bar our little college town had)!  For most of the 1900s, kale was primarily grown for decorative purposes, but finally in the 1990s, we began to eat it and by 2010, the kale trend had certainly blown up!  Kale salads; kale smoothies; kale chips.

David Fairchild found kale growing in Croatia. Food historians tell us that kale was growing along the Mediterranean 4,000 BC.  We know that the ways of cooking in the times of David Fairchild included stewing, so the earliest American cookbooks teach us to prepare it that way.  We know that kale was grown in European gardens because it was hearty.  It was a food needed during WWI because it was cheap to grow and was prolific.  We know it was a suggested crop for the Victory Gardens of WWII.  In my favorite vintage period of the 1950s and 60s, kale was being consumed in American households.  The recipes are scant and typically call for cooking the greens for a long time.  Scalloped Kale is a little different, in that it tops that over-cooked kale with a white sauce and finishes the casserole under the broiler. 

But today, kale is praised and consumed in the United States at a higher rate than it has been consumed in other countries.  In the Netherlands, kale is mixed with mashed potatoes and served with fried bacon or smoked sausage.  In Germany, it is served with bacon on sausages and is comfort food.  In Italy, kale is a popular ingredient in Ribollita soup. Caldo Verde is a popular Portuguese soup that combines pureed potatoes, chopped kale, olive oil and sliced spicy sausages.  In Ireland, it is often used instead of cabbage to make their popular combination of mashed potatoes and greens.  In Scotland, kale is so much a part of the daily diet, people who are too sick to eat are said to be “off one’s kail”.

I enjoy kale salads, but today I’m sharing a recipe for a creamy kale and pasta casserole.  It is layered and resembles a nice vege lasagna.  It makes a wonderful main course or served in smaller portions as a side for grilled meat.  It is also a year-round recipe.  I cook and freeze kale and I simply chop kale and freeze it raw.  It is so versatile.  Kale keeps in the fridge longer than most leafy greens, and I written many times that I eat it because my oncologist (22 years ago) told me to eat healthy … eat greens.  I changed my ways and changed the eating habits for my husband and daughter.

The first recipe I want to share with you is for homemade ricotta cheese.  My German grandmother made her own cottage cheese.  Her sister had a dairy farm and Grandma always had fresh milk and cream.  She had a cheesecloth bag that she filled and hung on a hook right over the kitchen sink.  I didn’t learn how to do this from my grandmother.  Instead, a sweet elderly Italian friend taught me.  You don’t need special equipment.  You don’t need cheese cloth to strain the cheese … just use a fine mesh sieve. 

Homemade Ricotta

½ gallon whole milk
½ cup lemon juice or vinegar

In a heavy saucepan, heat the milk to about 200 degrees.  Not to a boil, but hot.  Immediately pour in the vinegar.  Cider or white works.  Remove the pan from the burner and let it sit.  The vinegar will curdle the milk.  After the milk has cooled and curdled, drain it through the sieve.  You can use what your pour off.  It is good to bake with or to add to a casserole.  I seldom use it.

What I always do, however, is add 2 teaspoons of sugar to this cheese when I use it.  A half-gallon of milk will make 2 cups of cheese.  Most recipes call for that much.

You can replace ricotta with this homemade ricotta in sweet and savory recipes, but I still add the sugar!

This is oak leaf kale.  The leaves really are shaped like an oak leaf, and if you let the kale get a week past really fresh, the leaves will change colors to gold and red … just like fall leaves.  I love it more for that very reason!  It makes beautiful salads and is my favorite garnish used to line platters or  hors d’oeuvre  trays.  Think about your Thanksgiving turkey and how gorgeous it would be nested on a thick bed of these leaves!  They are pretty, but they are good, too!

Oak Leaf Kale and Pasta Casserole

This recipe is for 4 side servings or 2 main course servings.  It is easily doubled.

2 cups cooked kale, bite size pieces
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 egg
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups cooked pasta (shells, elbows, any kind)

White sauce ingredients:
2 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons flour
2 cups Half and Half
2 Tablespoons German beer mustard

Press the water from the cooked kale.  Prepare a casserole dish.  Mix the ricotta cheese, egg and sugar until it is smooth.  Drain the pasta well.

Prepare the white sauce by melting the butter and making a roux by stirring in the flour.  Add the Half and Half and let it cook until it thickens.  Stir the mustard in.  Any German style mustard works for this, but Dijon would be fine and natural grain mustard would be fine.

Begin the layers for the casserole with kale on the bottom.  Then add a thin layer of the white sauce.  Add the pasta and top it with the ricotta cheese mixture, so it thickens up the pasta layer.  Add another layer of kale, then finish it with white sauce.  Bake uncovered for 35 – 40 minutes.  The white sauce on top with brown and bubble.

Let the casserole cool 30 minutes before cutting and serving.  You can see that I garnished the top of mine with some of the kale leaves that I deliberately didn’t chop up …  and some red pepper pieces. 

This post is a part of my 2020 Vintage Vegetables project.  If you are interested in similar articles, just click the menu button.  I'll also be sharing with a couple blog parties and they are listed on my sidebar.   Enjoy!

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