Given the great love many people have for kale, it seems appropriate that a massage turns out to be the best way to prepare it. A good rubdown can enhance the kale's flavor as well as preserve its nutrient content.
Because, while kale is known as one of the world's healthiest foods, tenderness and sweetness aren't usually emphasized as its strong suits. That's why kale is usually cooked. The heat breaks down the plant's cellular structure, tenderizing it, while turning complex carbohydrates into simple sugars, adding sweetness.
But this increased edibility comes at a cost. As the bluish green of a living kale leaf fades into a navy shade of green, some fragile enzymes are killed. Live enzymes are known to be healthy in many ways, including as a digestive aid. A raw vegetable like kale is composed of cells that are still alive. Cooking effectively kills the plant cells, destroying other sensitive nutrients as well.
Massaging kale results in a compromise between raw and cooked, in which the best aspects of both methods are preserved. As you rub the kale leaves, the cellulose architecture of the cell walls is crushed. In this mayhem, some of those enzymes are released, some of which go to work on the cell's carbohydrate supplies, chopping them into simple sugars. As you rub, twist and knead the kale, it wilts down to a fraction of its former size, similar to what happens in cooking.
By the end of this preparatory procedure you have a massaged kale that's great in and of itself, but can also be a point of departure for the creation of many other, more interesting salads.
Any kale will work, and there are many to choose from these days. I like a mix of curly green kale and black kale, aka dino, aka Tuscan, aka Lacinato kale, aka the flat-leafed, extra-dark kind. Wash the kale and shake it dry—no need for the salad spinner, as not much water will come out, and a little water doesn't hinder the massage. Pull the leafy material off of each leaf's stalk, and put the spineless leaves in a big mixing bowl.
Before I massage in earnest, sometimes I attack the de-stemmed kale pieces with scissors, snapping the sheets down to smaller pieces in haphazard fashion. One could also chop the leaves with a knife, or carefully sliver them with scissors. Or just rip it all to shreds with your bare hands.
Enhance the massage with the application of salt, oil and citrus juice to the leaves. These ingredients help grind up the cell walls as they work their way into the leaves, establishing their flavor. Vinegar, while acidic, makes a terrible flavor substitute for lime, lemon, orange or grapefruit. And citrus, like kale, is coming into season in winter. I like to use a mix of citrus juices, any one of which could be used alone except for orange, which isn't acidic or bitter enough.
For a decent-sized bunch of kale, use about 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and 2 tablespoons of citrus juice.
Mix these in, and proceed to squeeze, twist, wring, press and maim the kale with your hands. The exact motions are fairly intuitive. The kale volume will shrink dramatically at first. By the time the kale is holding steady at about a fifth of the original volume, or when your forearms are too tired to continue, or when it's sufficiently beaten down to your liking, the massage can end.
You now have massaged kale, which you can start eating right away, or use as an ingredient in a more complex dish. If you want to start eating, simply adjust the seasonings and go. I highly recommend toasted pumpkin seeds sprinkled on top.
As a salad, massaged kale goes well with parsley (non-massaged), and the fiery pungency of raw garlic and onions. Cooked grains like quinoa or bulgur can be added. I like to toss in thin slices of blood orange, peel and all. The bitterness of the peel bridges the flavors of the bittersweet orange and the bitter-ish kale, while providing a juicy, colorful contrast. And despite the fact that massaging adds sweetness to kale, a little more is always welcome. Grapefruit chunks are another way to add a bittersweet flavor. Pomegranate is another fruit, also in season, that makes a beautiful, delicious splash in massaged kale salad. A tablespoon or two of pomegranate molasses adds welcome tang and sweetness. Sweeter fruits like mango can be used, as can honey.
When your salad is assembled, taste and add more citrus or salt as necessary, and crush some black pepper to taste.
Massaged kale can also be added to cooked food. Toss it on a hot dish and let it wilt, as is often done with spinach. Or toss it into a stir-fry at the last minute; it only needs to heat up, and can hang onto its raw, bright green color. You can also let massaged kale hang out in the fridge overnight, allowing it to soften and marinate.
In short, all of the many ways you enjoy kale could be improved if you start by giving it a loving, tender massage. Okay, it's actually a rough, tenderizing massage. But let's face it, kale responds well to tough love.