CVIndependent

Wed09182019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Ari LeVaux

Kale has reached that point on the popularity curve where people are hating it because it is popular.

Once, it was easy to file away this dark-green leafy vegetable as just some hippie food, but now it’s everywhere. It’s on the menu, on the vegetarian entrée and meatloaf alike. Your favorite celebrities are gushing about their daily green smoothie. Still, many people don’t enjoy eating it—nd sometimes these haters get triggered by people who do.

“Kale makes you lose weight because it makes everything taste like shit,” Tweeted a smart-aleck in my timeline. “Stop putting kale in everything,” begged another, to the cold, uncaring universe. Haters are saying “fuck kale” at nearly the same rate that they are saying “fuck yoga.”

For some reason it’s natural to resent success in others, and kale is a wildly successful species. The goal of any plant is to make and spread its seed, and kale is grown in all 50 states and shipped to all 50 states; it has seed farms dedicated to its future success, and these seeds are delivered to growers around the world with computers and airplanes. And now chefs are putting kale in everything. Forget conspiracy theory: The ascendance of kale is a conspiracy fact.

I’m in on the kale conspiracy, but I agree that it shouldn’t be added to everything. Those bitter fibers really wouldn’t work in a delicate flan, for example. If kale is overcooked or burnt, the taste and smell can be terrible. And if kale is added to a dish that already sucks, it will still suck.

And, really, a little kale here and a little there isn’t going to do it. You need to eat more than trace quantities to get the benefits.

Whether you’re in it for the fiber, the calcium, the social statement or whatever, you still need to actually swallow it. So it isn’t a matter of putting kale in everything; it’s a matter of putting everything, or anything, into kale that will make it more palatable. No matter what the haters and the trolls say, the more kale (and leaves like it) that you eat, the healthier you will be. Food people argue endlessly about fat, carbohydrates, protein, dairy, sugar, fruit, meat and every other ingredient or macronutrient you can think of. Nobody has anything bad to say about leaves (those romaine-lettuce recalls aside).

To some extent, the form in which you eat the kale, as well as what you eat it with, will determine how it performs in your body. Many of the people who are most excited about kale are regular users, who have a system down that works for their bodies.

In terms of health impact, almost anything that can be said about kale can be said about collard greens, chard, spinach, turnip greens, broccoli leaves and so on. But the tactics that we will now explore are tailored to kale specifically.

We can thank a weary farmer who flagged me down as I walked by his booth at the end of market last Saturday, and offered me a box of kale for $10. It was a better fate than the compost pile for everyone involved.

My body seems to “function best” (a delicate way of saying “makes the best poops”) when I eat between three and six kale leaves per day. So the following tactics, which are really mini-recipes, are geared toward consuming that amount.

Salad: Novices may want to start by massaging their kale, for a softer salad. Squeezing and rubbing the leaves with your hands will break the cells, releasing enzymes that begin cutting up those fiber chains. Massaging with salt and lime juice increases the effect, and since both of those are in the dressing, there’s no reason not to so it.

Unless, of course, you want your kale coarse. Once upon a time, my wife, the salad whisperer, would massage the kale salad, but now she doesn’t want the leaves so soft. “Once you massage them, they lose their structure,” she says. “I like a structureful salad.”

The dressing consists of olive oil, lime or lemon juice, and salt. (Vinegar, while acidic, makes a terrible substitute for lime or lemon.) She typically doubles down on the salt by adding feta or parmesan cheese to the salad. And she adds onion, because something needs to stand up to all of that fat and fiber.

Strip the leafy parts from the stem, and mince six leaves of kale. Use a half-cup of olive oil, a quarter-cup of lime juice, and salt to taste. If you want to massage it, take a quarter-cup of dressing, and rub it in. Then toss in the rest, and add extras like cheese, onion, olives or sun-dried tomatoes.

With bacon: It’s kind of cheating, but at least it’s cheating with historical precedent. Cooking kale with bacon recalls the Southern dish of collards and ham hock, and that’s no coincidence. Pork and brassicas—a plant family that also includes cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts—is a winning combination. I usually take it in an Eastern direction, by making a mix of soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil and rice vinegar or lime juice.

Rip the leafy parts off the stem of three or so kale leaves, and mince them. Cut bacon into little pieces and fry. When it’s half-cooked, add the garlic, and lay the kale on top. When it wilts down, stir it around; season with black pepper and hot pepper; and, finally, pour in your little sauce. Those leaves will shrink way down, and look even smaller as soon as you take your first bite.

There isn’t enough space for me to tell you how to make green smoothies and kale chips, but those have been covered online in great detail. Suffice it to say: f you really want to make the green medicine go down easy, you can do worse than make your kale taste like ice cream and potato chips.

Breakfast turns me into a speed freak. Steak, meanwhile, converts me into a temporary alcoholic.

Put me in front of a greasy or sweet breakfast, and I’m going to drink coffee like it’s oxygen. This is how my body extracts maximum pleasure from the muffin or omelet I’m chewing—by bathing my mouth in coffee. The coffee’s acidic bitterness makes the flavors of the food stand out, and completes the meal. I’ve researched this relationship at many a greasy spoon diner, where servers endlessly circle to keep your cup full. What the coffee lacks in quality, it makes up for in quantity. That’s important when you’re eating with a beverage condiment—because the last thing you want is for that well to dry up.

Later in the day, there are many foods that essentially command me to drink wine. If I’m chewing a succulent piece of meat, I need to be drinking wine at exactly the same time. Otherwise I get distressed, like an addict in withdrawal.

While there are many foods that go well with wine, only one—meat—will make me drink wine like a dehydration victim would drink Gatorade. When meat and wine are available, it is a scientific fact that I will be stuffed and wasted. And that is pretty much the only time you will see me wasted.

Other than producing buzzes, coffee and wine otherwise seem completely different. But if you look beneath the surface, you can see that they are competing for the same niche in the ecosystem of your dining table: the acidic beverage niche.

Acidity serves to enhance the pleasure derived from fatty foods. The fat coats your taste buds, and the acid washes that fat away, exposing and stimulating the taste buds and creating fireworks of juxtaposition. If necessary, you may have to adjust fat levels to achieve this balance. I generally do so with mayonnaise.

This principle of creative tension is at the heart of established pairings—like wine with cheese, coffee with cream, and 10,000 other flavor combinations.

One thing you rarely see, however, is coffee and wine together. One of them often needs to be there, but having both would be like having two alpha males in the same room: potentially rough, and at the very least, awkward and uncomfortable. But it turns out that another one of my favorite foods, chili pepper—aka chile—can smooth over this tension.

Like wine and coffee, chile goes exceptionally well with fat, from the jalapeno popper and its elder the chile relleno, to the requisite squirt of hot sauce upon your big greasy breakfast.

Like coffee and wine, chile produces its own kind of buzz—an adrenaline rush, to be exact. Also like coffee and wine, chile has many proven and suspected medical benefits, including reducing body inflammation and improving lipid levels in the blood. But unlike coffee, wine or fat, there are few apparent reasons not to indulge one’s chile-tooth to its fullest.

For years, I took it as a given coffee and wine simply don’t mix. It’s an either/or situation. But this assumption was categorically discredited when I bit into a piece of pork belly that had been braised with red wine, coffee and red chile.

Amazingly, the coffee and wine were able to join forces and forge a common flavor. This union was mediated by chile, the sharp bitterness and sweetness of which formed a narrow bridge between the normally disparate flavors of wine and coffee. That all this flavor alchemy came together in the context of a succulent piece of pork made the experience all the more mouth melting.

This revelation went down in a magical—and sadly defunct—New Mexico restaurant, where I consumed this dish next to a cackling fire of fragrant desert wood. Since then, I’ve endeavored to re-create this recipe, and somewhere along the line, I think I actually surpassed the original, stealing tricks from similar recipes I found online.

My current version combines pork and venison, but any meat will work, even chicken. Bones, whether in oxtail, osso bucco or ribs, will improve the result. The tougher the meat, the better. If using very lean meat, there needs to be some fat, like bacon or olive oil.

The wine- and coffee-based broth tastes kind of disharmonious when you first combine the ingredients, but it eventually cooks into something special—a flavor that is deep and darkly delicious and thoroughly unique.

Fatty meat cooked in coffee and wine

  • 2 pounds of meat
  • 1 cup wine, of a quality you would drink
  • 1 cup of strong coffee (no greasy spoon brew here)
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons mild red chile powder
  • 2 Santa Fe-style dried mild red chile, seeded and crumbled
  • 2 mild pasilla chile (or more red chile), seeded and crumbled
  • Salt, pepper, and garlic powder
  • Olive oil

Brown the meat in whole chunks under the broiler. In a pan, sauté the onions, garlic and bay leaves in oil. When onions are translucent, add chile. Cook a minute, stirring, then add the coffee and wine. Cook until the volume reduces by half. Season with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Add the meat. Cover meat with stock or water, and slow cook or braise for 4-8 hours, until meat is completely tender. Add water, wine or stock as necessary to replace any evaporated liquid. Season again.

Serve in a bowl with minced onions and a hunk of bread, which will absorb the mysterious broth and deliver it to your mouth, where no further adjustments will be necessary. No hot sauce.

This dish won’t give a caffeine high or a wine buzz, but it provides a kick all of its own. It was, after all, the pursuit of a flavor fix along these lines that got me into coffee and wine to begin with.

Since the narrow defeat here of last year’s Proposition 37, which would have mandated labeling of genetically modified foods, the sentiment behind the proposition has spread—or metastasized, depending on your perspective—into similarly conceived bills in 26 other states.

Proponents of such laws mostly argue that we have a right to know what’s in our food. Based on the momentum of GMO-labeling initiatives on the state level, as well as voluntary labeling programs by retailers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, it’s looking increasingly like a matter of when, and not if, some kind of nationwide labeling system is created.

So instead of fighting about whether or not we need them, it makes sense for both sides to sit down and talk about how labels should look.

In an April blog post for Discover magazine online, Ramez Naam argued that it makes sense for GMO food supporters to stop opposing labels: “I support GMOs. And we should label them. We should label them because that is the very best thing we can do for public acceptance of agricultural biotech. And we should label them because there’s absolutely nothing to hide.”

According to most polls, the percentage of Americans that support labeling is in the low-to-mid 90s. To dismiss such popular sentiment would be to ignore the will of the vast majority, which wouldn’t be very democratic. It would, in fact, be a bit obnoxious, Naam writes.

“At best it’s condescending to consumers, sending a signal that ‘we know better than you what you should eat.’” By fighting GMO labeling, he argues, “We’re persuading those who might otherwise have no opinion on GMOs that there must be something to hide.”

One recent ABC poll showed 57 percent of shoppers would be less likely to buy products that are labeled “GMO,” suggesting a significant chunk of those who support labels aren’t afraid to eat GMO foods. Other common reasons for support of labeling, according to polls, include opposition to GMOs for environmental reasons, the “right to know,” and angst over corporate control of the food system.

Clearly, that 57 percent of GMO-fearing shoppers would represent a significant cut to the revenue of biotech corporations, and of corporate farmers who use GMO seeds, and it isn’t clear to what extent they will be able to make up the difference by squeezing processors, retailers and consumers.

Such financial concerns are one reason why Big Biotech shouldn’t be a part of the labeling discussion: It has too much at stake, and wields undue influence—outspending the grassroots support of Prop 37, for example, by a 5-to-1 margin. Corporate recusal is something that pro-GMO people should get behind, too. Arguably, much of the grief felt by GMO supporters is inspired less by the technology itself than by the way it’s been rolled out.

Many people who support labeling, or who oppose GMOs in their food, do so because they are uncomfortable with this powerful technology being forged in a corporate crucible, where there is a conflict between pleasing shareholders and proceeding with caution. It’s the same reason many people are skeptical of petroleum-company claims that drilling won’t harm the environment. We’re conditioned to expect the narrative that’s best for business, whether it’s true or not.

Big Biotech’s history of unpopular moves has long posed a problem to GMO-supporters, who often include a little Monsanto-bashing in their pro-GMO arguments as a means of communicating that Monsanto does not equal GMO. Perhaps these pundits would agree that it makes sense to exclude corporations from organizing and funding discussions about how labels should look. (The industry recently launched its own forum on all things GMO, www.gmoanswers.com.)

Concerns about corporate behavior and motivation can overshadow the examples of GM crops that don’t exist just order to sell more pesticides, or otherwise generate corporate revenue. The ringspot-resistant rainbow papaya, created at the University of Hawaii and Cornell University, was a public-sector effort that likely saved the state’s papaya industry from being wiped out by the virus. Efforts like these are easier to support, and wholesale anti-GMO ideologues should be clear about what, specifically, they oppose. An honest discussion about labeling could help tease apart distinct issues that are often lumped together.

Critics of labeling frequently argue that a general label, along the lines of “contains GMOs,” communicates very little, because there are so many different kinds of GMOs. But given that labeling seems inevitable, perhaps the pro-GMO side could help create a system that tells us something meaningful.

Ramez Naam told me via email that he thinks GMO labels should be on products’ back labels, not on the front, as might happen if GMO food supporters don’t come to the table. He also suggested labels like, “Contains ingredients engineered to reduce pesticide use,” or, “Contains ingredients engineered to increase farm sustainability.”

If the public lacks sufficient understanding of the science behind GMO foods, as many GMO supporters lament, maybe even more detail would be productive. Perhaps a GMO ID system is in order, under which the back label lists genetically engineered components by some kind of identification number, which consumers could look up. Then they could decide for themselves if they think a particular ingredient is insufficiently tested, potentially environmentally invasive, made by a big evil corporation, or transgenic (made with DNA from a different species). And they could also consider whether a particular product requires less pesticide, or otherwise effects farm sustainability, or contains some desirable added nutrient value.

Given the apparent inevitability of labeling, a meaningful system should be the goal for advocates on both sides of the issue. Then, GMO skeptics could have their labels; GMO cheerleaders will have their nuance; and the will of the large majority of Americans will prevail.

Doesn’t that sound like how democracy should work?

Read more from Ari LeVaux at www.flashinthepan.net.