Thanksgiving is officially less than a week away, and I can barely handle the excitement.
We’ve already done Fakesgiving, but now the real deal is coming up and the anticipation is killing me. Russell and I have been finalizing out our guest list, figuring out who’s bringing what, buying and stashing our wine (lots and lots of wine), cleaning the apartment, writing grocery lists, and planning our menu. While there’s definitely going to be some overlap from our Fakesgiving dinner, this time around we’re doing a potluck and not every dish will make it back onto the menu.
There’s absolutely no doubt in our minds though, that this little creamed kale gratin will be making a comeback.
This shit is the jam. The bomb dot com. The cat’s pajamas. The bee’s knees. All that and a bag of (kale) chips.
(It’s really good)
When I was developing the recipe a few months ago I brought it to a work party and it disappeared faster than anything else on the table. People were still talking about it and asking for the recipe days after the party.
Out of every dish on our fakesgiving table, I actually think this was probably my favorite. It was definitely a favorite among our guests, and while it was the one dish I was most looking forward to when I raided the leftovers the next day, there wasn’t anything left to raid.
Okay. So, right about now you’re probably rolling your eyes and asking yourself, “Your favorite dish from the whole meal was kale? Really? Kale?”
I know. I know.
How insufferably hip and impossibly Brooklyn of me.
But it’s true.
When I was doing my initial recipe testing and menu planning a while back, I knew I wanted something deeply green and healthy-ish on the menu. Thanksgiving dishes tend to be rather rich and heavy, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think they scream for something green to be served alongside them. Thanksgiving buffets also tend to be a bit heavy on the yellow and orange and brown, so again, having something green on your plate is probably a good thing.
Most people would likely opt for a green bean casserole, but for whatever reason, I don’t really enjoy making green bean casserole. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly love eating it, but when it comes to Thanksgiving I’d rather call it a potluck and keep my fingers crossed that someone else will bring the casserole along. Of course, when it comes to posting recipes on a food blog, a potluck doesn’t really tend to work.
So, I had some thinking to do. My head initially went to creamed spinach, but there’s something about the texture of creamed spinach that I thought could be improved upon. Spinach becomes so soft when cooked that it sort of becomes one mushy texture with the cream. My plan then, was to come up with another green that could offer a bit more texture while pairing well with a rich creamy sauce.
Kale would be the natural next choice, but to be quite honest, I’ve never really enjoyed cooking with kale. Until recently, I’ve only had experience using the ubiquitous curly kale, which I’ve had much better luck with eating raw rather than cooked. I find that it tends to overcook easily and goes from vibrant green to muddy brown and mushy in a heartbeat. For that reason I (used to) avoid cooking with it.
I thought about going with swiss chard instead, but when I was digging around for inspiration I found a recipe that called for Lacinato kale and decided to give it a go. If you’re not familiar, Lacinato kale also goes by dinosaur kale or black kale and is much stiffer, smoother, and darker than curly kale. It can be a bit more expensive (depending on the store and the time of year) and can sometimes be a bit harder to find. When cooked though, it retains it’s texture much better than curly kale, stands up very well to braising, and is much more forgiving of overcooking. The very first time I cooked with it it was as if all the pieces suddenly fell into place and I finally understood why people like kale so much. Since then I find myself cooking with it all the time! Who knew?
So yes, thanks to my new favorite variety of kale, this dish was indeed my favorite thing on our fakesgiving table.
The sauce is made with roux-thickened-milk rather than heavy cream, so while it is wonderfully rich and creamy, it manages not to feel too heavy. A bit of parmesan cheese adds a rich salty nuttiness, but there’s also loads of flavor thanks to some onions and plenty of garlic, a nice hint of spice from some pepper flakes, and a touch of brightness thanks to a bit of fresh lemon zest. The kale retains a nice, slightly al dente texture and pleasant green bitterness that compliments the creamy sauce perfectly, and the whole shebang is topped with a bit of crisp panko bread crumbs and parmesan that add a lovely bit of crunch.
Creamed Kale Gratin
2 to 3 pounds of Lacinato kale (or 3 one-pound bags of chopped curly kale)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
1 small white onion, finely chopped
4 to 6 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
1/2 to 3/4 cup finely grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese
1/2 to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
zest of two lemons
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese
If using whole kale leaves, remove the stalks and ribs and discard. Roughly chop and wash the leaves.
Set a large bowl of ice cold water in one half of the sink, and a large strainer or colander in the other. Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Add the chopped kale to the pot, stir, and simmer for 1 minute. Immediately drain and transfer to the bowl of ice water. Swirl and stir the kale around in the cold water, then drain again and wrap in a clean kitchen towel and squeeze dry. You may need to do this in batches.
Preheat the oven to 400.
Melt the butter in a deep skillet, sauté pan, or 3-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic, and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Add red pepper flakes, nutmeg, salt and pepper, and sprinkle the flour over the onion mixture. Stir and cook for about 3 minutes. Turn the heat down if necessary; do not let the flour brown.
Whisk in the milk, a little bit at a time, until completely combined. Cook the mixture, stirring slowly and continuously, until the sauce comes to a boil and thickens, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
Use your fingers to break up any clumps of drained kale and sprinkle into the milk mixture. Stir in the cheese and lemon zest until everything is well combined. Transfer to a baking dish and top with panko and additional 1/2 cup of grated parmesan.
Bake at 400 for 20 minutes or until cheese begins to brown and the sauce is bubbly.
You can make this 1 to 2 days ahead of serving. Cook the creamed kale on the stovetop, transfer to the baking dish, and allow to cool slightly. Do not add the panko and parmesan topping. Press plastic wrap or parchment paper directly onto the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Cool to room temperature and then refrigerate.
When ready to proceed, remove the plastic wrap and sprinkle the topping over the top. Let stand at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before baking at 400. Since the kale will be cool it may take a few more minutes to bubble.