There are many foods and recipes that carry the “German” label in the United States. Often they are a far cry from the real thing. The worst offender, in my view, is pumpernickel bread. In the US, it is almost always darkened and sweetened with molasses – something that is never done to authentic pumpernickel in Germany (find my recipe for real pumpernickel bread here).
The one big exception, in my view, where something German improved on this side of the Atlantic is kale (Grünkohl). Now kale of course is not a “German” vegetable per se, it is just very prominent in north German cuisine. Hearty kale stew with smoked meat and sausages is the north German winter dish. It is more than a dish, it is a tradition.
There are Grünkohlfahrten (kale tours), where clubs, neighbors or coworkers venture into the countryside on a weekend afternoon for a long walk, and sometimes play Boßeln, a game played with a hard rubber ball. The event traditionally ends with a warm meal at a local inn. There is usually lots of booze, during the walk and after. I can attest that a plate full of Grünkohl stew warrants a few shots for digestion.
I included a recipe for kale stew it in my book. In 2003 when I wrote it and tested the recipes I had a difficult time finding kale in the United States. Today kale has become a popular super food in America and is added to almost every bagged mix of salad greens.
A few years ago while visiting my family in Westphalia, I told them over a meal of hearty kale stew that kale in the United States is often eaten raw, used in vegetarian or vegan dishes, and the leaves are massaged to soften them. They shook their heads in disbelief.
In the intervening years the other side of kale has been discovered in Germany. Tuscan kale (Nero di Toscana, called Palmkohl, Schwarzkohl or Toskanischer Kohl in German), a kale variety that is more tender than the varieties grown in Germany for kale stew, has started to pop up at farmers markets, grocery stores and Gemüsekisten (farm-to-home produce boxes).
In Germany, kale is harvested after the first frost, which improves its flavor because the starches are converted into sugar giving the kale a sweet flavor. Kale is winter hardy and it can stay outdoors all winter. If you leave the plants until the spring, they develop a profusion of bright yellow flowers that attracts bees. The flower buds, by the way, are edible too.Local farmers markets in the US sell kale all summer long but for me it remains a winter vegetable. I plant it in my garden in late summer so I can harvest it throughout the winter. Sometimes I dig it out from underneath the snow.
Once in a while, on very cold winter days, when I can get my hands on Pinkel sausage, I make German kale stew. Mostly, however, I prepare kale the American way like the salad below, which I tossed together for a potluck brunch yesterday. I received several requests for the recipe.
The spiced Holiday vinegar gives the salad a special seasonal twist. You can easily replace it with regular balsamic vinegar but making that special vinegar is worth the extra effort, it also tastes great in other dishes where you would use a flavorful balsamic vinegar, such as robust winter salads or roasted beets.
I am not the only German who strays away in her use of kale. Another, richer kale salad I like a lot is the Warm Brussels Sprouts & Kale Salad with Blue Cheese Dressing by German-born California-based chef Hans Röckenwagner.
Addendum: My fellow blogger German Girl in America recently shared this funny story about kale, a perfect illustration of the kale divide between Germany and America: “At my wedding, the caterer used bunches of kale to ‘dress up’ the buffet table. The Germans took that decoration home in their purses to make soup… after lecturing the caterer about the proper use of kale. This was long before the current kale-in-everything health craze.”
Spiced Holiday Vinegar
¾ cup (100 g) mixed berries (frozen blueberries, raspberries and red currants or fresh cranberries)
6 tablespoons (100 ml) dry red wine
½ cup + 2 tablespoons (150 ml) balsamic vinegar
½ cup + 2 tablespoons (150 ml) red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons raw organic sugar
1 thumbnail-size piece of peeled fresh ginger
1 (2-inch/5 cm) cinnamon stick, broken in half
4 cardamom pods, crushed
½ star anise
¼ teaspoon allspice berries, crushed
¼ teaspoon anise seeds, crushed
¼ teaspoon coriander seeds, crushed
1 (2-inch/5 cm) strip organic orange peel
1. Put berries, red wine, vinegars and sugar in a small saucepan. Place the ginger and all the spices on a double layer of cheesecloth and tie into a spice bag. Add it to the saucepan with the orange peel and stir well.
2. Slowly bring to a boil and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the berries are soft. Remove from the heat and let cool.
Kale Salad with Pomegranate, Apples and Walnuts
1 bunch kale
¾ cup (100 g) walnuts, coarsely chopped
1 large tart apple
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup (125 g) pomegranate seeds
1 teaspoon finely grated organic orange zest
6 tablespoons sunflower oil or light olive oil
2 tablespoons Holiday vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Wash and dry the kale and remove any tough ribs. Massage the leaves until soft, then chop finely. Toast the nuts in an ungreased pan until fragrant, shaking the pan once in a while so they won’t burn. Let cool.
2. Core the apple and dice it finely. Put in a large bowl and immediately mix it with lemon juice. Add the kale, pomegranate seeds, nuts and orange zest. Toss.
3. In a small bowl whisk the oil with the vinegar until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste. Just before serving, add the dressing to the salad and toss.
Makes 4 to 6 servings