Kale: History, Varieties and Tips with Kristen Beddard

Not surprisingly, we are fans of cooking with kale. So when we got the opportunity to chat with writer (and kale expert!) Kristen Beddard about all things kale, she did not disappoint.

Kristen Beddard is the American founder of The Kale Project. opens in a new tab By working with local farmers and chefs, she successfully reintroduced kale in France while encouraging community and connection with local producers. The Kale Project was featured in a New York Times article opens in a new tab in 2013 a Whole Foods Market mini-documentary opens in a new tab in 2014. Her book, “Bonjour Kale: A Memoir of Paris, Love and Recipes” was released on May 3.

Kristen Beddard with kale
Kristen Beddard, 29, of The Kale Project, in Paris, France. Kevin German / Luceo

Not surprisingly, we are fans of cooking with kale. So when we heard Kristen was publishing a book, we asked if she could answer a few question about one of our favorite leafy greens. Here’s what she had to say about kale’s history, varieties and top cooking tips.

How long have people been growing and eating kale?
For many people, their first introduction to kale was only a few years ago, but that doesn’t mean it’s a new vegetable. Kale is actually a descendent of wild cabbage, native to Europe and Asia Minor, and is recorded to have grown and been consumed for nearly 4,000 years. Of course kale does not have the same history everywhere. Kitchen gardens in Scotland are called “kale yards,” because so much kale is grown in them. Years ago during Halloween in Ireland, boys and girls would pull up kale stalks from the ground to predict their love life. In Japan, kale is dried and ground into a powder for green drinks. During World War II in England, because kale is such a resilient vegetable, citizens were encouraged to grow it in victory gardens. In 2007, food writer Melissa Clark sparked the American raw kale salad trend after a visit to a Brooklyn restaurant.

What’s changing in the world of kale?
There is definitely a heightened awareness globally around the green. For example, in the Netherlands and Germany, kale has always been grown and is included in a few cultural dishes but is only grown in the winter and never harvested before the first frost.

With more interest in “eating clean,” there is automatically more of a curiosity and demand for kale. In Sweden, vegan writer Rasmus Klockljung says that while the cabbage used to only be available in grocery stores around Christmas, it is now available nearly ten months of the year. According to a Barcelona juice bar owner, up until a few years ago, kale was relatively unknown in Spain but like the rest of Europe, the vegetable is moving away from the traditional perception as a seasonal, old-fashioned cabbage and can now be found in more stores.

Kale in hands
Kristen Beddard, 29, of The Kale Project, in Paris, France. Kevin German / Luceo

Why does kale have staying power?
Kale became kale for a myriad of reasons. Kale has talent. If you’re a fan, you know how earthy and fresh the leaves taste, the alkaline neutrality balancing out a dish. Kale is extremely versatile. You might see far-out-there recipes like kale ice pops or kale cupcakes but it’s almost always the perfect addition to salads, soups, pasta, grains and smoothies. You can add kale to practically anything and it works. And once you get in the habit of just adding kale, it’s difficult to stop.

Kale was also in the right place at the right time. The rediscovering of this cruciferous vegetable as more than a garnish on restaurant salad bars happened at the same time when celebrities began touting detoxes, eating vegan and juice cleanses.  

What are your thoughts/perspectives on the different varieties, and your favorites?
I think lacinato kale is great for kale salads because it is easier to finely chop. I love the curly green variety for stir-fry, pastas and soups. I also think a handful of purple kale in a salad adds a beautiful pop of color. Young, tender baby kale leaves are great for salads, too. For juicing, I stick with bigger, older leaves that have thick stems.

What’s your take on the kale massage?
I’m not sure why but as more restaurants have started using kale, fewer restaurant kale salads are massaged and therefore tougher to eat. Unless a salad is made with baby kale, massaging the kale leaves with dressing is an important step to make the leaves more tender. I always fear for someone who orders a kale salad for the first time and is served big pieces of older kale leaves that are as hard as cardboard. The experience doesn’t need to be this way!

Kristen Beddard in kitchen
Kristen Beddard, 29, of The Kale Project, prepares a kale salad at The Superfoods Cafe in Paris, France. Kevin German / Luceo

Keeping A Kale Kitchen

Adapted from “Bonjour Kale: A Memoir of Paris, Love and Recipes”

Buying Kale
Look for leaves that are a deep green color. Avoid leaves that are brown or yellow or extremely tough. Tough kale means older kale, which means less tasty kale.

Washing Kale
Take each leaf individually and hold under running water. Move your fingers through each fold and crevice to remove any excess dirt or potential caterpillar (they really love kale!)

De-stemming Kale
It sounds difficult but de-stemming kale is easy and quick. After washing each leaf, take both sides of the leaf and fold them together length-wise. Rip the stem away from the leaf. Save stems for juicing, pesto, sautéing or vegetable stock.

Massaging Kale
The best way to massage your kale is by adding your dressing of choice (an easy choice is olive oil, lemon juice and salt) to washed and dried kale. Using your hands, massage the kale for a minute or so. The dressing will marinate the leaves, wilting them slightly, making them softer to eat and enjoy.

Storing Kale
If you buy a lot of greens and want them to last through the week, wash them right away, dry and store in plastic freezer bags in the refrigerator. The leaves will keep longer and then it’s that much easier to cook with the greens throughout the week because the hard work of cleaning is already done.

Recommended Ingredients and Kitchen Tools

Lemons, Garlic, Shallots and Olive Oil, Sherry Vinegar and Maldon salt
Whether making dressings or sautéing, these ingredients are commonly used.

Lemon Squeezer
This is something I take on vacation with me – especially if I know we will be making a lot of salads. It’s quick, easy and efficient. I’ve never found anything that juices a lemon as well — and it ensures no seeds fall into the juice.

Another item I have a hard time cooking without, tongs are a great tool to sauté and serve kale, no matter the dish.

Salad Spinner
I had a friend who once admitted to using a hair dryer to dry the kale she was going to use for kale chips — I bought her a salad spinner for her birthday. Like lettuce, a salad spinner will dry the kale well enough for either storing or immediate use.

Bonjour Kale: A Memoir of Paris, Love and Recipes opens in a new tab is the story of how one expat woman left her beloved behind when she moved to France-her beloved kale, that is. Unable to find le chou kale anywhere upon moving to the City of Light with her new husband, and despite not really speaking French, Kristen Beddard launched a crusade to single-handedly bring kale to the country of croissants and cheese. Infused with Kristen's recipes and some from French chefs, big and small (including Michelin star chef Alain Passard) Bonjour Kale is a humorous, inspiring and heartfelt memoir of how Kristen, kale, and France collide.

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