When I wash Tuscan kale, small iridescent marbles roll over the bumpy leaves like a playful, semi-precious science experiment. Even the grey November light sparkles in these spheres. I’ve seen this magic before, but there was always dinner to make, vegetables to chop, people to feed. I’d let the beads roll, wondering for a second if this water-repellent vegetable was actually clean. Then I’d shrug, shake off the beads, hope for the best, and carry on.
Today is different. We’re in my parent’s kitchen where life is slower, calmer. They retired to the village where my grandfather and his siblings were raised, on a road named after their family. Cameron Road winds along the St. Mary’s River, and is home to many cousins, new friends, old friends, countless deer, pheasants, partridge, grouse, chickadees and otters. Every morning my dad slips into his rubber boots, often still in his plaid housecoat, and fills the bird feeders. It’s a place where there’s time to notice things.
We’re here for the funeral of a dear cousin. Her family is large and loving, and undoubtedly tired, so we’re making soup from the vegetables we picked up at a market on our way. It was three degrees this morning and the river was perfectly still. Bare branches, thick spruce and rusty tamaracks mirrored back upon themselves. But the steely vegetables are still hanging on – swiss chard, deep green kale and leeks as long as my arm.
I chop the leeks and splash them around in a bowl of cold water to loosen the dirt trapped between the rings. I spin them dry, then add them to a pot with melted butter and a touch of olive oil. There are caraway seeds in the spice drawer, so I add them too, along with a good pinch of salt. Chopped red potatoes, skin on, go in next. I could stop there, leek and potato are a perfect pair, but we have this hearty kale, covered with iridescent beads. I stop, as you know, to take a picture. Then I hear the vegetables sizzling, louder than they should. I stir in the kale, releasing the potatoes that have caught on the bottom of the pan. More flavour, I tell myself.
I was distracted by the lotus effect. Kale leaves are naturally coated in a thin wax layer to help the plant retain water. This layer, the epicuticle, also repels water, rounding its edges to keep it from adhering to the surface. Kale, like broccoli, succulents and the leaves of the lotus flower are hydrophobic. They fear water, but are also self-cleaning: dirt particles are picked up by the rounded water droplets and are rolled away, marble-like, across the surface of their leaves. A winter vegetable that hangs on in the cold, entertains, and nourishes the body.
I cover the vegetables with stock and let it simmer away while I walked down to the river. There were more birds to feed, otters to spy on, and if I’m lucky, a bald eagle to spot, soaring over the river. Later I will purée the soup until it’s blended but still rough. The kale will have lost its vibrancy, but it will be visible enough to appreciate.
Leek and Potato Soup with Tuscan Kale
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 tablespoons (25g) salted butter
¼ teaspoon caraway seeds (optional)
500g (1lb- ish) leeks, about 4-5 medium, white and pale-green parts only, chopped and washed
1 onion, roughly chopped
600g (1lb 5oz) potatoes, cut into cubes ( I don’t peel them, also optional)
½ teaspoon salt
1 bunch Tuscan kale, washed and chopped
3 ½ cups (800ml) chicken or vegetable stock – or enough to cover vegetables
1 cup (250ml) cream – optional
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat olive oil and butter in a large saucepan. Add the caraway seeds, if using, along with the leek and onion and sweat until vegetables are translucent and soft. Add the potatoes, chopped kale and give everything a good stir. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until the potato is cooked through.
Remove from the heat and purée soup as much, or as little, as you’d like. Return pot to the stove, add cream if using, and bring back to a gentle boil. Add salt and pepper, to taste, and serve.