Here’s a recipe for a hearty winter side dish. I just made this for my family for Christmas, and it seemed to go over well. I know there are folks in some quarters who are sick of kale’s moment in the culinary sun, but I’ve been cooking it for years, and I will keep cooking it, because the stuff is delicious. That said, feel free to substitute any hearty green: collards, turnip greens, even chard, though your cooking time will be much shorter.
1 quart cream
1/2 lemon, juice and zest
3 sprigs fresh thyme
8 oz hearty white bread, crusts removed
1 T vegetable oil
1/2 small onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 bunches kale, destemmed and washed
1 T sherry vinegar
1/2 C vegetable stock
5 oz pecorino cheese, finely grated
butter, for greasing baking dish
salt and black pepper
Place the cream in a high-sided pot along with the thyme and one strip of zest from the lemon. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat so the cream is simmering, and allow to reduce by half. Cut the white bread into small cubes and place in a 250°F oven for 15 minutes to dry out.
Meanwhile, heat half the vegetable oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring often, until the aromatics just start to brown around the edges, about 5 minutes. Add the kale, vegetable stock, vinegar and juice from the half lemon. Season with salt and pepper, cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid in the pot is gone and the kale is tender. This can take anywhere from 40 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the variety and relative heartiness of the kale you are using. Be patient.
While the kale is cooking, clean and cook the leeks. Remove the darkest green, fibrous portion of each leek and discard. Cut the leeks in half lengthwise, leaving the root end intact. Place in a sink or bowl of clean water and wash thoroughly, pulling apart the tops of each leek and allowing the dirt and sand to settle to the bottom. Remove from the water, pat dry, and season with the remaining vegetable oil, salt and pepper. Place in a heat-proof vessel and roast in your wood oven, turning once, until the leeks are tender and well-browned, about 10-15 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Slice off the root ends and discard, then cut the leeks into bite-sized pieces.
When all the components are ready, combine everything in the kale pot: Strain the cream into the kale and discard the thyme and lemon peel. Add the leeks, bread cubes an 3 oz of the pecorino. Mix everything together thoroughly and check for seasoning. Transfer the mixture to a buttered 8×8 baking dish. Top with the remaining cheese. Place in a medium-hot wood oven and allow the gratin to bake for approximately 30 minutes or until it is bubbly and beginning to brown on top. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for at least 10 minutes before serving. Enjoy with a nice piece of roasted beef and a big hearty cabernet sauvignon and you’ve got yourself a winter meal that will keep the cold at bay.