In the U.S., kale became curiously faddish a few years back. In northern Germany, where I have spent a good part of the last few decades, this leafy green is more soul food than superfood.
Grünkohl, as the vegetable is known here, features centrally in a classic cold-weather dish of the same name. Braised in a smoky pork broth and further flavored with mustard, sugar and a dash of allspice, the kale comes to the table along with a whopping helping of pork products and a pile of boiled potatoes. Somewhat sweet, surprisingly pungent and unabashedly porky, the dish has a trademark chewy texture thanks to an unlikely but essential ingredient: steel-cut oats, added near the end of cooking.
Germany’s kale belt begins in the far northwest, in the harbor cities and flat countryside that run along the North Sea coast, and extends to the Baltic Sea towns north of Berlin, where I live. Though it can be found as a niche item year-round at health food stores and organic markets, kale comes into its own in mid-November, when it takes pride of place in the produce aisle of just about every grocery store in the northern quarter of the country.
Over the years, I’ve tried my share of grünkohl at outdoor Christmas markets, where it is sold out of enormous, steaming pans, and I have occasionally ordered it at elegant restaurants in Berlin and Hamburg. But until this past fall, I had never made grünkohl at home.
I knew that Bremen, one of Germany’s leading ports, vies for the title of grünkohl capital. So I called up chef Arnd Feye, managing director of the Bremer Ratskeller, the grand but cozy restaurant in the basement of Bremen’s historic city hall. He shared the restaurant’s recipe, which calls for simmering a combo of sausages and pork cuts along with a few root vegetables to make a broth. In the northwest of Germany, grünkohl lovers insist on pinkel, a grainy smoked sausage that’s as much oats as it is meat. Pinkel are hard to come by in my corner of the country, so I substituted a smoked kielbasa-style sausage. I also included kassler rippchen, the cured and smoked pork chop called for in many versions of the recipe, and I rounded these out with a knackwurst-style sausage.
‘The kale comes to the table with a whopping helping of pork products and a pile of boiled potatoes.’
While the broth simmered, I blanched the kale. Had my pan been bigger, I could have done what most Germans do—fry up some bacon and onions, then sauté the kale before adding the broth. Instead, I added the broth to my sauteed ingredients, brought it all to the boil, then tossed in kale by the handful, allowing it to wilt before adding more.
In Holstein, the area around Hamburg, natives glaze the accompanying boiled potatoes with sugar; alternatively, some Germans serve their kale with bratkartoffeln, an oniony cousin of hash browns. I opted for the default pairing, which also happens to be the easiest to make: salzkartoffeln, or waxy potatoes halved and boiled in very salty water.
The recipe warned not to let the oats fall to the bottom of the pot and scorch, so I carefully sprinkled and integrated them into the surface of the kale. Twenty minutes later I had my first real taste. The kale was tender and smoky and delicious, and the oats were delightfully nutty. I rewarmed the meat slowly on top of the kale mixture, then considered my presentation.
When plating grünkohl, Germans often give the sausages star billing by serving them atop a nest of kale. I decided to make kale my centerpiece and pushed the sausages and potatoes to the side, finishing it all off with a dollop of mustard at the plate’s edge. Then I sat down with a cold Berlin-style pilsner and dug in.
Now I know why Germans struggle with buckling plastic plates of grünkohl at outdoor markets and defy decorum by scarfing up the humble dish in upscale restaurants. They’re recalling the deep pleasure of a home-cooked meal, and from now on I can too.
Grünkohl (North-German-Style Kale)
You can find the kassler rippchen (cured and smoked German-style pork chops) for this recipe at specialty butchers, or online at schallerweber.com. Or, substitute 4 thick slices of smoked pork butt. A cold beer or a German red wine such as Spätburgunder pairs well with this dish.
Active Time: 1 hour Total Time: 3 hours Serves: 4
For the broth:
- 4 knackwurst
- 4 kielbasa
- 1½ pounds kassler rippchen
- 1 (4-ounce) slice of celery root
- 1 onion, coarsely chopped
- 5 cups water
- ¼ teaspoon salt
For the kale:
- 2 pounds kale, stems and stalks removed
- 2 onions, chopped
- 6 ounces Speck or slab bacon, coarsely chopped
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
- ¼ cup yellow mustard, plus more for serving
- ¼ cup steel-cut oats
For the potatoes:
- 1⅓ pounds waxy potatoes, washed, peeled and halved
- ¼ cup salt
1. Make broth: In a covered medium saucepan, combine kassler rippchen and vegetables. Add water and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer over low heat 30 minutes. Pierce casings of sausages with a fork, then add to pot, cover again and simmer 20 minutes more. Discard vegetables. Remove sausages and meat, and set aside on a plate, covered with foil. Season broth with salt to taste.
2. While broth cooks, prepare kale: Fill a large stock pot with water and bring to a boil. Add kale and blanch 1 minute. Drain and rinse in cold water to halt cooking. Dry kale with paper towels, then chop into thin ribbons.
3. In a large pot or Dutch oven, fry bacon over medium heat until fat begins to render out, 1-3 minutes. Add onions, reduce heat to medium-low and cook until translucent and bacon begins to brown, 4-5 minutes. Pour in 3 cups broth and scrape up browned bits from bottom of pan. Add salt, pepper, sugar, allspice and mustard. Increase heat and gradually add chopped kale. Stir well and slowly bring to a boil, then cover, reduce heat to low and simmer until liquid reduces to the point where mixture is moist and 1-2 inches broth remain in pan, about 1¼ hours. Add broth during cooking as necessary to prevent pan from drying.
4. While kale is cooking, boil potatoes: Place potatoes in a large saucepan and fully cover with water. Add salt and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until potatoes are easily pierced with a fork, 35-45 minutes. Drain and keep warm.
5. Once kale has cooked, sprinkle oats on top and press into surface of kale with a spoon. Simmer over low heat until oats soften, 15 minutes. Place sausages and meat on top of kale, and reheat slowly, 15 minutes.
6. Remove meat and sausage from kale and arrange on a large platter. Create a bed of kale on each plate, and then arrange meat, sausages and potatoes on top or alongside. Serve with a dollop of mustard.
—Adapted from the Bremer Ratskeller, Bremen, Germany
Write to Jeff Marcus at firstname.lastname@example.org