Kale Sauce Is a Simple, Practical Kitchen All-Star
I’ve been leaning into repetition in my cooking. To exist in the social media-fueled food space is to often feel compelled by the constant chase of novelty: There is always some new restaurant to try, or a viral dish to replicate. This inability to sit with familiarity can be tiring. And so, as an antidote, I’ve been making kale sauce more often.
Though he certainly wasn’t the first person to put kale in a blender and call it sauce, the chef and Six Seasons author Joshua McFadden seems to have introduced many people to the concept of kale sauce, myself included. His version, which was first published in his 2017 cookbook and then in the New York Times, begins by sizzling garlic in olive oil. Kale is then blanched in boiling water and put dripping wet into a blender, followed by the garlic and oil. McFadden combines it all into a vivid puree, which he adds to cooked pasta with a bit of Parm and extra pasta water. It tastes nourishing, wholesome, and green, as if pesto went on a juice cleanse, but it also delivers the hefty comfort of a bowl of pasta.
Kale sauce, above all things, is practical: It is an easy way to use up lots of green things. Kale, spinach, arugula, Swiss chard, broccoli, herbs, or any combination thereof will do, and it doesn’t matter if they’re wilted. As such, I often find myself making kale sauce toward the tail end of the week, when there’s a bunch of kale hasn’t been eaten yet or a bag of parsley that I bought too ambitiously; those fridge stragglers don’t get more exciting with time. In that way, the sauce functions as a grounding reset before I refill the fridge.
While its foundation remains constant, kale sauce allows for all sorts of modifications. When a recipe is that simple, people feel compelled to add things, as though they don’t trust that goodness can come about that easily (it’s true that if you’re stingy with the salt, kale sauce can be bland and boring). According to the comments on McFadden’s recipe, New York Times readers have: blended in silken tofu (for protein) or mashed avocado (for “more deliciousness”); replaced kale with broccoli rabe, and then added blanched almonds and pecorino Romano; added anchovies, or a mixture of ginger, tamari, lemon juice, and sesame oil. One commenter writes that, while good, the recipe “needs” heavy cream, which “mutes the shocking green of the sauce” to appease those who don’t eat “green stuff.” Out of my own compulsion to modify, I’ve forgone McFadden’s recipe and created my own: into my blender go kale, lemon juice, those aforementioned extra herbs, raw garlic instead of cooked (out of ease), and heaps of nutritional yeast or nuts in place of Parm.
There are other variations on the theme, like Julia Busuttil Nishimura’s cavolo nero pasta, which uses ricotta and calls for blanching the garlic with the kale instead of sizzling it in oil. And kale sauce has cousins, like the broccoli-and-spinach pasta sauce popularized by social media chef Hailee Catalano, and the green angel hair pasta with garlic butter on the cover of Smitten Kitchen Keepers, Deb Perelman’s newest book.
As all of these variations testify, kale sauce is neither new nor a secret; instead, it’s whatever you want it to be. And no matter how it varies, it is fundamentally a reminder of simplicity, a culinary virtue that gets overlooked in a social media landscape where using a bigger number of ingredients gets conflated with how good the food tastes. Because it’s so simple, the sauce becomes an opportunity to tinker with technique. Raw kale into the blender doesn’t taste as good to me as lightly blanched, for example, and while a high-speed blender will soften the leaves in seconds, letting them blend for 30 seconds longer makes for the silkiest sauce.
It’s nice to make a dish many times and find that you’re still not bored of it, that instead you notice its little subtleties. Recently, I pared the sauce back to nothing but kale, pasta water, oil, Parm, and salt, and I was surprised to find it tasted the best it had in a while. It reminded me, once more, why kale sauce is a way of life: Everything is used, and even the simplest things are valued.