According to the genius of ancient Greece, cabbages were engendered from the tears of the Thracian king Lycurgus, who was blinded and torn limb from limb by Dionysus “the raging god” for pulling up grapevines. Modern botanists have for the most part been unwilling to accept this perfectly rational explanation for the genesis of the cabbage tribe, which however widely consumed in the Greco-Roman world, probably came from the cool, moist climates of northern and central Europe, particularly the British Isles. Most botanists theorize that cabbages in their infinite variety are descended from the sea kale (Crambe maritima), and kale was probably the first variety of cabbage to come under cultivation. I’m sure there’s a line of thought that implicates Vikings in their diaspora.
All cabbages kith and kin belong to the genus Brassica: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, bok choy and sum, rutabaga, turnip and of course true kale (B. oleracea acephala), which translates as “non-heading cabbage”; this scientific tag covers collards as well, but collard leaves are straighter and smoother, whereas kale foliage is curled somewhat like parsley (kale in French is chou fries: “curly cabbage”. To be quite honest (as is my habit) kale is what we once used as a garnish on the salad bar, scattering the parti-colored leaves of the ornamental varieties artfully between the containers of vegetables, pickles and whatnot in a pathetic effort to suggest the experience of grazing in a garden or meadow, which leads me to observe that even today more kale is fed to livestock than to people, hence the moniker “cow cabbage”. But kale has made a spectacular comeback lately, particularly among hipsters and millennials who cheerfully disdain culinary precedence by tossing the leaves on a sheet pan and baking them in the oven to make “chips”, which are just as dreadful as they sound.
This dish, thankfully, is far more edible, since the Irish—and more notably the Scots—have been eating kale in enormous quantities for centuries and consequently know how to cook it. Colcannon (note the first syllable is practically synonymous with that of another cabbage dish, cole slaw) is from cál ceannann, meaning “white-headed cabbage”, and the recipe is as simple as the dish is hearty. Use one large starchy potato (russet) to, say, a packed cup of raw, chopped kale for each serving. Cut potatoes into chunks and boil vigorously until very soft and whip with milk or cream and butter. These don’t have to be perfectly smooth; in fact, they’re better a little lumpy, if you ask me. Boil the kale until quite done—this is one recipe for which you don’t want to use blanched kale—drain and while still hot toss with a little butter. Mix the potatoes and kale together, season with salt and white pepper. Some people cook green onions with the kale, but I prefer them raw as a garnish. You can thin this basic recipe with milk or broth to make a soup or you can spoon it into a casserole and bake it topped with a semi-hard cheese. It is a traditional side dish with ham, though I’m certain it goes just as well with corned or stewed beef.