07/09/2012 06:00 EDT | Updated 09/08/2012 05:12 EDT

Turn over a new leaf with kale: Ancient vegetable is chock-full of nutrients

TORONTO - Most people know that kale is a nutrient-dense plant that is good for them, but many draw a blank when it comes to preparing it. Dismayed by this lack of knowledge, Vancouver master gardener Sharon Hanna was inpired to write a guide and cookbook on the leafy vegetable.

"The Book of Kale: The Easy-to-Grow Superfood" (Harbour Publishing Co. Ltd.) is a compendium of everything you ever wanted to know.

"It blows my mind that people are crazy about kale, but they don't know how to eat it," Hanna said in an interview from Vancouver. "So this book pretty well tells you everything you need to know and more than a normal reasonable person would ever want to know."

The hardy vegetable, which thrives in gardens across the country, is "one of the most nutritious foods on the planet," packed with vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (plant-based compounds). Benefits include boosting immunity, repairing damaged tissue and protecting eyes from damaging UV light, helping to prevent age-related macular degeneration and cataracts, among others.

Kale, with its pretty ruffled, curly, flat and coloured leaves, has received 1,000 out of 1,000 on the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index scoring system created by nutritional researcher Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of "Eat to Live."

"Kale and collards are the No. 1 nutrient-dense foods period. Whether it's beans, meat, cheese, anything. You get the most bang for your buck out of a cup of kale," Hanna said.

Canada's Food Guide recommends you eat at least one dark-green vegetable every day.

"People can save money and improve their health and it's such a benevolent, magnificent plant," Hanna said. "People just don't know how to eat it and they really should."

Hanna, 63, set out to demystify kale. She highlights different types — Rainbow Tuscan, Blueridge, Scottish, Winterbor — and includes a section with tips on how to grow it and the history of the ancient vegetable, which has been cultivated for more than 6,000 years around the globe. It was revered by the Egyptians who lined the tombs of their pharaohs with intricate gold and silver carvings of garlands of kale leaves.

If you have sun and good soil, kale is easy to grow. Bees are attracted to its yellow flowers. The buds are a great source of protein with little fat and can be cooked too, Hanna said.

It's an ideal plant to teach children to grow because it produces a result quickly. "Within weeks of sowing, little leaves are available for nibbling," she writes.

The kids in her neighbourhood teach each other to like kale. "They come along and eat the buds, the leaves and the flowers," Hanna said. "If they grow it themselves, then they will eat it."

On the west coast and many other areas of the country, kale grows year-round and actually tastes better after it's been kissed by frost, she said. However, the prolonged deep freeze in some areas precludes overwintering.

"When you grow it over winter it suppresses one of the phytonutrients which is called sulforaphane, that sulphury sort of hot taste, and when it freezes it actually unmasks the natural sugar in the kale," which enhances its flavour.

Hanna, who has taught fitness and worked as an insurance adjuster, said she has always gravitated toward plants, working in nurseries and writing seed catalogues as well.

She also likes to cook, "especially if I have stuff in the garden where I don't have to go anywhere, just outside and pick it," and during the writing of the book she lived, ate and slept kale.

"I was obsessed by kale. I literally did walk in the woods with my friend and the dog every day and be like kale, kale, kale." She says her dog Pocky now pulls leaves off kale plants and eats them.

"I started making all kinds of things. I would look in old cookbooks like Fannie Farmer and I saw the recipe for fritters and I thought, 'What could I put with kale that would make a groovy fritter?' and edamame popped into my head and I made the Kale Edamame Fritters, which is I think one of my favourite things in the book."

In her Kitsilano neighbourhood on Vancouver's west side, she is surrounded by different ethnicities and the influence has found its way into her recipes, with such selections as Moussaka With Kale and Lamb, Thai Chicken Curry and Breakfast Okonomiyaki.

There are also many vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free choices.

Even the water used to cook kale is nutritious, Hanna said.

"I don't like throwing away cooking water from vegetables because a lot of the vitamins are in there. I sometimes just save a jar in the freezer and just keep adding to it and then throw it into soup instead of water."

Hanna's playful personality comes through in the book, which is peppered with witticisms and many of the recipe titles feature plays on words.

"I love the font (the publisher) used," she said. "It sort of looks like curly kale and it sort of looks like it's kind of playful and goofy."