Broccoli’s leafier cousin, which has grown in popularity, can be eaten raw or cooked. (BIGSTOCK)

 Kale, broccoli’s leafier cousin, is no longer relegated to being a side dish at dinner. This versatile cruciferous vegetable can also be worked into your breakfast or lunch for a nutrition boost.

“We buy more kale than any of the other related greens combined,” says James Parker, a buyer for Whole Foods Market. As further proof of its popularity, Web searches for kale recipes have nearly quadrupled in the past two years, according to Google Trends.

Kale can also work as part of a tasty dessert. For example, kale lemon gelato and streusel was one of chef Madison Cowan’s winning dishes last year on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America.” But you don’t have to be a pro to cook this hearty leafy green. Here’s what you need to know:

The benefits

At just 36 calories per one-cup serving, kale is packed with vitamins A, C and E, along with calcium and fiber. And it contains lutein, zeaxanthin and other carotenoids, which have been linked to a reduced risk of certain eye diseases. In addition, it’s loaded with Vitamin K, which helps blood to clot and builds stronger bones.

There’s evidence that eating an extra daily serving of leafy greens can reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes. And the greens have glucosinolates, which may help fight cancer. “We have not seen clear benefits with cruciferous vegetables for reduction in cancer incidence in humans,” says Walter C. Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, “although glucosinolates and related compounds at high doses can inhibit cancers in animals.”

People taking warfarin (Coumadin and its generics) should talk with their doctor before eating foods rich in Vitamin K because it can undermine the blood thinner’s effects, says Sarah Booth, director of the Vitamin K Laboratory at Tufts University in Boston.

Buying it

Two types are popular: curly, which is bright green and tastes a little tart, and dinosaur (also known as black, lacinato or Tuscan), which is darker, with flat leaves and a nutty taste. All types of kale can be eaten raw, but beginners might like the more tender dinosaur variety, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, author of “The Flexitarian Diet.”

When shopping, avoid yellow or bruised leaves, limp stems and any signs of decay. Or try prepackaged baby kale, which tends to be more tender and less pungent than mature kale. Frozen kale is best used in casseroles and other dishes where you’re combining ingredients, since it loses some of its texture. Opt for organic if it’s available.

Growing it

Although it’s usually started in the spring, late July is also a good time to plant kale, says Betty Sanders, a master gardener who oversees a 6,000-square-foot garden at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in Wellesley. “Kale likes a light frost, which makes it sweeter, but it’s gone once the temperatures dip into the low 20s.” You can grow it in pots, but make sure that they’re roomy (a minimum of eight inches deep and eight inches wide) and that the plants get at least eight hours of sunlight.

Prepping it

Store kale in an airtight container or sealed plastic bag until you’re ready to use it. Then wash the leaves before you cut them and blot dry. If you’re put off by kale’s tougher texture in raw salads, try cutting it thin and massaging in an acid-based dressing that includes lemon, lime or vinegar. That will help break down cell walls and make it more tender, Blatner says. Since the stems tend to be tough, she strips the leaves from them whether she’s eating kale raw or cooked.

Cooking it

“You can cook kale to release the bitterness, but don’t overcook it,” Cowan says.

Bottom line: Kale is a star in the produce aisle, but don’t forget to eat a rainbow of fruit and vegetables to get all of Mother Nature’s benefits.

Copyright 2013. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

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Interactive: Dishes you can make with kale