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Kale: A Fashion Statement

Cutting kale in my otherwise dormant garden -- New Year's Eve, 2014

Cutting kale in my otherwise dormant garden — New Year’s Eve, 2014

Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m a big fan of kale.  One of my first posts on this blog was about kale and includes a great kale soup recipe. The “KALE” sweatshirt that I’m sporting in the pic was a holiday gift from my daughter. I was a kale fan before it became trendy, and everyone in the world shouted its nutritional praises. While the nutrition is a great feature, that’s only part of the story.  Kale has more staying power than just about any vegetable in my central Connecticut Zone 5B garden.

The plants pictured here in my otherwise empty garden — next year I’ll get my season-extending tunnel covers in place — are Lacinato Kale, Brassica oleracea Lacinato — that I started indoors from seed late last winter and planted in the garden in late spring. They could have gone in much earlier; they are very cold tolerant and could have been direct seeded. I was late getting my garden going last year, but the extremely forgiving kale didn’t seem to mind. Despite begin cold tolerant — actually cold loving — kale grows happily all through the summer without bolting like spinach, arugula, and other lettuces will do. All summer long while I clip the outside leaves, the plant keeps growing taller and producing new leaves from the center.

I’m not the only creature that loves kale, so it’s always a constant challenge to keep away various types of caterpillars (especially cabbage loopers) and white flies. I launch multiple organic assaults on these pests including hand picking, Bacillus thuringiensis, and insecticidal soap, but this meets with only modest success. Mostly, I depend upon the established kale to produce so prolifically and there are enough greens for everyone.

Kale: A Survivor’s Story

Yes, “survivor” is the right word. As I pack in the rest of the garden and mulch it down with leaves, I just smile at the kale and know that it won’t give up for several more months. A frost or two won’t hurt it; nor will a snowfall unless it’s so heavy that it breaks the leaves or stem. The kale you see in the picture above has gone through a number of hard freezes. As long as you don’t cut it while it’s frozen but rather let the sun thaw it normally, it will survive well past the December holidays. I’ve been known to cut it in February.

Almost forgot to mention. If you don’t want to brave the cold weather, kale keeps well in your freezer! When it is at its peak in the summer, I’ll cut many of the leaves, trim away the center stem, chop, steam, submerge in ice water, spin dry and freeze. It will keep nicely in your freezer for about a year. Use as a side dish (see below) or for soup.

Kale: An Easy Side Dish

Kale chips and soup are very popular, but don’t forget one of the easiest kale presentations: steamed or sautéd. To prepare, wash the freshly cut leaves. Trim away the tough center stem, then chop into bite-sized pieces. Steam and serve as you would spinach, but about twice as long. Kale can be tough and needs to be cooked longer to soften it up. Drain well and drizzle with a little balsamic vinegar.

To  sauté, coat bottom of skillet with olive oil and heat until fragrant. Add a few tablespoons of pignolia nuts and heat until just browned. Remove from pan. Add prepared kale and  sauté until tender. Remove to serving dish and sprinkle with browned pignolia nuts. Note: nuts are optional. Also delicious with browned butter rather than olive oil.

 

 

 

kale Lacinato "trees" in my garden

 

Kale. Three years ago I had heard of it, but really didn’t know what it was. Knew that it was a vegetable, but not much beyond that. Brendan encouraged me to plant it a few seasons ago, and it did remarkably well in my not-terribly-sunny garden plot.  It has done so well that this year, we had a plot of what we called “kale trees”! The stalks were at least four feet high and have surrendered countless pounds of produce!

If you’re not familiar with kale, give it a try. It is one of the healthiest vegetables around.  High in fiber, it’s been found to reduce cholesterol, reduce risk of at least five different types of cancer, and is off the chart in levels of vitamins K, A, C, manganese, and more. Kale is a cruciferous vegetable (part of the Brassicaceae family) whose cousins include broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. But unlike many of it cousins whose leaves simply frame their fruit, kale’s leaves are its raison d’être. Think spinach, but on a mega scale. The very young leaves can accent a salad nicely, but the larger, older leaves can be a bit tough and need a long marinade to work in a salad, but make a great kale soup, see recipe below. I love to include kale in a mixed vegetable stir fry, or steam it and serve like spinach. 

While I love kale for its high nutrition value, I love it equally because it’s a flexible and hearty species. I planted it once in the spring and it grew all summer (after a somewhat rocky start, which I’ll explain). It loves cool weather and can withstand cold weather and a hard frost, but also survives a hot, dry summer. The trick to making it last through the summer is to pick only the outside leaves and let the center leaves grow. The trick to making it last through a frost is let the sun thaw it completely before picking. It won’t make it through the dead of winter — at least not here in New England — unless you try a tunnel cover or cold frame. Check out Eliot Coleman’s The Winter Harvest Handbook
for details.

 

typical curly leafed kale

 

This year, I planted both Winterbor and Lacinato varieties, but only the Lacinato survived. The Winterbor, which is a traditional, curly-leafed variety, was the target of an as-yet-unidentified pest that insisted on demolishing the emerging plants before they could establish themselves. The reason the Lacinato survived is because I started it in a cold frame; grew it there until it reached a couple inches in height, then planted in garden. After planting, I kept it covered with a floating row cover to keep off the pests until it reached a size that allowed it to withstand the predators. I sewed the Winterbor directly into the garden and it never made it to the critical size.

 

kale "trees" on left side of garden, winter squash and chard on right

 

Now it’s nearly the end of October; there’s not much left in the summer garden, but there are still kale “trees” that we’re harvesting, as shown in the picture. I can count on them to yield the makings for salad, steamed kale, and kale soup until nearly December. During that time, there will also be enough kale to freeze for the winter months. Kale is the gift that keeps on giving!

The next time the weather forecast is cold and dreary, make some kale soup: it’s a soup star that ticks a lot important boxes: comfort food, healthy, tasty, and local.

Kale Soup

3 T. olive oil

1 large onion chopped

6 C. water

1 teasp. salt (or to taste)

1 teasp. freshly ground pepper

4 large potatoes, scrubbed (not peeled), diced

1 lb. Portuguese sausage (linguica or chourizo) or Polish kielbasa sliced into 1/4 inch circles

1 large bunch of kale, center stem removed, and thinly sliced to make 8 cups chopped

3 T. white vinegar

In a large soup pot, sauté onion in olive oil until golden brown. Add water and diced potatoes; bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are soft (about 30 minutes). While potatoes are cooking, place prepared kale in colander; rinse well with cold water; blanch by pouring 2 qts. boiling water over kale in colander; drain well, set aside.

Using an immersion blender, puree broth, potatoes, onions until smooth. If you don’t have an immersion blender, use a potato masher (texture will be slightly more chunky) to mash. Add remaining ingredients. Simmer on low for 30 minutes. Adjust seasoning. I like to use very little salt, but more vinegar (total 4 — 5 T.) Simmer for another 30 minutes — longer for a thicker broth. Serve with crusty bread. Or better, put in the refrigerator overnight. Reheat and serve the next day when the flavor has developed even more. Delicious!

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