Kale Lessons

I’ve always planted kale in mid-to-late July and watched the plants grow into robust, dark green towers of kale by October. But I always waited to harvest any until the plants went through a frosty night or two and the leaves became deliciously sweet. The leaves before the frost seemed thin and almost bitter compared to the sturdy, sweet, post-frost leaves.

Over this past late fall and early winter, however, kale plants, clusters and singles, volunteered in various spots throughout the garden, along edges of beds where seeds had dropped and through cover crops from seeds that must have survived the compost heat.  Curious about how they’d taste, I let them mature. Kale volunteers

Kale volunteerMy prejudice for July-planted, fall frost-sweetened kale kept my expectations low but I’ve been amazed by how succulent and sweet these later appearing, later maturing kale leaves are. The only frost they got in this past year’s mild winter was when they were quite small plants.

The July-planted kale, which in its last weeks of early May growth gave us many meals of delicious flower buds, is finally in the compost bin but the volunteer kale plants are still providing welcome salads and even some flower buds. And more volunteers have sprouted here and there in the past few weeks. I’ll let them mature too and see how they taste as they grow in the frost-free summer. And if they taste as good as I’m hoping they will, I’ll change my kale planting plan for the year ahead to try to mimic what volunteer seeds and weather patterns have taught me. We may end up eating kale year-round instead of only from October to May.

Kitchen gardener’s habits need to be nudged in new directions now and then, prejudices and rules challenged. With our warming climate, kale may be the first of many vegetables that will cause me to rethink planting calendars and favorite varieties. I’ll pay closer attention.

 

 

 

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Kale Salads

My friend Lexi called me the other day to ask for my kale salad recipe and I was happy to share it: remove kale leaves from the stems and tear or slice them into bite-sized pieces, moisten with a little olive oil, sprinkle on salt to taste and use your hands to massage the leaves in the oil and salt until slightly slippery and shiny, adding more olive oil if necessary. Then squeeze lemon juice over the leaves and toss. Finally add grated Parmesan cheese and toss again. Proportions are flexible and depend on how much kale you start with, how sour or sweet the lemon is and how much cheese you like. Serve it right away or let it sit for up to an hour or so.

Kale salad stilllife

Kale salad tossing

Kale salad 5:15

It’s a recipe for the most basic of kale salads and my favorite, but as with any salad, additions and substitutions are practically endless. One friend adds roasted tomatoes, another lots of red pepper flakes, another toasted croutons; another substitutes Pecorino for Parmesan, another balsamic vinegar for lemon juice. Roasted vegetables, toasted pecans or hazelnuts, apples or citrus are also popular additions.

And then there is the question of what variety of kale to use. Some friends insist on Lacinato kale with its dark green, crinkled spear-shaped leaves. I like the tender, smooth-leaved Red Russian better than Lacinato and this year I’ve liked White Russian even more not only for its sweet flavor but also because it is both more winter hardy than Red Russian and has produced tender, flavorful spring growth longer than Red Russian has. Even now, at the start of June, there’s one more kale salad left on the last few White Russian plants still standing.

Kale white RussianLexi was using kale she’d planted this spring while for the past few months I’ve been harvesting new growth leaves from overwintered kale I planted last July. And before spring’s new growth there were the frost-sweetened leaves I started harvesting in October and before that the tiny new leaves from thinning those July-planted seedlings. With spring and late summer plantings, you can have kale salads year round.

Kale salads have been popular with chefs and home cooks for nearly a decade. Searching the recipe site Epicurious, I found the earliest kale salad recipes dated 2007 and 2009. Introducing the January, 2007 Gourmet magazine recipe is this note: “Inspired by an antipasto that’s popular at New York City’s Lupa, this substantial salad takes a hearty, rich green that’s usually cooked and proves how delicious it can be when served raw.” And a February 2009 Bon Appetit recipe from Dan Barber begins: “In a surprising twist, Tuscan kale is served raw—and makes for a substantial and satisfying winter salad.” Who knew! I experimented with my first kale salad in October, 2007 inspired by Melissa Clark’s New York Times recipe and article.

Before discovering how delicious raw kale is, I’d regularly wilted it then sautéed it in olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes and served it hot or at room temperature. I still do that, especially at the start of winter when warm food is appealing. But just as often now I keep the kale raw. It mixes well with other hardy winter salad greens like mache, radicchio and arugula but it’s also satisfying alone and especially welcomed after all the other winter greens are gone. In another month and a half, it will be time to plant next year’s crop. Kale salad, once new and trendy, is here to stay.