Ancient, nutritious, beautiful kale: few plants make us ponder the relationship between species as they develop and evolve more than kale. Once, several thousands of years ago in Asia there was something called a wild kale. This plant, a leafy green, came west with travelers and ended up wild and native in Europe and the Mediterranean. Slowly, through cultivation, selection and isolation, one plant became many. We know them as broccoli, kohlrabi, kale, collards and cabbage. Each an individual, like five beautiful daughters in a strong, closely-knit family. The relation is recognizable, and makes their own individual expression all the more remarkable.
In the Southeast, where we farm, collards are fraught with a loaded cultural message. As is cabbage — a stinky, poor-people’s food, which in the worst and stinkiest cases is preserved (sauerkraut, kimchee). Kale was also traditionally preserved with salt and left to ferment. Like collards, but unlike the other, single-forming sisters, it has leaves that can be almost continuously harvested. Not unlike collards or cabbage, the nutritionally dense, cold-hardy, easy-growing, constantly yielding kale became associated with poverty and making the most of very little. Kale was so commonly grown in the British Isles, in the 18th and 19th centuries in Scotland, the “kailyard” became a pejorative label used to categorize those writers and poets who romanticized country life at that time.
Pejorative labels notwithstanding, there does seem to be such a thing as native wisdom. Kale, and her sisters, are among the most phyto-nutrient dense vegetables that exist, and thus one of the healthiest things you can eat. There is an innate satisfaction that comes from growing and eating any food, but organically grown kale is one of the most satisfying that has ever existed for us. It makes us ponder that essential food question: Which came first? Are kale and her sisters such a huge part of agriculture because they are so nutritionally dense and dauntlessly yielding? Or did humans cause those qualities to exist through selection and cultivation? Either way, you can’t regret eating something this historical, delicious and good for you.—Joe and Judith
Red Russian Kale, Lacinato Kale, Siberian Kale.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds, High Mowing Seeds
What I’m Wearing
From the light-green, frilled collar leaf point to deeply purple-spined and boldly oak-leafed, or oblong, unbroken or deep blue-green — like algae in the distant waters of the sea — kale is endlessly textured.
Trust your instincts and eat a lot of this sulfurous leaf. The darker the color, the greater the good will be. Packing an arsenal of minerality and a grown-up sweetness, this delicious leaf will brighten and enrich any meal.
How to Grow
- We typically start with young bedding plants grown in the greenhouse for spring or fall planting here in the South. Direct sowing is also an option. In cooler summer climates, kale can be grown all year long.
- Be sure to plant young seedlings deep enough, but carefully, so as not to bury the emergence of the new leaves in the heart of the plant.
- We typically plant kale plants 12” apart in the row and 6” between the rows.
- Like all leafy vegetables, kale has a high nitrogen demand from the soil. We typically use feather or alfalfa meal to fertilize. Additionally, kale’s robustness benefits from a full range of available minerals and micronutrients, which can be supplied with kelp meal or SEA-90, a product derived from dried sea salts.
- We cultivate our young plants weekly to keep the weeds down until the leaves make a shaded canopy over the row.
- Kale, like other nitrogen-hungry members of the Brassica family are susceptible to insect pests, such as aphids, which are herded by ants, or caterpillars, which are the larvae of beautiful butterflies and moths. Weekly scouting will give you an idea of the severity of the problem.
- Keep outer leaves picked to encourage the plant to continue producing leaves instead of moving into a reproductive phase.
The spinach of 2012, it’s hard not to notice that kale is currently hot stuff. And why not? Loaded with nutrients, including beta carotene and Vitamin C, kale is good…and good for you. One of the more fun ways to load up on all that good stuff, swap out potato chips with some healthy Kale Chips from Food Network Magazine. But don’t stop there. Try Guy Fieri’s citrusy Crispy Kale Chips with Lemon. A Lemon Mayonnaise makes a great accompaniment. Or how about Ellie Krieger’s smoked-paprika laced Smoky Kale Chips.
So go out there and get your crunch on with these delicious twists on tired old chips. Check out FN Dish for even more great kale chip recipes.
In this Garden to Table feature, farmer-bloggers Judith Winfrey and Joe Reynolds offer their tips for
sowing, growing and harvesting. And then we kick it over to FN Dish for
some delicious recipes using this seasonal produce.