|Young Red Russian kale plants thrive in Florida throughout the fall, winter and early spring.|
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 10, 2011)
Every day around lunchtime, I go into the garden and cut a few kale leaves. After shaking water droplets off them, I bring the crinkly edged greens inside to use in place of lettuce on my sandwich. Kale leaves add a pleasant crunch to my midday meal as well as a slightly sweet, pleasant flavor.
Unlike lettuce, which has few vitamins and minerals, kale leaves pack a nutritional punch. Each bite provides antioxidants, anti-inflammatory nutrients and cancer-fighting glucosinolates. Kale is a rich source of vitamins A, C and K as well as minerals such as calcium, copper, potassium, iron, manganese and phosphorus.
Kale belongs to the Brassica family, whose members include arugula, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, mustard greens, radishes, rapini, turnips and watercress. While some of its cousins are strong-flavored and bitter, kale is mild-mannered and inoffensive. Consider it the Clark Kent of cruciferous veggies.
Kale is easy to grow. Its growing season is long — August through March. It likes cold weather and is seldom bothered by bugs or disease. The variety we're growing this year is Red Russian, ordered from Fedco Seeds in Waterville, Maine (fedcoseeds.com). Although the company's main clientele lives in Northern climates, many of its seeds, including Red Russian kale, do well in the South.
In late August, Ralph sowed about half of a 70-cent, 2-gram packet of the tiny black orbs into three 15-gallon containers filled with our special soil mixture, a rich combination of composted manure, peat and woodchips for aeration. Within a few weeks, dozens of sprouts began to appear.
When the young shoots were about an inch high and sported a few small leaves, my son Tim, who inherited his father's green thumb, transplanted them into two dozen 15-gallon containers. From then on, the seedlings developed quickly. We began harvesting the frilly leaves in late September. Today, four months later, the plants are still producing growth without showing any sign of decline.
I take scissors with me when I'm out gathering leaves. Kale leaves grow on tough stems that resemble pinkish-green celery stalks. The stems are edible, but they taste better when cooked, while the tender young leaves are delicious raw. For each sandwich, I snip off four bread-slice-sized leaf sections. I come back for the stems when I'm making soup or looking for a crunchy ingredient to add to a stir-fry.
There's much more to do with kale leaves than use them as a substitute for lettuce. The chopped greens also work well in stews or in any recipe that calls for spinach. Sometimes for dinner, I'll gather a basketful of the fresh tops and chop them into small pieces before sautéing them in a cast-iron frying pan lightly coated with olive oil and pressed garlic. When the leaves are turning bright green — it's important not to overcook — I pour in a dash of lemon juice, turn off the heat and cover the pan for about two minutes before serving. If Ralph is making dinner, he'll add a sprinkle of turmeric as a seasoning.
When we lived on Cape Cod, my kids were partial to kale soup, a Portuguese staple available in many local restaurants. I haven't had that ethnic delicacy in years, but recently, Ralph and I spent time in St. Petersburg, where we discovered a completely different use for this most versatile and nutritious vegetable. Leafy Green Café, a wonderful little vegan raw-food eatery, serves side orders of a house specialty called kale chips. The chips — crunchy, seasoned morsels that melt in the mouth — are the result of slowly drying fresh kale leaves sprinkled with a special spice mixture. They were unexpectedly delicious.
Just as Clark Kent changed into Superman, the modest kale plant reveals superpowers of its own. The difference is that kale's transformation requires no telephone booth. All that's needed are an inexpensive packet of seeds, some potting soil and a desire to experiment with your taste buds. No matter how it is used — cooked, raw or dehydrated — kale is one vegetable worthy of attention.