Kale has been one of those vegetables that has had a bit of an image problem in the past. Robust and super hardy plants, they have a certain don’t mess with me attitude about them and can cope with whatever the winter weather will through at them. I’ve been growing them since I took on my plot and they have stood unflinching through minus 15 degrees C, being buried under several feet of snow and this winter have coped with the deluge of rain deposited on them.
Popular in Britain as a crop for thousands of years, it’s thought they may have been introduced by the Romans. A rich source of vitamins and minerals kale, like its brassica cousin the cabbage, would have been an important part of the diet of our ancestors. There is an earthiness and sense of the peasant about kale and perhaps this is why it has proved unpopular in recent times. Competing with imported out of season tomatoes, aubergines and peppers, which bring a splash of the summer to our gloomy winters, is going to be a hard sell. Then there’s the taste, when you eat kale you know it’s good for you with its rich irony flavour. Palates used to blander tastes and imported vegetables are going to struggle with such a hale and hearty vegetable.
This is a pity though because kale is one of the easiest crops to grow and one of the most versatile in the kitchen. Curly kale is the classic variety, with cavolo nero being the most fashionable but my own favourite is Russian red Kale which I find to be sweeter than other kales. It must be up there as one of the prettiest vegetables, a must for any kitchen garden. Grey-green leaves with pink veins are an unusual and striking combo. And, as the light levels and temperatures drop the colours become more intense. The leaves are frilly and capture raindrops which glisten like droplets of molten silver. They look even better with a dusting of frost. Red Russian is one of the hardiest too, originating from Siberia.
Brassicas are one of those crops which can break even the keenest and green fingered of gardeners. They seem to suffer from more than their fair share of pests and diseases. Club root, a fungal disease which causes the roots of brassicas to swell and the plants to become stunted can stay in the soil for over twenty years. No amount of crop rotation is going to eliminate this from your veg garden. Then there’s cabbage white butterflies whose caterpillars can strip a plant bare over night. If you’ve struggled with cabbages and are fed up with attempts to grow broccoli then you need to give red Russian kale a try. Club root is in the soil at my allotments but kale, and red Russian in particular, seems oblivious to this fact. Even the caterpillars of cabbage whites seem to show little interest. Perhaps this is because fellow allotment holders are kindly growing more appealing, and sacrificial, cabbages. White fly will take up residence but other than a plume of tiny winged creatures filling your kitchen they seem to be no problem for the plant itself.
The beauty of red Russian kale is you can have it pretty much all year round. You could sow throughout the year if you wanted baby leaves to use in salads and stir-frys. Sow in spring and you can crop from summer right through until the following spring or sow in late summer for plants which will go through the winter. Simply keep picking the leaves and they will go on producing. I find three or four plants are enough, as you never want to strip a plant bare, they do need some leaves to keep on growing. I always sow into modules or a seed tray and nurture young plants in my greenhouse or cold frame until they are big enough to go out onto the allotment. But I’m sure you could sow the seeds direct too, just make sure you protect the young seedlings from slugs.
Kales are becoming trendy again. We’re learning to embrace stronger flavours, we love the idea of super foods and are harking back to comfort foods and rustic cooking. Kale fits the bill perfectly. It’s getting easier to come by in supermarkets and farmer markets, particularly the curly and cavolo nero varieties but you’ll struggle to find red Russian. I’ve only seen it once in an organic shop in Hebden Bridge. I was so surprised I squealed ‘red Russian kale’, much to the consternation of the fellow customers. So if you’re going to grow one kale grow this one.
As for what to do with it, well you can simply lightly steam it. It only takes a minute or two so don’t cook it into oblivion. You can add it to pasta sauces, frittatas and use it as a spinach substitute in dishes like spanokopitta. This is my own take on this Greek dish and is perfect in winter.
- Roast some butternut squash and red onion for about 30 minutes until soft.
- Steam a handful of kale.
- Mix these in a bowl with feta cheese, cashew nuts and hazelnuts.
- Season and then use as a filling, wrapping in sheets of oiled or buttered filo pastry.
- Bake in the oven for 20 minutes until golden and crispy.
Stir frying ours tonight with Hallumi and chorizo ……fantastic crop.
That sounds like a fantastic combination. Enjoy! 🙂
Yes I agree- a Winter crop worth growing all year round. I like the sound of spanokopitta and if it ever stops raining I shall pick some kale and try it.
It’s sunny here at the moment so I hope a drier spell is on its way over to you too.This rain has been epic!!! Hope you get a chance to get out and pick some. 🙂
I found your take on kale amusing, one moment full of its praise and the next declaring it to be strong tasting and difficult to love. I grow Black Tuscany that I use in soups but I like the look of your spanokopitta.
I think kale is an acquried taste, a bit like Brussels sprouts. They’ve proved that some people have a gene which makes these foods taste bitter to them when other people don’t experience this at all, which I think is fascinating. That’s why I love the red Russian variety so much, it doesn’t seem to have such a strong flavour, probably more palatable for children too.
An interesting and informative post. As I’m not that fussed about any brassicas I don’t grow them on the plot. xx
Thanks Flighty. I don’t tend to grow other brassicas as they are a bit awkward but I love how kale is so easy.
We’ve eaten kale (slightly joylessly on my part, I have to admit) for years, thanks to our veg box scheme, but this will be the first year I’ve attempted to grow it (well, the seeds still in the packet – wish me luck). It isn’t the red but the black Tuscan one as that’s what I happened to find on the racks at Hampton Court. Your recipe sounds really delicious.
I find the curly kale just a bit too much for me. It’s ok used in a hash when the flavour mellows a little. The black Tuscan one is much nicer and more adaptable I think than the curly variety. If you can start them off indoors that’s best. If not do watch out for slugs. I’ve had some small plants mauled this winter by them. Good luck with the growing. 🙂
Great! – will start them off inside. Meant to add that I warmed up to kale (even the curly variety) when I tried sautéing it with leek and garlic and a good grinding of salt and slapping it on top of bruschetta. Totally delicious. Recipe came from Trine Hahnemann’s Scandinavian Christmas book which came out about a year ago. She loves kale, and includes several recipes for it.
Ooo! That sounds delicious. I’ve heard of Trine but not seen her book. Will have to look out for it. Thanks for the tip.
Your recipe sounds delicious. We’re fans of kale here as it’s something which we’ll all eat but I haven’t grown it for a couple of years as I’ve got so fed up of all the whitefly. I’ve never grown red Russian before, I might give that a go.
It does suffer but it doesn’t seem to be as bad as cavolo nero. I should cover them with fleece but I can never be bothered. ;0
You make some very tasty food!
Well-sold WW! I wasn’t going to bother trying with brassicas any more but then decided to grow kale mainly for its cut-and-come-again appeal. Having just bought some reduced price dwarf curly kale from Sarah Raven you now make your red Russian even more appealing!
I like the sound of the little recipe at the end, WW… will have to give that a go. Always nice to try something new for dinner.
Thanks Dorris, Hope you like it. It works well with other squashes too and leek instead of the onion. Hope you get to make it. 🙂
You’ve sold it to me, I shall give it a go! I’ve given up on cabbages for the reasons you mention, as well as pigeons. Your spanokopitta sounds delicious as well.
Hope you enjoy it. 🙂
Now that recipe sounds decidedly yummy WW – I will have to give it a whirl. Funnily enough I was reading an article earlier this evening about the increasing popularity of kale in today’s ‘i’ newspaper. Apparently M&S cite it as “one of 2014’s hottest food trends”. There were a couple of recipe ideas that appealed as well as mention of kale lollies which did not appeal 🙂
Thanks Anna. Mmmmm …. kale lollies … really? Sounds pretty dreadful. I can see why kale would be seen as trendy. Funny how fortunes can change. No doubt it’ll be packaged and marketed as some fancy veg when really it is a traditional crop. Still if people start to eat it more I’m not complaining. 🙂
jacqui brocklehurst said:
It’s pretty that one!
Thanks Jacqui it is so pretty. 🙂
Hmm, as someone who has officially given up on brassicas – apart from various oriental leaves, which for some reason I don’t count – you tempt me. Not least because I crave prettiness. But I have already placed my seed order… What do you mean, I am kidding myself if I think that is the last seed order I place this year?! 😉
It would look so lovely in your kitchen garden. Go on … just one more packet. 😉
I’m a lover of good old fashioned veg and tend to prefer them to their Mediterranean counterparts. We’ve been growing Cavallo Nero for a couple of years now, with much success. Ok! So they do get attacked by caterpillars, but I’ve found that if you’ve been lax about protecting them and can’t keep up with removing the little blighters, then they can grow “through” the infestation and come out the other side. I’m definitely going to look out for seeds of the Red Russian to grow alongside our Black Kale this year. Love the recipes. Will be passing them onto my husband – “The Chef”!
It was a bad year for cabbage whites last year and I did pick some off my kale, but I completely agree that they seem able to grow through it more successfully than other brassicas.
David Marsden said:
Had kale for my tea last night along with a leek and bacon pie (should you be interested). Would you shriek ‘red Russian kale’ were you to see it again, do you think? If you’re going to see it anywhere, Hebden Bridge would be it. Dave
Love the sound of the leek and bacon pie. Maybe not shriek but it is interesting that crops which can be easily grown here can seem more exotic than imported foods. Maybe that’s just me. 😉 Yes Hebden Bridge is that kind of place. I love it there. Lou
I love kale, the Red Russian is lovely, isn’t it. I never did as a child, but thank God tastes change or develop. Two favourite uses for it in our house: kale crisps made in the oven, and a raw kale and apple salad with mustard and honey dressing. Have to try your spanokopitta, it looks delicious ;-))
Love the idea of both those recipes. Kale crisps sound excellent. How do you make them? Yes, isn’t it brilliant that our tastes change? I pretty much hated most veg when I was young but that’s more to do with them being cooked for so long they had no flavour left. ;0
Kale crisps are quite easy to make. Cut the kale into shreds, mix olive oil, salt and pepper and a dash of lemon juice in a bowl, put the kale in the bowl and mix to cover well with the oil etc. Bake in oven at 160° C for about 10 mins., but you have to keep an eagle eye on them as they go from being crisp to burnt very quickly. We sometimes sprinkle toasted sesame seeds over before serving. They really do taste great.
Love the sound of them, especially with the sesame seeds. Will have to give them a go. Thanks for the recipe. 🙂
You’re so right. Kale is really beautiful, especially Russian kale (IMO), and it tastes gorgeous. But I must confess that I’ve personally given up in the face of Caterpillar Wars. Last year they trashed everything – how do you keep your kale going, I wonder?
There were a few caterpillars which I removed but other than that I didn’t do anything. No fleece and definitely no chemicals. But then mine were surrounded by neighbouring plots’ cabbages ….uncovered cabbages too. So I think they just found them much more attractive. 😉
Yes definitely kale is well worth growing, the only problem I have is with pigeons so I do have to net mine, especially if its a cold winter. they do look beautiful. Some how I’ve managed to not have any for over winter this year! Don’t know how thats happened and I’m missing it. I like it in soup.
Pigeons don’t seem to be too much of a problem on the plot for me but I tend to only have a small clump of it whereas my neighbours’ plots have long rows of cabbage and broccoli so I think they’re a bigger target. 😉
Weeding the Web said:
I’m a kale enthusiast too. What I also love is that you can let it go to seed and it’ll sow itself around the garden. I haven’t actually sown kale myself for about 4 years.