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.