Frilly, curvaceous, perky Kale has become the most craved, delicious garden darling after having been scorned as a bitter culinary outcast for generations. It's trendy-cool to order Kale salads out, and haute-cuisine-foodie de rigueur to grow it plentifully at home. Kale is the hands down, healthy green nutritional powerhouse. It packs an off-the-charts, powerful punch of Vitamins A, C and E, beta carotene, calcium, iron and fiber for serious antioxidant protection and immune system support. To top it off, it has the highest protein content of any cultivated vegetable. Pretty good for a leaf. The best part is that it can be easily direct-sown now for fall harvest!
Easy Direct-Sow Kale Planting Tips
More sweet and tender after being kissed by fall frost, Kale is at its perfection pinnacle from September through December~just when you and your family might crave it most. Start planting your fall crop in early August and direct-sow seeds every two weeks until about a month before your first hard frost. A cool weather crop requiring the same growing conditions as Spinach and Swiss Chard, Kale thrives in cool, moist soil and relatively cool air temperatures. In warmer parts of the country, Kale can even be reliably overwintered.
Kale grows best when it has plenty of nitrogen, so before planting, loosen the soil and incorporate compost or rotted manure as well as a complete organic fertilizer. Plant the seeds relatively thickly, about ½″ deep and 3″ apart, and then thin the seedlings to stand 4″ to 6″ apart. Keep the soil consistently moist until you can see the plants up and growing.
Kale seeds can be direct sown in the spring up to six weeks before the last spring frost date, or started indoors as transplants two to three weeks before the last frost date. Early spring plantings thrive under floating row covers that protect the seedlings from flea beetles. Where summers are hot, subsequent Kale crops may be sown under shade cloth.
There are two techniques for harvesting Kale. In our mind, it depends on how you intend to enjoy it. For the most tender baby Kale to be used fresh and raw in salads, it's best to direct-sow successive crops every two to three weeks starting in early August for prolonged cool fall harvest. Scissor-cut baby leaves an inch from plant bases when they are 4″ tall and when individual leaves are 1″ to 2″ long. Second cuttings are usually ready to harvest about a month later.
For tasty Kale to be used in cooked recipes, plants should be thinned or spaced to about a foot apart and allowed to grow to maturity. Full-size leaves may be picked from the plant's exterior by pulling them down and snapping them off. Mature Kale plants will continue producing new leaves for several months. Baby leaf Kale is also perfect for cooked recipes.
A Kacophony of Kale
Red Ursa Kale is broad-beamed with a classic oak-leaf shape and frilly edges. When young, the leaves are deep green with a hazy purple stem. Mature leaves are mahogany-garnet with pale taupe stems. Extremely cold hardy, it's good for both spring and fall crops. Our Winter Red Russian Kale has wonderfully frilled bicolor leaves and grows to a mature height of 24″ to 36″. This rugged variety thrives practically anywhere, and tolerates heat as well as cold, so it can be sown directly into the garden from spring through fall. It's great for baby greens.
Italian cooks will accept no substitutes for their beloved heirloom known as Tuscan Lacinato Kale. It has a totally unique look: the heavily savoyed, grey-blue leaves are narrow and strap-like, often growing up to 18″ long. The striking, 3′ tall plants have a primeval look, which may be why this variety is sometimes called "dinosaur Kale". The flavorful leaves cook up tender and sweet.
Portuguese Kale or Sea Kale, formally known as Beira Tronchuda Cabbage, is a bright jade-green, loose-headed Kale of a Cabbage with fleshy white mid-ribs and wide-spreading leaves. Sweet and tender, it may harvested as a whole plant or leaf-harvested to promote center re-growth with paler, milder, frilly leaves. Widely adaptable, Tronchuda tolerates heat spells and can be over-wintered in temperate climates. Traditionally enjoyed in Caldo Verde, the linguica-rich Portuguese soup, we also love roasting its most tender leaves into delicate chips after removing the prominent mid-ribs and anointing them with olive oil, sea salt and pepper.
The Many Faces of Kale
These days, one can find Kale transformed with fashionable new personality raw or cooked in a huge array of amazing recipes served morning, noon and night. Icy thick breakfast smoothies turn green with energy when Kale leaves are added for a noticable boost of vim and vigor. Wilted Kale is easily incorporated into brunchy frittatas, scrambled eggs, quiches and omelets.
Lunch is a real pick-me-up with Kale salads or soups. Raw Kale salad is running a close second to Caesar Salad of late. There are dozens of different recipes for this simple and surprisingly addictive dish, but here are the basics: remove the stems and ribs from about a dozen medium-sized Kale leaves. Slice or tear the leaves in to small pieces and put them in a big bowl~you should have about 6 cups, packed. In a separate bowl, whisk 1 smashed garlic clove, ½ squeezed lemon, 4 tablespoons good olive oil, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, and honey, kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Pour the dressing over the Kale and massage the leaves with your hands for a couple minutes. Let it stand 15 minutes before serving. Nice add-ons include grated Parmesan, pomegranate seeds, dried cherries, cubed avocado, and toasted nuts. You can even add wilted Kale to grilled ham and cheese sandwiches.
Zuppa di Cavolo Nero is a hearty and soulful soup made with Tuscan Lacinato Kale, Italian sausage and cannellini beans. Sauté two crumbled sausages until browned; set aside. Sauté two chopped Onions and two minced Garlic cloves in a few tablespoons of olive oil and when translucent, add 2 quarts of good chicken stock and 1 cup white wine. Bring to a boil and add 6 Thyme sprigs and a good bunch of washed and chopped Kale. Reduce heat to a simmer for 15 minutes, and then add the cooked sausage and 4 cups of cooked cannellini beans. Simmer for another 10 to 15 minutes to meld the flavors.
Need a mid-afternoon energy boost? Kale chips are expensive at the store, but they're easy and inexpensive to make at home. Wash a big bowl of medium-size leaves and dry them as well as you possibly can. Use a knife to remove the ribs, keeping the leaves in big pieces. Drizzle the prepared leaves with olive oil, using about 1 tablespoon of oil for a large bowl of leaves. Toss well with your hands so all parts of the leaves have oil on them. Sprinkle with sea salt (and/or other seasonings) and toss again. Spread the leaves in a single layer on parchment-lined sheet pans. Roast at 300 degrees for about 40 minutes until crisp but not browned. Rotate the pans midway so the leaves cook evenly. After removing the pans from the oven, let the chips sit for about 5 minutes until they're crisp. Make more than you think your family will eat, because they'll be hooked immediately. They'll need no encouragement to eat every last one: a good thing, because these chips won't keep their crispy texture if stored.
Kale's earthy flavor and toothsome bite becomes more sweet and tender after cooking. Supper casseroles and stews are nutritionally amped with cooked Kale. Cooked chopped Kale paired with toasted pine nuts, extra virgin olive oil and freshly grated Parmesan cheese make a fabulous pasta dish. Or add chopped wilted Kale to homemade pizza along with your family's favorite toppings. Kale sides are a delicious snap. It can be sautéed in bacon drippings or extra virgin olive oil, crushed red pepper flakes and smashed garlic cloves to which homemade chicken stock and a splash of sherry or apple cider vinegar can be added and bubbled down. You can add different accents to it, like sherry-soaked raisons, cooked diced bacon or pancetta, cooked cannellini beans and grated Parmesan cheese. Creamed Kale with a lavish sprinkle of freshly grated nutmeg is always delicious.