Autumn's Frills And Thrills

THE REAL DIRT

September 04, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

As a kid, I hated kale. As a vegetable dish, kale was right up there with the brussels sprouts I slipped into my shirt pocket when Mom wasn't looking.

I still loathe brussels sprouts. But kale has won my heart. This handsome, hardy and healthful plant has become a fixture in my fall garden, where it lingers long after other crops succumb to killing frosts.

I've harvested kale on wintry days when the mercury plunged to zero. I've tromped through snowdrifts to pluck the pretty blue-green leaves, which pack a nutritional punch like that of broccoli, kale's heralded cousin.

Unlike broccoli, however, kale has struggled to score with American palates. Never popular (except as livestock feed), kale may even be losing ground, especially among younger folks who've never had it.

For this, I blame restaurants, which have transformed kale from a side dish to a silly garnish. In restaurants, kale is often served but seldom eaten. Chefs have reduced this vegetable to a frilly afterthought, whose sole purpose on the dinner plate is to prop up a slice of orange or candied apple.

Restaurants also use kale to spruce up their salad bars, placing the decorative leaves around heaping bowls of cottage cheese and carrot sticks. The kale is merely window dressing -- to be admired, not eaten.

Small wonder that the vegetable's popularity is plummeting.

Kale deserves a better fate. Easily grown and highly nutritious, kale has been cultivated for thousands of years. It's the granddaddy of all cole crops, the common ancestor of cabbage, cauliflower and collards.

Kale was highly prized by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who consumed it on long sea voyages to prevent scurvy. It has long been a staple in Europe: Portuguese gardeners plant long rows of kale beneath their grape arbors, which shade the greens and keep them tender. The veggies are then harvested to make Portuguese kale soup, a bountiful brew filled with potatoes, beans, onions, garlic, tomatoes and smoked sausage.

Ben Franklin praised the virtues of kale, the hardiest of all vegetables. He distributed kale seed throughout the colonies, where it flourished in 18th century kitchen gardens. Because the plants withstand temperatures of minus-10 degrees, kale provided hungry colonists with fresh greens much of the winter.

Even frozen leaves are fit for eating, if you take them directly from the garden to the stove; if you allow them to thaw, however, they'll become too soggy to cook. Today, many gardeners who harvest kale do so only after the leaves have been sweetened by the first nip of winter. Cold weather transforms kale into a Cinderella plant: When the clock strikes frost, kale's starches turn to sugar, giving the leaves their succulent taste.

The ultimate cool-weather crop, kale should be planted 8 to 10 weeks before the first killing frost. Plants thrive in chilly climates, and will grow in sun or partial shade. Kale prefers humus-y soil rich in nitrogen and calcium. Add dried manures and limestone as needed.

Sow seeds 1/2 inch deep, and gradually thin plants to stand about 1 foot apart, adding the tender thinnings to salads and soups. Fresh kale tastes especially good in stir-fry dishes, or when steamed and served with butter or lemon juice.

Kale seedlings grow slowly at first, so water plants regularly and tend the beds. Kale's shallow roots can't compete with faster-growing weeds.

Young plants are vulnerable to insect damage. Dusting with diatomaceous earth discourages aphids; sprinkling ground limestone on the leaves dislodges flea beetles. Or simply cover the plants with floating row covers, available at most garden centers.

Gardeners can choose from several kinds of kale, including Scotch, with its frilly blue-green foliage, and Siberian, a grayish variety with smooth, wide leaves. (A third type, called ornamental kale, is really a bedding plant, though its colorful foliage may be added to salads when the tangy leaves are young.)

Scotch is my favorite, especially when served with bacon or ham. I can barely wait to fix it on those blustery winter days when, after chores, I'll grab an armful of kale from the otherwise desolate garden and head for the kitchen.

Of course, I am careful to harvest only the outer foliage and never the central bud of the kale plant, lest it stop producing the leaves I've learned to love.

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