Kale is no longer merely a filler for hungry sheep. The fashionable greenery is hardy and nutritious, so grow it and eat it.
Kale is so popular that they are even making crisps out of the hardy green vegetable. Perhaps it is time for the potato to watch out, although early harvest potatoes are still well worth planting and growing.
There is an old variety of field kale that has a particularly appropriate name. It is called Hungry Gap, and it grows strong and green in the bleak weeks between the end of winter and the beginning of spring – the starvation month for livestock. Sheep farmers have loved it for years and it has now been rediscovered by chefs and grow-your-own gardeners.
The words most often used to describe kale are “humble” and “hardy”. Well, the hardy bit is as true as ever but kale is less humble than it used to be. It is now “iron rich” or “nutritious”, and it has moved from the shepherd’s field to his kitchen garden, even into prepacks on the shelves of the supermarket among the all-season greens. Lincolnshire grows enormous acreages these days.
If you are not sure what to do with your kale once you’ve brought it into the kitchen, there is even a sophisticated website, Discover Kale, that shows you where it fits on the menu. The dishes suggested include colcannon, lentil-and-kale soup and a stir-fry. And the BBC’s recipe site recommends it as an accompaniment to roast pheasant or guineafowl.
KALE HAS COME UP IN THE WORLD
So kale has come up in the world, quite dramatically, and it is good to know that no plant is easier to grow in your own garden. It not only grows, it grows again after you cut it, extending the productive season right through until May. Late frosts make it even tastier, turning the leaf starch into sugars. Just make sure you pick the young leaves and it helps if you cut out the main rib of the leaf, eating only the tender bits.
As a garden plant, kale is started from seed in spring. Although super-hardy, it is sensitive in one respect: it does not like being transplanted. Sowing direct into the final bed is recommended by many experts, who say there is time for plants to establish themselves before they are needed in the kitchen as summer’s bounty dries up and the cold weather arrives.
There are numerous, confusing varieties – curly leaved ones, plain leaved, purple or red, late or early, ruddy Russians and dark Italians, marrowstems for dairy cattle, plus much else besides. Among the most familiar are the various “Scotch curled” types, such as Dwarf Green Curled, that have a long history and can be relied upon to produce a green leaf almost anywhere in the British Isles. The name “kale” is a Scottish form, the original name in England being “cole” or “borecole”. As a life-saving, late-winter crop for sheep (and people) it was perfected in Scotland and the northern form of the name was the one that stuck. Hungry Gap is one of the rape kales, with plainer leaves, which is sown in midsummer and eaten in spring.
If you are uncertain where to place kale on your menu, think broccoli. Sprouting kale can be cooked in the steamer in the same way. Instead of going to the freezer for a bag of broccoli, nip out into the garden and harvest some kale. If you snap off a few tender tops, plants will sprout again from the leaf bases farther down the stem, developing into a large, multi-headed vegetable. If you take a handful of leaves from the stem, the plants continue to grow at the top.
And for the gardener who is short of time, kale demands little attention. The plants are much less disease-prone than most members of the cabbage family and attract fewer pests. The local woodpigeon may be your biggest problem, especially in wintry weather, because the kale does tend to stand up, green and appetising, above the snow. The only answer may be a net if your kailyard is so close to the house that you can’t use the gun.
Most of the big seedsmen now stock kale in variety, with a packet of seed costing little more than £2, so it is not a major investment to experiment with “the green that helped sustain the nation through the dark years of World War II and that is making a comeback as a fashionable superfood”, according to the Daily Mail. “Kale was included in the Dig for Victory campaign as a vegetable that was easy to grow and provided important nutrients to supplement meagre diets during rationing.” New varieties are sweeter, promoters claim, and kale fits well on modern menus.
Baby Leaf Curly Kale was relaunched under the slogan “BLCK is the new Green”, and has enjoyed endorsements from every organisation that has ever loved a vitamin. From the gardener’s point of view, it’s an easy plant to try: fuss free and very, very hardy.