Kale Lessons

I’ve always planted kale in mid-to-late July and watched the plants grow into robust, dark green towers of kale by October. But I always waited to harvest any until the plants went through a frosty night or two and the leaves became deliciously sweet. The leaves before the frost seemed thin and almost bitter compared to the sturdy, sweet, post-frost leaves.

Over this past late fall and early winter, however, kale plants, clusters and singles, volunteered in various spots throughout the garden, along edges of beds where seeds had dropped and through cover crops from seeds that must have survived the compost heat.  Curious about how they’d taste, I let them mature. Kale volunteers

Kale volunteerMy prejudice for July-planted, fall frost-sweetened kale kept my expectations low but I’ve been amazed by how succulent and sweet these later appearing, later maturing kale leaves are. The only frost they got in this past year’s mild winter was when they were quite small plants.

The July-planted kale, which in its last weeks of early May growth gave us many meals of delicious flower buds, is finally in the compost bin but the volunteer kale plants are still providing welcome salads and even some flower buds. And more volunteers have sprouted here and there in the past few weeks. I’ll let them mature too and see how they taste as they grow in the frost-free summer. And if they taste as good as I’m hoping they will, I’ll change my kale planting plan for the year ahead to try to mimic what volunteer seeds and weather patterns have taught me. We may end up eating kale year-round instead of only from October to May.

Kitchen gardener’s habits need to be nudged in new directions now and then, prejudices and rules challenged. With our warming climate, kale may be the first of many vegetables that will cause me to rethink planting calendars and favorite varieties. I’ll pay closer attention.




Signs of Spring

In the warmth and light of late February’s lengthening days, the kitchen garden’s perennial vegetables are sending out new growth. Pink tips of asparagus poke through the dirt next to dried stalks of last year’s crop. Asparagus tips '15Crinkled green rhubarb leaves open over red stems. Rhubarb new growthGray-green artichoke leaves unfurl above mounds of hay that protected their roots through the cold spells of winter. Artichokes in mulchAnd bright green spears of garlic rise above rich dark soil. Garlic growing '15In another month they’ll all have doubled or tripled in size and seem less remarkable than they do now as they signal the start of the new season. The excitement then will be in eating them. Over-wintered kale plants that survived the deep cold that began in November and returned several more times in December are now sending out tender, sweet new leaves from their sturdy stalks. Kale new growth '15We’ve been enjoying them in salads dressed with a little olive oil, salt and lemon. The growth of these new leaves will accelerate in the weeks ahead and eventually seed heads will form as kale’s final gift. Kale buds, asparagus, artichokes, green garlic and rhubarb pie, all spring food to look forward to. As a backdrop to the vegetables, the garden paths and hedge are emerging from their winter shagginess. Last weekend we mowed the garden paths for the first time of the season and we have just finished the annual hedge-trimming task. Both lawn and hedge are now smooth, even, velvet green surfaces, two more welcome signs of spring.Garden grass allee Garden view looking west 2:15

Early Spring Harvest

We were in Portland, Oregon earlier this month, timing our visit so that we could go to the Saturday Farmers Market. Even in early spring, this wonderful market inspires with a bounty of fresh vegetables.  A highlight for me was seeing bunches of kale, Brussels sprout and mustard flower bud tops at many of the stands, confirming that others enjoy these tasty spring offerings from the Brassica family as much as I do.  I was interested to see that several vendors called these flower buds raab, linking them to broccoli raab, the pungent green popular in Italian and Asian cooking.  Kale “raab” tends to be sweet while Brussels sprout “raab” is a bit more earthy and mustard “raab” deliciously spicy.

Raab PFM

Mustard Raab PFM

Raab PFM closeup

When we got home from our travels, I was happy to find all of these “raabs” in my kitchen garden. There was also asparagus ready to harvest and lots of perennial herbs, chives, new growth thyme, burgeoning mint and parsley, all welcome flavors of spring, all beautiful and all offering inspiration for this season’s meals.

A quick stir fry of mustard flower buds and asparagus created a lovely side dish.

Asparagus mustard top bouquet

Asparagus mustard raab saute

Another night, kale flower buds and asparagus became pizza toppings.

Asparagus kale top still life

Pizza kale top & asparagus

And on another night asparagus and herbs combined with last year’s frozen fava beans to make my favorite spring pilaf.

Asparagus, kale top, herbs in basket

Pilaf in pan

This time of year the landscape offers new shades of green each day and so do the contents of each day’s garden basket and each evening’s dinner. I’ve written about kale, Brussels sprout and mustard flower buds before, about asparagus and about fava beans but there’s pleasure in writing about them again just as there’s pleasure in finding them in the garden each spring and transforming them for the table.