I had a run-in with vegetarianism that started during tenth grade and ended, abruptly, with fried chicken devoured in front of an Athens food stall. (It was carnival. There had been bouzouki. And retsina.) Months later, back at university, I promised myself I’d once again foreswear meat. And this time, I’d do it right: I’d break my dependance on peanut butter and banana, mac and cheese. I’d actually eat—gasp!—vegetables.
I remember cooking a meal for a group of friends. Most of them were likely either vegetarian or sympathetic—it was, after all, Victoria, the 90s, and we were a group of earnest Liberal Arts majors. I’d prepared what I thought were the most impressively unusual ingredients available. I’m pretty sure I served quinoa or some other soon-to-be-widely-popular ancient grain. I most definitely served kale.
Despite horrifying results (the undercooked stems were tough and inedible; the leaves were desperately in need of seasoning), kale made a few more appearances on my plate during those years. What it lacked in palatability, it made up for with the misguided sense of self-righteousness it provided. When I eventually embraced an omnivorous diet, I abandoned kale—and other foods I’d previously choked down solely for the sake of virtue—with relief. But when, a few years ago, kale literally began making headlines for its incredible nutrient-rich properties (it scored a perfect 1,000 out of 1,000 on the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index scoring system) and the local-food movement went mainstream, I gave kale another—somewhat wary—look.
Turns out I just needed a bit of practice. I’m a kale convert, serving it up at least a couple of times every week during the cold months. And I’m not eating it for the lutein: I actually like the stuff. I’m not alone. “Kale’s time has come,” says Sharon Hanna, Vancouver-based author of the national bestselling The Book of Kale. The once-neglected cruciferous vegetable, used only as a fishmonger’s garnish, is now prized by chefs, beloved by local-food aficionados, and exalted by nutritionists. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of kale. Despite its superstar, superfood status, the best reason to love kale, says Sharon, is because it’s easy to grow. “I was working on a book about the top six no-fail edibles, but I felt like I was lying to people. Everything requires a bit of work—even kale—but when it came down to it, kale was the only one I felt good about calling foolproof. So I wrote a book on it.”
Kale can be planted as early as March for harvest in summer (sooner for baby greens), but it does best grown for the winter garden. “Cold unmasks the sweetness in kale,” explains Sharon. “Kale harvested after a frost is just that much better.” That might help explain why the kale I used to make, likely imported from California, never blew my mind. For frost-sweetened kale, plant sometime between May and July (varieties like Lacinato and Winterbor take longer to mature, so plant them in early May; Red Russian and Redbor can be planted as late as early July) for harvest all through fall, winter, and next spring. If, like me, you find your garden space at a premium during summer, take Sharon’s advice and sow in pots. Then, when your zucchini or tomatoes vacate the premises, transplant your kale starts into the garden. (Or, keep them in containers; they’ll do well there, too, given regular doses of organic fertilizer.)
This year, I plan to plant more kale than ever. And I’ll definitely serve it to friends.
A garden checklist for spring
- When flower buds appear on your overwintered kale plants, harvest the buds for salads and snacking. The taste is divine.
- Continue to direct-sow arugula, beets, carrots, collards, kale (try Rainbow Lacinato this year), lettuce, scallions, parsnips, peas, and radishes.
- Toward the end of May, shop nurseries or the farmers’ market for tomato starts. Resist planting outdoors until nighttime temperatures remain reliably above 10°C.