Well, not just kale. Cabbage and broccoli, as well.
Is there anything prettier than cruciferous vegetables in the morning dew? We are awash in a rising tide of broccoli and cabbages this week, as the winter garden reaches maturity. Neighbors and kinfolks are handed bags of tasty green stuff as they walk out our door.
But the wonder crop of the winter garden, as far as I’m concerned, is kale. I first tasted the tender little green about 20 years ago, when an elderly neighbor told me that kale was her secret for staying youthful and energetic.
“I cook a big pot of it once a week,” she confided. “Never been sick a day in my life. Never took a vitamin pill, either.” At 73, she was still tossing hay bales into the back of a farm truck like a teenager. I immediately ordered a packet of seeds.
Each fall, we plant a small bed of Russian kale — a sweetly mild variety that grows rapidly and abundantly right through winter. We sow it thickly, and it’s up within days. At the two-week mark, we thin the bed and eat the tender baby plants in mixed salad. After that, we harvest the mature leaves weekly as new shoots continuously grow up from beneath the dense, eighteen-inch canopy of ragged tops.
Here in the deep South, most people cook kale the same way they cook collard greens: stew it into submission along with a big hunk of ham bone. But (a) kale cooks much more quickly than the bigger, coarser greens, and (b) we’re vegetarians around here. So we simmer it briefly in vegetable stock, then use it in our favorite quiche or pasta recipes. It’s very tasty.
Or, to warm ourselves during a south Alabama cold snap, we make a pot of incavolata. It’s a hearty, rustic Italian soup made of kale and white beans. Seasoned with garlic and sage, then thickened with cornmeal, it is a wonderful winter meal. Here’s my favorite version, from my dogeared copy of the Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant cookbook:
- 4 cups chopped kale
- 4 large garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 6 cups cooked cannellini (white kidney beans) or 4 cans
- 5 cups vegetable stock, or water from cooking beans
- 2 heaping tsp tomato paste
- 6 fresh sage leaves or 1/2 tsp dried sage
- 1 tsp salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup finely ground cornmeal
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Remove the stems from the kale and coarsely chop the leaves. Soak the leaves in a bowl of cold water while you prepare the soup. In a soup pot, saute’ the garlic in the olive oil for about a minute. Add half the cooked beans and part of the stock to the pot. Puree’ the rest of the beans and stock in a blender or food processor along with the tomato paste and sage. Stir the pureed beans into the soup. Add salt and pepper to taste. Drain the kale. Mix it into the soup and simmer for at least half an hour, until tender. Mix the cornmeal with the lemon juice and enough water to make one cup. Pour this paste slowly into the simmering soup while stirring constantly to prevent lumps from forming. Simmer the soup for another 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust the seasonings. Serve immediately, topped with freshly grated Parmesan. Enjoy!
A few more good things about kale: bugs dont like it. It’s packed with Vitamin A and antioxidants. And finally, it is a terrific “green manure” crop when you’re through eating it. It will grow happily through our cool winters, but the party’s over around late March, when daytime temperatures climb into the 80s again. That’s when we plow the remaining plants into the ground, where it rapidly breaks down… to the delight of our earthworm friends.