Kale: Love it or Loathe it?

Kale is one of the more polarizing vegetables on the farm, but it (like last week's beets) is also a veggie that has grown to be one of our favorites over time. We grow multiple plantings of kale each season on the farm, so it's always tender, crunchy, and (especially during winter and the frosty times of the year), oh so sweet. Right now, we are starting to have kale ready to harvest in our high tunnel, and it's almost like candy (but in a good way!).

Every market, we have at least one customer who comes up and apologizes that they don't like kale! No worries, we don't judge--even as lovers of kale, we understand that it has a unique flavor that doesn't work for everyone. Also, local kale is almost always exponentially better than shipped in kale, since our climate is probably the best in the world for growing tender, tasty kale. 

Kale is in the brassica family, which includes other crops like broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, collards, and cauliflower as closer relatives, and spicier greens like broccoli raab, arugula, tatsoi, and pac choi as a bit more distant relatives. Brassicas definitely have a taste/smell that is distinctive among vegetables, that can catch you by surprised if not prepared right (or overcooked), which is likely one of the negatives for kale-loathers. Over-cooked kale gets mushy. Even with our toughest kale, I wouldn't cook it more than 5 to 7 minutes!

Kale has been super trendy these past few years, which we've painfully felt on the farm through a national kale seed shortage (seriously!). We heard a story from one seed source that breeds a lot of the more popular organic varieties that they told their European parent company a few years ago they needed to up kale seed production due to American demand, which apparently caused the European seed breeders to laugh and say that there's no way Americans would start eating tons of kale, and hence the ensuing seed shortage. Fortunately for us, there are more kale seeds on the market this year, and Matt fanactically placed our kale order the day after the catalogs showed up, so we should be good to go!

As farmers, we LOVE kale because it's mostly been (see below!) a pleasant crop to grow in our climate--it doesn't generally cause a big fuss, it's pretty reliable, it's not hugely expensive in terms of seed, it's fast maturing, and it can produce over a long season. Until 3 or 4 years ago, I would say it was our favorite and easiest crop. In the last few years, however, it's become more challenging to grow due to pest and disease pressure. The disease it gets frequently for us is black rot, which doesn't look as gross as it sounds, but is basically little black dots all over the leaves, which make them look icky enough folks don't generally want to eat them. Black rot spreads in cool, wet weather, so it's always been an issue in the fall. However, these last 3 years of miserably wet Mays and Junes mean that the disease can get started earlier and can cause problems on earlier plantings. We control the spread of infection by spacing out our plants so they have good airflow, and focus on building our soil so that they are as healthy as possible (we want our plants to have a strong immune system!). 

The pest we battle most is the dreaded flea beetle, which if you have ever grown a brassica at home, you have certainly seen--it's a little black bug that chews tiny holes in the leaves and jumps like a flea when startled. While a few flea beetle holes aren't the end of the world, they can descend in such quantity that they may produce disturbingly inedible. We use fabric row covers to exclude these guys out from the kale, which largely works. Unfortunately, the row covers, while doing an awesome job at excluding pests, do create more humidity, which can spread that darn black rot. 

Our new nemesis for kale (and all the brassicas) is an invasive species that is just in the process of moving into NY called the Swede midge. It's an almost microscopic fly that lays an egg at the growing tip of the big brassica plants. These eggs become invisible larva that eat the growing tip, which causes the plants to get all weird and twisty looking and stop producing. The last two years we've had some pretty devastating losses from the midge, which is impossible to stop beyond using insect covers, since it blows in from other places. If you have gotten big plants of broccoli or cabbage or cauliflower (or kale!) in your home garden in upstate NY and they don't produce but get big and seem all twisty, you may have run afoul of the midge. We have found it's best to use the insect covers or netting preventatively, *and* use some organic-certification approved neem once or twice under the cover as needed.

Aside from our pest and disease enemies, kale is still pretty fun to grow, and yields over a long harvest window, which means it's generally a crop you can count on finding fresh locally here in NY almost anytime of the year! Spring and fall kale are my favorite--they have the big luscious leaves of a green in its favorite season, as well as the sweetness of being frosted on. Summer kale for us at high elevations stays tender but becomes more mild, while over-winter kale out of high tunnels is dense and full of an amazing sweetness (a little goes a long way!) 

Kale's popularity is tied in part to how nutritious it is, but also (I think) in part to it's taste, versatility in a range of dishes, and availability. One story of kale's history in the US is that Ben Franklin brought it back from a trip to Scotland! We grow a few types of kale, of which our favorite is Lacinato or Dinosaur, which is a variety with narrow, dark green leaves that look like dinosaur or elephant skin. This one has a nice mild flavor, good texture, and can handle the hot/cold swings of a NY summer. We also grow curly kales and a few red varieties, which tend to have a sweeter flavor and delicate leaves.

Preparing and Storing Your Kale:

We recommend washing the leaves well--they are usually pretty clean, but it's fun to see the water bead up on their waxy surface! We store kale in a plastic bag in the crisper with the leaves damp but not wet. It's best in the first week, but can store this way for several weeks. If the kale leaves dry out (or you don't have them in a bag), it will wilt and get sad.

You can freeze kale--it loses it's nice crisp consistency, but is a nice addition to winter soups. We wash, chop to the size we want, and blanch for 1.5 to 2 minutes. Drop the blanched kale into ice water to cool, then squeeze out the water, put into bags of the size you want to use for recipes, and freeze.

When preparing kale, most recipes say to remove (and sometimes discard) the stems of the leaves. You can do this, but we usually don't since our kale tends to be tender enough that it isn't necessary. What we do instead if we are cooking the kale is chop off any stem that hangs out below the bulk of the leaves, then chop these stems into small pieces, which we cook for a minute or two longer than the leafy parts of the kale. This works out great because these little stem bits add some nice crispiness to your kale!

General Cooking Ideas for Your Kale:

Kale is super versatile--you can eat it raw, steamed, stir-fried, sauteed, and even baked. The key is to make sure you match your recipe/cooking method to the type/age of kale you have. As a member of the cabbage family, over cooking kale can make it become more pungent (with the exception of soup, as cooking kale in water or broth makes it taste milder).

  1. Raw: We grow some baby kale, which is super tender and great raw. As the plants get older, the leaves, while still tender, become tough enough that you may not want to eat them raw anymore. Alternatively, you can massage the kale leaves (which is a fancy way to say "rip up and smash around the leaves with your hands") for a few minutes, which makes them more tender. We sometimes do massaged kale with a light dressing. Raw kale is also great added to smoothies or juice, if you like to do those. If you really like kale, you may enjoy eating it raw even if it is large, especially in the winter when it's sweet. (It gets so sweet and crunchy, even the dog will do tricks for it!)
  2. Sauteed: This is our go-to kale preparation. We chop off the stems and chop them into little pieces, then chop the greens into larger, bite-sized pieces. Over medium heat, we saute onions, then add garlic (and sometimes red pepper flakes), then add the stem pieces for a minute or two, then finish by adding the leaves for a minute or two. This dish also tastes good with a little balsamic vinegar splashed on at the end.
  3. Steamed: You can chop and steam kale as well--usually it will be ready in 3 to 6 minutes, depending on its age and leaf size. Make sure you take it off the head before it gets mushy and loses its crunch.
  4. Soups: Kale is great in soup--we chop it coarsely and add it about 2 to 10 minutes before the end of cooking (shorter times with more tender young kale).
  5. Added to other dishes: Speaking of adding it to soup, you can also add kale to almost any other dish imaginable (eggs, casserole, quiche, quesadillas, etc). We usually saute up a bunch and use any of the leftovers this way.
  6. Baked into Chips: This is the holy grail of kale in my opinion. I love kale chips and would eat them non-stop. I've watched others make amazing kale chips and understand the theory of them. However, I personally have obliterated what seems like a hundred bunches of kale in my oven and dehydrator and only emerged with handfuls of sad, burnt leaves. If anyone has a failure-proof kale chip recipe, please share!

We hope this helps give you kale ideas! We have kale starting up again in the high tunnel, and lots of winter market vendors have a mix of interesting varieties, so it should be a crop easy to find locally year round!