The kale thing


I realized at a holiday dinner that I’d become something of a kale nerd, if not an outright kale bore. When the conversation turned to gardening, which it often does in my extended family, my husband and I began to crow about how much we like kale. Nobody up north, at least in my circles, grows or eats the stuff. There is a slight wrinkling of the nose when you mention it, even among the most veggie proud.

At that dinner, the third or fourth time I’d said, “We grow, literally, five different varieties,” I noticed my older sister staring at her mashed potatoes rather than making eye contact. I figured it was time to change the subject. I guess eating a lot of kale is now equivalent to wearing Birkenstocks as a marker of a subculture. Kale is a weird vegetable, my family members must be thinking, and I probably got the idea to grow it from living in The Cities.

Indeed, my fondness for kale did develop here. Years ago I began with a few plants of the Scottish curly leaf variety. I had taken a chance and put them in the bed on the east side of our house, which is shady in the afternoon. Sun only part of the day? No problem.

So the next year we planted more kale in that bed and in the bed on the east side of the house as well. We have over time added red Russian, red curly leaf, white Russian, and dinosaur kale to the mix.

It took me awhile to warm up to eating greens. When I was a kid one of my brothers adored cooked spinach, but the rest of us were not fond of it. My husband, most of whose favorite foods run along the lines of spaghetti and meatballs and barbequed ribs, is a great fan of greens, and I’ve been influenced by him. And by books like Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.”

We eat kale because it tastes good, and because we are trying to do a little something to help save the planet by growing some of our own food. Kale is the surest, steadiest, longest producing plant in our garden. It allows me to use our limited garden space that gets all-day sun for more finicky vegetables.

Early in the season, after kale gets established, you can snip out some of the small leaves and eat them raw in salad. The leaves that you cut off grow back. It is a food plant that regenerates itself. How convenient is that?

When the plant gets a little bigger you can cook it, stems and all. After a couple of months, when the stems began to get tough, you eat just the leaves. While most veggies require regular rain or watering, mature kale, with its long, thick stems, is relatively drought tolerant.

And you harvest kale well into the fall. This year we picked our last greens from the garden the first week of December. Not only do these little beauties hold up to even a hard frost, the colder it gets outside, the more flavor kale has.

One of my nonspinach-loving, Twin Cities-living brothers confessed at that holiday meal that kale doesn’t taste good to him. My husband and I were shocked. I told him to just stir fry it in olive oil with garlic. He said he’d tried that, and it still didn’t taste good. I asked him, with a furrowed brow, “Where did you get that kale?” I was not above implying that our garden fresh stuff was better than anything he might snag at a grocery store.

My husband told him to try adding kale to something. He recommended stir-frying garlic, kale and Italian sausage in olive oil, and putting it on pasta. But you don’t need a recipe to appreciate it, you can just add it to soups, stir-frys, salads, stews.

According to WebMD, kale is one of the healthiest vegetables on the planet. It protects us from cancer in that it is an excellent source of the antioxidant vitamins A, C, and K. The fiber in kale helps lower blood cholesterol levels, and it is rich in compounds that promote eye health.

If you are still skeptical, try growing just a couple of plants this coming season. Do it simple. Get seedlings from the garden store rather than starting with seeds. You could even grow a couple of plants in a big pot. Any variety of kale will do, but dinosaur and Russian kale might be, texture-wise, the easiest to cozy up to.

Last year for Christmas I got my husband a T-shirt that has “Eat More Kale” emblazoned across it. When he wears it walking around Lake Harriet, he gets smiles and thumbs up.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at the Loft Literary Center.