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Groundwork: All Hail, Kale

Kale is in the cabbage family and one of its easiest members to grow. Though it will grow happily right through the winter, it endures summer's heat better than its cousins the cabbages and cauliflowers. That's because kale is closely related to collard greens, the one brassica that veritably loves the steamy days ahead.

At Green Spring Gardens, the public demo garden in Northern Virginia that I am following for the season with the garden's Cindy Brown, the first kale of the season are now reaching maturity. They were started from seed in the greenhouse at the beginning of February and transplanted into the garden on March 19.

The Green Spring demo garden. Look at how the rain has spurred on the golden hops on the entrance arbor. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

You can harvest kale as a cut-and-come-again green; that is, you snip off an outer leaf and others continue to develop from the center. Kale leaves taken young, maybe a month old and three inches long, are delicious and sweet raw. In my hands, few actually make it to the kitchen; I can't help but eat them on the way there. Resistance, as they say, is futile. But the mature leaves are yummy, too, especially if harvested before the heat sets in seriously, when the quality does suffer.

Over the next few weeks, Cindy and her volunteers will be harvesting four varieties: Red Russian, a non-curled variety with beautiful gray-green leaves and mauve stems; Redbor, which is heavily curled and purple, often used as a garnish; Squire or Vates, which is a dwarf variety, heavily curled and sweet, and Nero di Toscano. The last is oddly handsome and different, with big, heavily savoyed leaves of the darkest green.

Red Russian and Nero di Toscano kale in Green Spring's hoop tunnel. The netting is to ward off rabbits. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

Kale also makes a fabulous crop for fall and winter. Sow seeds in a greenhouse or indoors under lights beginning in the middle of August, and start to set out transplants by mid-September. You can direcly sow in the garden in August, but the seeds mustn't be allowed to dry out, and they have to be thinned to eight to 12 inches apart. The cooler the weather, the sweeter the flavor.

What else is happening this week in the veggie garden? It's time to sow carrot and parsnip seeds, along with cucumber seeds. I prefer to grow my cucumbers vertically on supports or trellising, a practice that Cindy follows as well. It makes it easier to pick off cucumber beetles and keeps the vine and the fruit away from wet soil. Time to sow beans, too, but buy enough seed to sow every two weeks for a successive harvest into the fall. As for what to do with all that luscious and nutritious kale, it's over to you, Cindy.

-- Adrian Higgins

Smokin' Hoppin' John
4 servings

Hot, fresh corn bread dripping in butter is always a good accompaniment.
From Cynthia Brown, assistant director of Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria.

1 large bunch kale
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium white onion, cut into small dice (3/4 to 1 cup)
2 medium cloves garlic, minced (2 to 2 1/2 teaspoons)
1 small red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into small dice (scant 1 cup)
2 small jalapeño peppers, stemmed, seeded and minced (2 1/2 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
Leaves from 3 or 4 sprigs thyme (1 tablespoon; may substitute 1 teaspoon dried thyme)
Freshly ground black pepper
8 ounces vegetable broth
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 cups frozen black-eyed peas (may substitute canned organic black-eyed peas, such as Eden brand)
3 cups cooked rice, preferably basmati

Remove the tough ribs and stems from the kale leaves; coarsely chop the leaves to yield 6 to 8 cups, then rinse and drain.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the oil, then the onion. Cook for about 6 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent and softened.

Add the garlic, red bell pepper and jalapeño peppers. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring a few times, then add the smoked paprika and thyme. Mix well to ensure that the spices and herbs are well incorporated.

Add the kale in batches, letting it soften a bit between additions. Cook until all of the kale has wilted and has been well combined. Season the mixture with salt and pepper to taste.
Add the vegetable broth, bay leaves and black-eyed peas; mix well and cover the skillet. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook (covered) for about 10 minutes, until the kale and black-eyed peas are tender. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Discard the bay leaves.

Divide the cooked rice among individual plates. Spoon the vegetable mixture on top. Serve hot.

Per serving (with rice): 391 calories, 13 g protein, 72 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 203 mg sodium, 10 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar

Recipe tested by Bonnie S. Benwick

By Adrian Higgins  |  May 18, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes , Sustainable Food  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, gardening, kale  
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