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Groundwork: The perfect kale

Hoop frame housing kale and beet transplants. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

One weekend, it's cloudless and 70 degrees; the next it's gloomy and freezing. This is the reality of early spring, even if we think the cold is behind us and we jump the gun. The see-sawing makes young April the most volatile time of the year, weather wise, requiring some guile on the part of the gardener-cook.

Recipe Included

For Pete's sake, don't be tempted by the tomato plants now showing up in various outlets. It is way too early to put tomato, pepper, cucumber, eggplant, basil and all the other warm-season veggies out in the garden. At Green Spring Gardens in Northern Virginia, Cindy Brown, Donna Stecker and their volunteers are only now seed-starting tomatoes indoors, which is perfect timing for setting out transplants in early- to mid-May, when the tomatoes will be far happier.

I started tomato plants inside this weekend, under my amazing, nifty and beautifully wobbly homemade light stand. I also potted some cilantro and beet seedlings as I furiously prepare my garden for the year and (separately) sort out my hive woodenware for the arrival of my honeybees next weekend.

We focus this week on kale, which is one of the hardiest and easiest members of the cabbage family to grow in a Washington garden.

There are two basic ideas to remember about kale. First, it really is one of those veggie greens that you haven't tasted until you've raised it yourself. The difference between home-grown and supermarket (and even farmers market) kale is remarkable. Young, fresh kale is sweet, tangy without being bitter and crisp without being woody. It also comes in a number of different forms.

One of the classic is the upright Nero di Toscani, rugose, dark and with long, narrow and showy leaves. I know gardeners who grow it purely for autumn decoration alongside asters, grasses and the like. Red Russian is a treat to the eye, with its pink-red veins against a deeply cut, sage-green leaf. It can be eaten raw as a salad green at baby stage.

At Green Spring, those and two other varieties, Premier and Rainbow Lacinato, were seed-sown in February and are now in the garden. It is not too late to start your own from seed, setting them out in six weeks for a harvest through the beginning of July.

Cindy's favorite variety is Blue Curled Vates, sometimes called Blue Scotch, with a blue cast to the compact and frilly foliage. I haven't grown it, but will now that I know about it. "The leaves stay small and tender," Cindy says.

The second notion about kale, in Washington anyway, is that it should be grown as a spring crop and again in the fall, well into winter. Indeed, the kale grown for this week's recipe was fall-grown and overwintered happily. Kale can be grown through the summer, but it definitely suffers from the heat, and at Green Spring, this stress draws masses of a pest named the harlequin bug. The Green Spring gardeners pull kale in early summer and sow fresh seed indoors in late July and set out the young'uns in mid-September.

As for current garden work, the transplants were set in the hoop frame, to protect them from the sun and heat that visited the garden the weekend before last. In addition, the frame turned out to be a good blanket for them as temperatures dropped. Their bedfellows, the beets, were similarly in good spirits from these protections. As the weather warms evenly, the garden fabric will be removed from the frames, leaving a covering of half- inch netting against deer and rabbits.

The white netting is up on the white plastic pea trellis, and the snap and sugar peas have been planted. Cindy put in a row of English peas for good measure, so we'll track their relative progress.

The vegetable garden, you will have surmised, is not something you throw together in a frenzied April weekend. It is a way of life, and a pretty good one.

"I never liked kale," Cindy says, "until I grew it."

-- Adrian Higgins

Kale, Sausage and Tortellini Soup
6 servings

This is a good seasonal soup that straddles winter and late spring, and it is best eaten the same day it's served.

From Cynthia A. Brown, assistant director at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria.

1 tablespoon olive oil
12 ounces uncooked garlic-herb chicken sausage, such as Al Fresco brand, cut into bite-size pieces
1 medium onion, chopped (1 cup)
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
8 ounces kale leaves (tough stems discarded), chopped, washed and drained (about 5 cups)
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
15 ounces canned cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
64 ounces low-sodium vegetable broth
9 ounces fresh cheese tortellini

Heat a soup pot over medium heat; add the oil once the pot is hot.

Drop in the pieces of chicken sausage and cook for about 6 minutes until browned, stirring as needed. Add the onion and garlic; cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion begins to soften.

Add the chopped kale and stir to incorporate. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring, until the kale leaves wilt and turn a deep green. Add the crushed red pepper flakes and beans, mixing well, then add the vegetable broth. Cover and cook until the broth just begins to bubble at the edges.

Stir in the tortellini; reduce the heat to medium-low and cook uncovered for about 6 minutes or until the pasta is cooked through.

Divide among individual bowls; serve hot.

Per serving: 350 calories, 23 g protein, 42 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 1040 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  March 29, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Cindy Brown, Groundwork, recipes  
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