A number of years ago, I planted my first vegetable garden on the Vineyard. One of the first things I put in the ground was kale. As the other vegetables barely limped along, the kale plants produced heartily and provided us with many family meals, giving me hope that maybe one day I might find success as a vegetable gardener after all.
Then disaster struck: midsummer bugs won the battle with my star crop and the plants looked decimated. Humbled, I pulled most of them out, but left three plants in the ground, just in case they could make a comeback. By early fall, new healthy leaves made an appearance, and by late fall the plants were producing beautiful full green leaves again. Those plants survived the entire winter, and I rejoiced in being able to go out on cold days and harvest fresh food for our supper.
The fact that a kale plant can be sown in the spring, almost die in the middle of the growing season and then rise Phoenix-like in the fall to survive through the winter makes it a wonder plant, and a great part of any backyard garden. But at this time of the year, I now find myself looking out at the kale plants bravely persisting in the garden with a feeling of trepidation. When it comes to garden-fresh vegetables, it’s just going to be us for awhile, our family and the kale plants, until the first spring crops come in a long time from now. And I scratch my head, wondering, how on earth will I be able to keep kale interesting for all the months to come? How to keep my three-year-old, and the rest of us, from burning out on kale forever?
Kale is Island Grown Schools December Harvest of the Month crop. For me it is a reminder and an opportunity to celebrate this wonderful vegetable, and also to brush up on some new recipes to last us through the season. For help and inspiration, I turned to some friends in the food world to find out why they love and appreciate this crop.
Melinda DeFeo, Island Grown Schools Coordinator at the Edgartown School, spoke about why kale is a great part of the outdoor learning laboratory of a school garden. In the fall students get their first taste of the kale plants. Then in early winter Melinda brings the students back into the garden to taste how the leaves have gotten sweeter since the first kiss of frost. “In early spring, they love eating the nutritious edible flower buds, followed by spicy little seed packets that pop in your mouth,” Melinda said. “More than just a garden snack, kale helps students gain up-close and personal insight into the life cycle of plants and have kids begging their astonished parents to buy this superfood at the market.”
And eating kale is good for us. “Kale is a nutritional superstar in the veggie world,” said Prudence Athearn Levy of Vineyard Nutriton. “It is an excellent source of cancer-fighting antioxidants and a good source of fiber, calcium, potassium, magnesium and vitamin C, which helps keep colds at bay this season.” With support from Mass in Motion and Island Grown Schools, Vineyard Nutrition has just published a wonderful new cookbook, Vineyard Family Cooking, which includes some great recipes that feature kale. “Pile it into your stir-fries, serve it with your eggs for breakfast, add it to all your soups, and use it as a topping — precook it first — for your homemade pizzas,” Prudence suggests.
Chef, farmer and food writer Susie Middleton shared more recipe ideas with me. “I make an easy Asian noodle soup with spiced-up chicken broth and udon noodles,” she said. “Simmer several big handfuls of kale leaves with the broth and pour it over the noodles for a yummy, warming supper. We’ve also been sauteing the kale with a little bit of citrus-butter sauce, adding it to minestrone and baked pastas, and slivering ribbons of it over roasted or sauteed root veggies.”
Chef and farmer Chris Fischer of Beetlebung Farm contributed a delicious, quick and easy kale salad recipe for our featured recipe of the month, available on our website (islandgrown.org/schools).
As winter sets in, let’s celebrate the impressive kale plant and seek to emulate its ability to thrive throughout the season.
Noli Taylor is executive director of Island Grown Schools, a program of the Island Grown Initiative. This column appears monthly in the Gazette throughout the duration of the Harvest of the Month program. For more information, go to islandgrown.org/schools.