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GARDEN FRESH : Call Me Kale

January 20, 1994|SYLVIA THOMPSON

What if I invited you to dinner, you accepted, and then I said, ". . . and I'm making my favorite dish of kale. . . ." Would you suddenly remember your Aunt Maude was due in town that night?

But had I said, ". . . and I'm making a salad of warm purplish peacock kale with shreds of Gruyere cheese, balsamic vinegar and toasted pine nuts," Maudie might be persuaded to stay home.

Now, when did you last tuck delicate leaves of summer kale into a tossed salad? Or dress hot ribbons of frost-sweetened kale with olive oil and lemon juice and serve them with garlic toast?

Some of you are nodding and smiling and saying, "Yesterday!" From a sheltered place or from the cold frame you may have picked smooth, blue-green leaves of Lacinato, the mildly flavored Italian heirloom kale. Or oak-leaf purple-veined leaves of Red Russian (a.k.a. Ragged Jack), a delicious American heirloom that reddens, like children's cheeks, in the cold. Or perhaps you harvested young crimson leaves from the center of a Chidori ornamental kale that looked like crinkly roses bordered with green.

Perhaps you're planning to order ornamental red and white peacock kales to sow in summer. They make an extraordinarily lacy spray in the border, stalks of cream or rosy purple etched with blue-gray-green. Plucked young, their leaves are delicious. Arranged as garnish on a platter, peacock kale looks like something between exotic feathers and a Martian doily.

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Although it's not as showy, you kale cognoscenti know the value of the savoyed green culinary kale most of us see--nay, overlook--at the market. Have you a patch of it, with leaves ready to chop into a cream sauce as filling for green lasagna? Have you tried Verdura, a Dutch strain with succulent, dark, blue-green leaves (tastiest kale I've tasted). In the garden, curly kale looks like giant ruffled parsley.

Kale is a cool-season vegetable; it grows and tastes best when temperatures are in the 50s and 60s, as they are now. Most kales are even happy in the 40s and 30s. And a few sharp frosts deepen their colors and intensify their sweetness.

The best timing is to start heirloom culinary kale seeds around July and hybrid ornamental kales in August, so plants can be going strong by September or October. These kales will winter over, and likely be harvestable through February. Some plants may give you delectable leaves for another year. Some may yellow in spring and send up flowers. These buds are like broccoli, so cook them up!

In gardens where there is little or no frost, you must choose a kale that grows tender and sweet without the cold. Try Dwarf Blue Curled Vates, a culinary kale with finely curled blue-green leaves. Place it in your chilliest spot. When you pick the leaves, refrigerate them in the crisper for a few days, and you'll gain some of frost's effects.

In the High Desert, sow Dwarf Blue Curled Vates in February and March. Where seasons are short, sow seeds in May and June.

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But even where summers are warm, sow a few seeds of Red Russian kale in very early spring. Give plants a coolish spot and you can harvest before the heat, even during it. It's worked for me.

Harvest young leaves individually with a knife, taking them from near the center. Let the mature leaves stay.

As you can imagine, kales have few rivals for beauty in the border. From 12 inches to 24 inches tall and usually just as wide, springtime kales like the company of daffodils and irises. Autumn kales love partying with marigolds.

Kales are easy to grow. They need five hours of sunshine daily, an inch of water weekly and shelter from wind. All must have well-drained, moisture-retentive soil. Green sorts want a fertile soil to give their best, both in vigor and nutrition. In lean soil, the struggle to overcome deficiencies actually makes ornamental kales grow brighter.

Kale is susceptible to aphids. Swoosh them off with a hose (but be careful not to break the leaves). Past that, if there are signs of damage, consult a county agricultural agent. And let three years pass before you grow kale in the same place again. This helps prevent disease and provides an even drain on the soil's resources.

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Ah, but not just to look at, these are plants to eat! Kale is among the most nourishing of vegetables. One serving gives twice the RDA of vitamins A and C, and healthy amounts of readily available calcium and iron. Also, kale leaves don't shrink in cooking the way spinach and chard leaves do, so you don't have to harvest buckets for a meal.

When the time comes that you must take up the whole plant, peel the thick main stem, unless it's old and tough. You can cut it into matchsticks and treat as you would celery.

So-called Chinese kale, by the way, isn't the familiar European sort of kale but a kissing cousin.

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