Growing kale changed me. Growing kale marked when I became a serious gardener, learning new crops and eating pleasures from my friends at the 61st Street Community Garden, of blessed memory. Now I can’t imagine life without it — both for its mild but bright flavor, its superb health benefits, its versatility and its beauty.

IMG_0464A member of the cabbage family, kale’s ancestors grew wild around Mediterranean Europe. Kale, as we know it, has been cultivated for its flavor and hardiness for at least 5,000 years. People quickly transported it north because, like most brassicas, it is frost resistant. Hence, the Scots for whom kail is a staple.

And kale is another superfood, full of anti-inflammatory vitamins and other compounds. Anyone suffering from arthritis need only eat kale regularly to feel the benefits.

Kale is easy to grow and comes in different varieties. Pictured below is lacinto kale which is lovely to eat and easy to prepare. At the top is curly, red kale. This year I’m growing the traditional curly slate-green and red kales, mostly because I like the colors when the leaves just start to wilt in the pan: turquoise green and a deep purple-red. When planting, space enough room between rows/clusters because the plakaleflowersnts will get large over the growing season. Baby kale adds a crisp, hardiness to spring salads. Once good sized, pick the outer leaves — with scissors or by hand in a cut-and-come-again fashion, and new growth will continue to grow until snow. When the weather becomes frosty, kale will still be fresh and most flavorful. The cool weather must concentrate the plant’s flavors so it’s particularly delicious.

Like cabbage, when cooked properly, kale is delicious. Kale will cook down so pick about 2 pounds – a large bag full — for 4 people. Wash well and strip the leafs from the stem. Depending on what I’m going to do with it, I may tear the leaves into smaller pieces. Some simmer the leaves in water for 5 minutes until tender. I always throw kale in batches into a pan with olive oil, chopped onion and garlic and saute it down. Salt and pepper to taste.

It’s great served with sausages, a nice cool weather menu. I often add crumbled feta and the kale mix to short pasta (penne, fusilli, shells) with a sprinkling of parmesan. A favorite is to add a white bean to the pan with the sauteed kale, onion and garlic. Remove from heat. Stir in fresh thyme, cilantro and other fresh herbs (from the garden, of course). Or substitute a few boiled potatoes or cauliflower for the beans. Crumbled bacon is a nice addition too — if you’re not keeping kosher.

Kale can often stand in for spinach or chard in other recipes. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Kale is very forgiving and may change your life too.

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