DIRT NERD: DEFEND KALE

antigravity-oct2016-dirt-nerd1-illustration-by-melissa-guion
Published  October 2016

New Orleans usually finds itself blissfully behind the curve when it comes to trends writ large, from third wave coffee shops to man-buns to yes, the local food movement. When it comes to greens however, they’ve been here and they’ll continue to be here long after the jet-setting urban elite have left New Orleans behind. Collards and mustard greens have reigned supreme around the region for decades, if not centuries. And kale, being a very close relative of these well-known greens, has been easily folded into the growing and eating habits around these parts.

“Kalegate,” the controversy that followed a New York Times article in March of 2014 wherein recent transplants from New York to New Orleans were interviewed, has largely been forgotten by New Orleanians at large, but we in the urban farming community are still reeling from the innocently-stated impugnment on our growing and eating habits here in the South, that “there’s no kale here.”

Actually, kale, once the superhero of superfoods and token representative of all the right and wrong things about health consciousness, has already been by-and-large left behind by foodie communities elsewhere. But we in New Orleans see the world through a different sort of lens, and I would like to encourage you to use this lens to perceive kale as a decidedly non-cosmopolitan, quintessentially Southern green that you ought to eat and grow, now and forever.

Kale is traditionally thought of as a cold weather plant, known for its ability to withstand brutal winters in the Northeast and points beyond. A major downside to living in the South is that pretty much all of the massively published gardening advice available for consumption is targeted towards growers in the Northeast or the West Coast. Our climate is completely different, and we could harp on this publishing injustice for ages, but today is not the day. As regards kale, it is in fact very amenable to the cold, but it’s also well acclimated to the heat, just like collards and mustard greens. As a matter of fact, kale is significantly sturdier than mustard greens in regards to withstanding the more punishing aspects of our climate: insect pressure, lack of water, and indeed, heat. You can grow kale from early September through June here. Not only can you grow kale for three whole quarters of the year, you can do so easily, harvest so much food, eat so well, and feel so great about your gardening powers the whole time.

Not only can you grow kale for three whole quarters of the year, you can do so easily, harvest so much food, eat so well, and feel so great about your gardening powers the whole time.

There are no secrets to growing kale well here, and that last sentence was not an opening pitch for my fool-proof-five point kale-growing plan. Kale does the work for you. Just do the things you’re supposed to do with plants to make them grow. Give their roots enough space (8 to 12 inches ought to do), make sure they get a decent amount of water and plenty of sunlight, and pay a little bit of attention to them sometimes.

Now that you are ready to grow kale, knowing full well that it grows great here and that you are being thoroughly non-trendy and thus, supercool by growing it in your backyard or tossing it in your smoothie, we’re going to break down the subtle nuances of all the varieties of kale that are out there in the universe, or at least as many as I can reasonably fit into this column. We’ll start with the most common kales and see how weird we can get

SIBERIAN KALE
The most readily available kale at the grocery store, this is the variety that likely pops into your mind when you hear the word. Siberian kale is green and a little frilly around the edges. As the name implies, this kale is especially good at growing in frigid weather. One may assume that as such, it probably doesn’t grow so well in warm weather. One would be correct. This is my second least favorite kale to grow down here. It wilts quickly in the sun—even in December—and attracts more beetles than most other kale. It also tastes pretty bad most of the time. Generally speaking, kale, like most vegetables, takes on more sweet flavors in cooler temperatures, and more bitter flavors in the heat, but this one just tastes kind of sulfurous most of the time. I would not recommend growing this kale. Given that this is the kale that most people think of when they hear the word, I totally understand kale’s bad rap in the eyes of the average vegetable consumer.

SCOTCH KALE
Also known as curly kale, this is my least favorite variety to grow. It is much like Siberian kale, but with more intense ruffling around the edges and a bit of a denser, heftier feel. Anecdotally, this kale has always been impossible for me to grow with real success. Aphids get deep in the frills and never leave. Harlequin beetles, usually only around in the spring and summer, seem always to be making babies on the leaves of this guy. I actually like Scotch kale as a foodstuff, but growing it is tough going. I suppose it has to do with us not having much in common with Scotland, climate-wise.

LACINATO KALE
Also known as Toscano kale, Dinosaur kale, Tuscan kale, black kale, Palm Tree kale (and probably a lot of other things), this variety is fantastic mostly because it has so many names, but also because it’s native to Italy and are more acclimatized to our ecosystem than the aforementioned kales. This kale is thin, long, and dark, with a lovely scale-like leaf texture and very tasty when crisped up a bit. I wouldn’t recommend this one for salads, but it’s my favorite kale for cooking with, and it’s very easy to grow here. It has a fairly thick waxen cover over its leaves that provides significant protection from baby caterpillars. And though it still may get munched on, it hangs tougher than most.

RED RUSSIAN KALE
If you want something familiar that’s also easy to grow, red Russian kale is your huckleberry. Red Russian kale resembles Siberian kale somewhat, but with a reddish purple stem and veins. I believe the purple implies antioxidants, which implies health—but also worse flavor profiles. Not so for this variety. Unlike its Siberian cousin, Red Russian kale actually grows here well and doesn’t taste like sulfur. Russia is a big country: it must be warm somewhere in there. I suppose this kale came from that part. If you’re looking to beef up your iceburg lettuce and ranch salad with some antioxidants and magnesium or whatever, this is the kale for you.

PORTUGUESE KALE
Also known as Tronchuda kale, I’m pretty sure this variety is actually just collard greens. I grew it one year and I couldn’t tell the difference. If you want to try this out, buy some collard greens.

OLYMPIC RED KALE
This is my very favorite kale to grow, to eat, to worship and to hold before all others for all time. Olympic Red kale is a bit of an amalgamation of all the kales, with frilly edges, purple veins, red-to-green leaves, and a subtle waxy sheen. It has a special heft to it—that subtle density that makes luxury items so darn luxurious.

antigravity-oct2016-dirt-nerd2-illustration-by-melissa-guionSCARLET KALE
The nervous eater will see this kale and fear that it exists for ornament only, that it cannot possibly be bred for consumption. As the name implies, Scarlet kale is deep red, glorious to behold, and bred for superior taste above all else. The leaves do tend to grow smaller than other kale varieties. Don’t wait for these leaves to grow tall; harvest them at three to four inches in diameter. Also, those nervous eaters ought to calm their unease: just because a kale has been deemed “ornamental” doesn’t mean it’s poison. It’s true that ornamental kales tend to be more bitter than kales bred specifically for good eating, but all kale is food. I know this is a mind-boggler right here, but plant categorization is not binary. This is just a core set of the many kale varieties that are on offer from the ever-widening world of Brassicae oleracea (Latin for kale. Put that in your smoothie and blend it). Some are more amenable to our climate and your palate than others, but they are all being grown somewhere in this backwoods city even as you read this.

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