Appetising and tasty dishes aren't beyond the kale
This vegetable suffered from an image problem – but it's now in vogue thanks to a makeover from top chefs, writes Michael Kelly
I've tried hard to resist the charms of kale over the years, but finally, perhaps inevitably, I have succumbed. This year I've become a kale nut.
Kale suffers somewhat from a reputation problem. If spinach is the very manifestation of the "eat your greens" horror that is imposed on us as children, then kale is even worse – all jagged, rugged and impenetrable looking. At least spinach is relatively smooth skinned.
Most kale recipes involve disguising it as an ingredient – blitzing it in a soup, or boiling it down in to a stew. Given how formidable it looks, that's perhaps not surprising.
Kale has received somewhat of an image makeover in the last few years, with many a fine chef putting it centre stage.
In fact this Tuscan Black kale has become somewhat of a culinary darling – so, expect the usual backlash.
I blame nutritionist Dorcas Barry for my new kale obsession; it was she that first convinced me to try eating kale raw, in a delicious kale salad that she was giving away on her stall at the Grow It Yourself (GIY) Gathering last year. In fact, it was so delicious (see recipe overleaf), I didn't believe it was kale.
One can't overestimate just how good for you kale is – super food fads come and go, but kale is the real deal. It's loaded with fibre, vitamins A, C and K, folic acid, potassium and calcium. Per calorie it has more iron than beef and more calcium than milk. It's considered a valuable anti-inflammatory and is high in cancer-busting anti-oxidants. I never doubted that for one minute – what I did doubt, very much indeed, was that it could be so tasty when raw.
The second moment of revelation arrived at this year's GIY Gathering when Sandra from my local GIY group in Waterford gave me a present of a small bag of kale crisps, which I was nibbling on all day.
I guarantee you that even the most skeptical of kale critics will love these. Therese, who works with me, tells me that her 15-year-old had a bit of crisp addiction and she managed to wean her off them using kale crisps. That's how good they are, and let's be honest if a teenager with a hankering for Hula Hoops can be won over by kale crisps then anyone can.
At last month's GIY meeting in Waterford, Gemma showed us how to make kale crisps and we stood around munching them while chatting. You simply remove the thick stems from the leaves, tear the dry leaves into crisp-sized pieces, sprinkle with olive oil and a good amount of rock salt, place in the oven on baking paper until they are dry and crispy (about 20 minutes in a medium oven). You can add other ingredients for extra deliciousness if you so wish – chilli flakes, nutritional yeast, vinegar etc.
If the idea of having a delicious healthy crisp alternative isn't enough to grab you, them consider this.
Kale is brilliant to grow at home.
It's a "cut and come again" vegetable – in other words, you don't have to wait for a head to form as you do with cabbage, but rather you continue to cut the leaves and the more you cut the more you can harvest. And once you get the plants started, it's a doughty survivor – kale will be providing greens for crisps, salads and other recipes right through the winter and hungry gap months, when nothing else is growing in the garden.
I am still in my infancy of growing kale, but already have three varieties growing successfully in this year's veg patch.
The first is the aforementioned dark green Cavalo Nero, in equal parts delicious to taste and beautiful to look at. I must confess that I have found this variety particularly prone to slug and caterpillar damage – in fact Dermot Carey, who does the growing for Harry's Restaurant in Inishowen among other establishments, tells me that he covers all his kale (and in fact all his brassicas) plants with bionet.
Still, I managed to get one decent Cavolo Nero plant going in the polytunnel, presumably because the butterflies found it harder to get at.
I am also growing Red Russian Kale which is sweeter and slightly more tender than other kales – it has green leaves that look for all the world like oak tree leaves and a nice purple vein. The final variety I have is Redbor, a beautiful dark red kale with tightly curled leaves.
It's so beautiful in fact, it could be used as an ornamental plant – not that I'm in to those sorts of things you understand.
Kale plants for overwintering are typically sown in spring – I sowed mine in module trays in the potting shed in April and planted out about six to eight weeks later.
They are now 4ft tall and provide much needed colour in a drab winter garden.
While we are still so interested in pumpkins, carrots, parsnips and the like, the kale plants are waiting patiently. But already one can imagine a situation where they will be pretty much the only source of fresh food from the veg patch. Kale crisps ahoy!
Michael Kelly is author of Trading Paces and Tales from the Home Farm, and founder of GIY