Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Greens: Kale and Chard

            This was a pleasant discovery for me – realizing that I love kale and chard.  I never tasted them before I decided to grow them.  But once I did, I realized that I had to have them every year.  A great big bed of them. 

            The thing is, I love having fresh, ready greens in the garden for a nice salad when I want it.  But lettuce basically gets bitter before it even seems ready to harvest and it’s really messy to wash because the dirt sticks to every leaf.  And spinach bolts before the leaves are even baby-sized.  So out of desperation, I tried kale and chard.  And I LOVE them!  They are so much more worth growing than spinach and lettuce.
            Kale is basically just cabbage that doesn’t form a head.  Only leaves.  We use it almost anywhere we would use lettuce or cabbage: tacos, salads, sandwiches, etc.  Just cut the tough stem out of the middle and use just the leaves.  If you have tried Tuscan kale from the store and were horrified by its terrible, strong bitterness and vowed to never eat kale again, try growing your own Red Russian or Blue Vates Kale.  It is worlds away from the Tuscan kale.  I once added Tuscan kale to a salad, and then I nibbled on a leaf and was disgusted.  Then I had to go through the whole salad and pick out every last piece of Tuscan kale.  It was awful.  But homegrown kale tastes like a mild lettuce with a hint of cabbage.  It’s light and fresh-tasting and we can make whole salads with kale as our only greens.  It’s that good! 
            Plus, it lasts and lasts all season.  I can plant it in spring and keep picking the outer leaves from the same plants all season because they grow new leaves up from the middle.  Whereas my lettuce and spinach are worthless within weeks, generally before I get a chance to use them. 
            And kale can withstand frost and supposedly last through much of the winter if you keep it protected.  Last year, even though they were uncovered, I was able pick some of the leaves that were left even when there was snow on the ground because the cell walls don’t freeze and burst like other plants.  So even if it freezes, it still retains its texture.  So this year, I am planting extra (above and beyond the 4x8 foot bed I already plant) so that we can cover a section and see how long it lasts.
            Another plus for kale is that dirt doesn’t stick to it.  The way the water beads off of it, you would think it was polished with wax.  So I can pick a bunch and then rinse it with water and shake it off and it’s ready to go.  And while the deer and bunnies will eat my chard, not much bothers the kale (as long as my whole garden is surrounded by deer netting).  The bugs don’t bother it too much, except for the occasional slug trail.  And even when I took the deer netting away at the end of the season, something ate all the chard but the kale was left standing.  If you like lettuce and salads, give kale a try.  I am a hard-core kale fan after growing it for just one season!
            Swiss Chard is also great to grow.  Chard is just beets that are grown for the greens and not the root.  So the stalks taste like beets (which I don’t like but am trying to) but the leaves taste a lot like spinach.  So I cut out the stem and use the leaves anywhere I would use spinach.  Both kale and chard can be used fresh or cooked. 
            I grow a big bed of chard.  And like kale, they will continue to grow new leaves in the middle if you pick the bigger, outer ones.  But dirt does stick to them a bit, so it takes a little more rinsing to clean them.  And the deer and bunnies love them, so they have to be surrounded with deer netting at all times. 
            But there is almost no prettier plant than the colorful Swiss Chard.  The stalks come in white, pink, red, yellow, and orange.  So a bed of these looks like sticks of candy coming out of the ground with lush green tops.  The only problem is that they never get big enough to really appreciate because I keep picking them all season. 
            That’s another thing – when it comes to these plants that you harvest from all season, you can plant them closer than they say on the package.  The recommended distance apart is for mature plants.  But my kale and chard never get that big because I keep picking them along the way.  So I actually plant mine about 6 inches apart for chard and 8 inches apart for kale.  This way I can pack a lot more plants in.
            Both these plants do great when planted directly in the ground in the spring.  But you do get to start picking a few weeks earlier if you start them inside about 5 weeks before you would plant them outside.  And you can plant them outside – as seeds or transplants – a few weeks before the last frost.  So I start some seeds inside at the end of February and set them out mid-April, after hardening them off, of course.  And then I also plant some directly in the ground in mid-April.  That way, I can harvest some early but not waste space and seed-starting soil on starting them all inside. 
            Kale and chard will be worth any space you can give them.  I’m planning to give them even larger beds this year because I like to make at least two giant salads a week (and I’d like to have that extra kale to protect over winter).  I used to always include store-bought lettuce in my salads until every head I cut into had dark brown streaks all throughout.  And so I tried it with just kale and chard as the greens.  And I loved it!  And all of my kids – 13, 11, 7, and 4 years old – will eat it just fine.  We call it Rainbow Salad, and it’s a staple every week during the growing season.  (I learned that if I keep things simple and regular, the kids eat it much more willingly than if I try to change things too much and get fancy and creative.  Simplicity and consistency are the keys for successful meals at my house.)
            I think it’s so neat that God gives us nutritious food in beautiful packages, that we are allowed to grow such healthy food in our own backyards.  Don’t be afraid of plants you haven’t tried before.  And don’t think that you will hate them just because you hated the store-bought stuff.  Homegrown is so different.  And nothing is cooler than saying to yourself one day, “I’m going to make a salad for dinner,” and then being able to go right out to your own yard and get the freshest greens possible.  It’s humbling and so inspiring!  Take some time this year to experiment with the many wonderful plants that God has given us for our benefit!  You won’t be sorry!  And you might just be pleasantly surprised!

Rainbow Salad:
            This salad is so simple and versatile.  Simply chop up any of these and add them to your big salad bowl: lettuce, spinach, kale, swiss chard, cucumbers, cabbage, and apples.  Then add a dressing made of fresh-squeezed lemon, olive oil, and honey.  (I use about equal parts of lemon and honey, and a little more olive oil.  And I keep fresh lemons in the freezer for when I need them.  Just place frozen lemon in a bowl of hot water until thawed.)   Then top with raisins, dried cranberries, or nuts, if you like.  So wonderfully simple.  So simply wonderful. 
            Our most regular, basic salad consists of kale, chard, apples, dressing, and raisins or dried cranberries.  That’s it.  In winter, I use pre-bagged salad mixes with organic kale, chard, and spinach.  And that is even faster than getting and washing produce from the garden.  But I still look forward to our summer salads with homegrown greens.  

Egg Bake:
            This is a recipe I normally add broccoli to, but kale (fresh or frozen-thawed) can be used instead.
            Chop and boil potatoes in salted water, enough potatoes to fill a 9x13 pan about half-way.  (For our family of 6, I use about 3 ½ lbs of potatoes, or so.)   (Or you can cook up a pot of quinoa instead of potatoes.)  Pour cooked potatoes or quinoa into 9x13 pan. 
            Add chopped broccoli or kale (or any other veggies you like: onions, garlic, carrots, corn, etc.).  Add a few handfuls of shredded cheddar cheese and any chopped cooked meat if you like.  (We chop and broil beef hot dogs and add those.)  And then mix together 4-5 eggs, onion powder, garlic powder, salt, pepper, and a couple spoonfuls of sour cream.  Pour on top of potatoes, veggies, and cheese.  Stir in well.  Cover lightly and bake at 350 till done, about an hour.  Remove foil for last few minutes to give it a nice light brown top.  (I love the quinoa, my kids love the potatoes.)  
            (For easier mixing, combine all of these in a big bowl first and then put in 9x13 pan.  But I’m lazy, so I just do it in the pan.  And then I have to mix carefully because it all wants to spill over.  I also mix it in the pan so that I can gauge how much to add of everything as I go.  I’m a “bit of this, handful of that” kind of cook.  But it works.)