February Food Feature: Kale

“The finest winter vegetable we have”Thomas Jefferson
Russian Hunger Gap (left) True Siberian (right)

Russian Hunger Gap (left) True Siberian (right)

During these bitter cold days of winter, it is hard to believe anything of nutritional value might be growing outside.  Think again! Kale, in fact, has a history of nourishing people throughout the cold dark months of the year and is considered one of the

true treasures of the fall garden.

– Thomas Jefferson

 Nutritional Profile

“Kale Tops the Nutrient Density Scale” 

Kale is rich in vitamin A, C, K, fiber, omega -3s, calcium, and potassium.  Kale contains antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and cancer-preventive nutrients called glucosinolates.

Ancient History
Kale’s origins go back to the Middle Ages.  Like broccoli, cauliflower and collards, kale is a descendent of the wild cabbage.  At that time, Kale was the most common green vegetable in all of Europe.  The Romans, for example, ate Siberian kale.  Siberian kale is considered to be the ancestor of modern kales but is more closely tied to rutabagas.
Poster from the Dig for Victory campaign launched in the U.K during World War II

Poster from the Dig for Victory campaign launched in the U.K during World War II

During World War II, cultivation of kale made a comeback in the U.K. when it was featured in the Dig for Victory campaign. Kale was praised because it was easy to grow (being both frost tolerant and a perennial) and it provided nutrients to supplement the rationed diet.  

America’s introduction to kale was in the 17th century, but it wasn’t what the Romans ate.  Our kale came from England and was called sea kale.  Ever since then, kale in Virginia has been most commonly braised, either alone or mixed with other greens, such as collards. Thomas Jefferson grew kale in his own garden at Monticello, and experimented with several varieties such as sprout kale.  He once wrote that kale was one of  “the finest winter vegetables we have”.

Some of the most common kale recipes used in Jefferson’s day are very similar to the way they prepared cabbage and asparagus.  The common practice was to boil the kale until tender. See the excerpt below from the historic 1842 Virginia Housewife cookbook, by Mary Randolph.

Braised Kale with Sausage

Braised Kale with Sausage, see recipe here at Edible blue Ridge blog

Set a stew-pan with plenty of water on the fire, sprinkle a handful of salt in it, let it boil, and skim it; then put in the kale prepared thus: once perfectly cleaned; throw them into a pan of cold water, then tie them into bundles.  When they are tender at the stalk they are done enough.  Great care must be taken to watch the exact time of their becoming tender; take them just at that instant, and they will have their true flavor and colour.

Baked Kale Chips with Parmesan

Baked Kale Chips with Parmesan, see the recipe here!

Kale’s meteoric rise in popularity over the last several years may seem like a fad to the critics of local and raw food movements. Kale is not only NOT a fad, it is fact an Old World food and is a staple in many countries around the world.  Today, you can find kale in sandwiches, salads, soups, juices, desserts (what!) and most commonly used as a healthy substitute for potato chips (see recipe to the left).

Thanks for taking the time to read about the history and heritage of kale.    This blog was posted as part of City Schoolyard Garden‘s Harvest of the Month program.

The Food Heritage Project thanks you and asks you to consider eating some locally grown (preferably organic) kale.

If you forgot some of the reasons why, I will refresh your memory:

you should be eating (and growing) kale because:

1. Thomas Jefferson ate and grew kale.

2.  Kale is highly nutritious

3.  The Romans ate kale, (and today it’s a staple in Scotland, Kenya, Denmark, Portugal, and Italy..need I say more?)

4. It’s inexpensive and easy to grow

5. It is highly versatile, you can practically cook it into anything, even chocolate cakes! (Click here to see the recipe for a chocolate kale cake with sea salt.)

This post was written by Abigail Sandberg