Kale & Friends (including me!)

I first met kale in the mid-80s when learning how to decorate a salad bar, I’d never even heard of it before then. I’m not sure when I became fascinated with kale, but once I learned how to cook it and eat it, I then learned how to grow it. And growing it is easy and fun, because not only are there several “types” of kale for the kitchen garden, there are many ornamental hybrids that look almost like peonies or even roses.

Kale in the Garden

Kale, Brassica oleracea, is a primitive cabbage, and is non-heading. The Latin name acephala means “without a head”. The name “kale” or “cole”, from coles or caulis is from the Greek and Latin. All the main forms of kale we know today have been grown for at least 2000 years, especially amongst the ancient Romans, who grew a wide variety including tall and short, curly and plain, blue-green, yellow-green and red.

There is also a plant called Sea Kale, Cramge maritima, the leaves of which greatly resemble cabbage-kale, but it is not at all related; sea-kale is a wild, salt-loving plant of coastal Europe. That being said, kale is sometimes used to take up soil salinity in coastal regions, and is used as a rotation crop to prevent over-mineralization.

Brassica napus, or Russian-Siberian kale, is typically milder in taste and of a more tender leaf. “Ragged Jack” is one of its names, and “Red Russian” is a popular variety that can be enjoyed raw when still young. They are very winter hardy, some folks say down to 10-degrees F. if well mulched. This makes them an early sprouting crop in the spring.

Growing kale is not difficult, although starting your seed indoors (or buying starts) and planting out later gives you sturdier plants than direct seeding. When setting out seedlings, follow the recommended spacing as written on the seed pack, since the plants you set out now will surely fill the space in a month or so. Planting too close causes two problems: first, it can stunt the growth of the plant and you will end up with the same amount of veggie from two plants crowded together as you would from one hurky specimen; second, kale can sometimes play host to aphids in late summer, especially if planted too close. Plant your kale where it can be well-mulched in the fall to carry you into winter. Frost doesn’t hurt the leaves; some say it tastes better after a frost. In the spring, the old stalk should sprout, giving you early greens to toss into soup.

A few unusual types of kale include –

            Flanders kale, a sub-variety of Tree-Cabbage

            Cow Cabbage, growing from 6- to 12-feet in height

            Palm Kale, a French ornamental and along the line of strappy Tuscan kale

            Thousand-headed Borecole, a variegated edible ornamental with numerous side-shoots

In Old Europe, the cabbage or kale root was sometimes dried and then smoked; the word calumet or “pipe of peace” comes from the same root word as kale.

Kitchen Lore

Cooking kale can be a learning experience, and eating it might be considered an acquired taste. Its flavor can be somewhat assertive, but it is a sturdy leaf, and can be prepared in many savory ways including oven-baked “chips”.

According to most sources, especially food historians, the popular dish Colcannon is truly of Irish origin. Colcannon is so Irish that linguistic evidence provides us with proof of its antiquity. Cal ceannann means “cabbage-leek” and suggests that more than one available brassica and allium might have been used. Even though the ancient Romans introduced heading cabbages proper into the diet of early Europeans, Iron Age Celts of the British Isles were already familiar with cole-crops. Since potatoes weren’t introduced to Europe until the 16th century, it is likely that turnips were stewed with kale and leeks in the original versions of this dish. The first written mention of preparing colcannon with potatoes comes from and Englishman’s travel journal in 1735. In the U.S., the recipe appears as simply “Cabbage and Potatoes” in an 1847 Mrs. Crowen’s American Lady’s Cookery Book.

With the Irish fondness for cream and butter, the following recipe ought to pluck at your heartstrings with visions of rolling green pastures and cows grazing contentedly.


2 pounds red boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters   

3 teaspoons salt, divided

4 cups thinly sliced kale (tough ribs removed)

1 cup thinly sliced leeks (be sure to wash well)

½ cup milk

½ cup (1 stick) butter, divided

¼ teaspoon pepper, or to taste

Place potatoes in a medium saucepan, cover with water, add 1 tsp. salt, then bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer, cover and let cook until fork tender, about 15-20 minutes. Drain, then keep at low heat, shaking pan to dry the potatoes.

While the potatoes are cooking, place kale in another saucepan with water to cover and ½ tsp. salt, then bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and cook approximately 5-10 minutes until tender as desired – do not overcook. Drain into colander.

In the same saucepan used for the kale, melt 2 tbs. butter at medium heat and sauté the leeks until soft, about 10 minutes. Add milk and ½ tsp. salt, bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer and cook, uncovered, about 10 minutes.

Mash potatoes in the saucepan with 4 tbs. butter, 1 tsp. salt, and the pepper. With a wooden spoon, beat in the leek-infused milk with the potatoes until well blended. Stir in the cooked kale and heat on low for about 5 minutes.

Turn out into a serving bowl, with a well in the center for the remaining 2 tbs. butter. Please feel free to reduce the amount of butter used, but all the traditional recipes call for a big gob melting on top.

Serves 8 as a side dish.

This quintessential dish is often served on what is believed to be another Irish original, the popular holiday known as Hallowe’en. This secular celebration is wrought with ancient mystical and spiritual symbolism, and colcannon was sometimes used as a divination tool. Yes, kale and leeks can predict your future mate! Before serving, special charms were hidden in each diners bowl, and if you were lucky enough to find, say, a ring perhaps, it was a portent of marriage. This game also made one careful to not eat too fast.  Another method used to find ones future mate instructed the seeker to fill a stocking with a few spoonfuls of colcannon and hang it from the front doorknob, with the first man through the door becoming the hopeful maid’s husband. I think a man who goes past a stocking full of kale on the door has the courage of Cuchulain, and deserves recognition.

While Colcannon may arguably be the Irish National dish, Italian cooks turn out inspired eating as well. Braising the leafy greens is a common method of cooking, and the following recipe is my version of a dish found in Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen.

Kale with Bacon and Pecans

1 pound kale, sliced (remove ribs)

2 tablespoons olive oil, your favorite

4 whole garlic cloves, peeled

4 slices bacon, cut into small pieces

¼ cup toasted pecans, chopped

Salt and crushed red pepper to taste

Heat oil in a wide heavy skillet over medium heat. Stir in the bacon. Smack the garlic cloves with the side of a knife, leaving them whole, then toss into the skillet. Cook until all begins to turn golden, 3-4 minutes.

Take a handful of kale and stir into the skillet with the bacon, stirring and wilting, then adding more kale as it wilts. Continue until all the kale is in the pan, then add salt and red pepper.

Cover skillet, turn heat to low, and simmer about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a little water if the kale starts to stick.

Taste for seasoning, toss in the pecans, and serve immediately. Adding a chopped, hard-cooked egg turns this into a small meal. Serves 6.

Kale for Health and Beauty

Kale is the darling of the Superfoods, and it is no exaggeration to say that it is a nutritional powerhouse. It is rich in beta-carotene and Vitamins A, C and K; the minerals iron, calcium, manganese and potassium; it provides a good balance of omega-3 and -6 fatty acids; and it contains carotenoid compounds called lutein/zeaxanthin, which may play an important role in preventing macular degeneration. Healthy food makes for beauty from within – kale and pineapple juice smoothies all around!

But what about using kale externally? All the anti-oxidant vitamins, along with chlorophyll and Omega fatty acids, make kale a cool, refreshing, anti-inflammatory face mask, an especially good choice for acne flare-ups.

Kale Face Mask – Using a mini-food processor if you have one, or a blender, take 3-4 kale leaves (ribs removed) and 1 tablespoon each yogurt and honey, then process until smooth; adjust viscosity by adding another leaf (if too thin) or more yogurt (if too thick). Apply to face and neck. Relax for about 10 minutes then rinse in warm water, pat dry. 

Make Friends with Kale

I hope the information I have provided here will inspire you to experiment with eating kale, not only for its healthful benefits, but because it tastes good. It is an attractive plant in the garden, and is sort of like growing a little piece of history. It will be probably the only fresh vegetable you’ll be able to pick for your new Halloween Colcannon tradition, and that really is something.

© Doreen Shababy


Common name – KALE

Species – Brassica oleracea, Winterbor/Tuscan kale; B. napus, Red Russian kale

Zone 4

Sun – partial shade (in summer) to full sun (in cool spring/fall)

Water – consistent watering to keep soil moist makes for the best leaf growth

Soil pH – optimum 6.5 (add lime if too acidic)  [this has some variance, from 5.8-7.0]

Plant size – up to 24” tall, plant on 12” centers to allow for spreading

This article first appeared, in somewhat altered form, in Llewellyn’s 2019 Herbal Almanac.