It’s easy to get someone to eat a tomato, but I’ve always found kale a tough sell — until I discovered the Tuscan kind. Even diehard kale-haters, once they try it, make it a regular part of their diet, and not just for its payload of vitamin C, folic acid, calcium and iron. It’s the softer texture and fine flavor, sweetened even more by cold weather.
Other names for Tuscan kale include black kale, lacinato kale, cavolo nero, nero di Toscano, palm tree kale and dinosaur kale. The last I can’t account for, unless it’s the vaguely prehistoric look the plant has when growing. Its leaves arch out from atop a straight stem, and in mild climates it can sometimes attain heights of 6 feet or more. That explains the palm tree part.
And “black” is only a slight exaggeration. Its leaves, which vary in color even on a single plant, range from a medium gray-blue-green to a very dark version of that hue. It is so beautiful that its history includes use as an ornamental plant in France and Italy. I find a place for it in my home vegetable garden even when we have large plantings of it at our farm. The color is the perfect contrast to pale green or red lettuces, marigolds and just about everything else I grow. The texture is also dramatic. The long, strap-like leaves are heavily puckered, with edges that curl under. The tough ribs should be removed before use.
Having it close at hand to snip in a hurry helps me out on days when I’m too rushed even to assemble a salad and make a dressing. I’ll often chop up the leaves to add to a dish such as a bean soup, for the last 5 or 10 minutes of cooking. Steaming and buttering it or braising it with garlic and olive oil add an equally simple and delicious green component to a meal. I’ll often steam it along with the milder green cabbage, where the dark leaves make the dish more interesting, more nutritious and, for the timid eater, a little less “kaley.”
Adding sliced onions also sweetens the result. The smaller leaves toward the center of the plant are the most tender, so much so that you might even turn them into a robust salad, topped with a bacon and honey or chopped egg and anchovy dressing.
Like all kales, this one is very cold-hardy and even here in Maine you can grow it outdoors well into winter. Like all brassicas, kale likes a compost-rich soil, high in nitrogen. For maximum production, set the plants out the way you would lettuce, about a foot apart. For a monumental accent plant that would not look out of place in a flower garden or shrub border, give it more room.
Now is the time to order seeds, which you can direct sow on April 1 if the ground is workable. Or sow indoors on that day for transplanting into the garden three weeks later — the earliest you can get away with. You also could direct-sow some in late August, for a fall and winter crop. Chances are very good that you’ll be hooked.