The city gardener: Growing your own green salads with kale

Kale is no longer just a cool-weather vegetable; it’s a cool vegetable – to grow in home gardens, to cook in all sorts of fun ways and to eat as part of a health-conscious diet.

Learn to grow kale in your garden. Courtesy of Shumaila Ahmed
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Kale was a leafy green that you could never find in Karachi. Not that anyone cared too much about kale back then, in my childhood city or anywhere else, as far as I’m aware. But kale is no longer just a cool-weather vegetable; it’s a cool vegetable – to grow in home gardens, to cook in all sorts of fun ways and to eat as part of a health-conscious diet.

So it’s no surprise that I recently found it on a supermarket shelf in Karachi, imported from some northern clime. A ­happier sight was kale growing in a community garden there – the existence of such a space was, in itself, a new ­phenomenon.

My first encounter with growing kale was in a Jumeirah garden a couple of years ago. It was in the house of Mae Hourani, who invited me to one of her eat-from-the-garden Christmas parties.

“I started to grow kale for my friend who was diagnosed with cancer. I juice it for her,” Hourani told us.

To be honest, kale’s superfood status had put me off it. But armed with seeds and inspiration from Hourani, I had no excuse not to give the green a try. The formula is the same as growing other greens such as rocket, Swiss chard and cut-and-come-again lettuce. The seeds are sowed directly into a rectangular container, roughly six inches apart. I amend the potting soil with homemade compost, but prevent the growing medium from becoming too rich. I figure that kale needs nitrogen the most for good, leafy growth.

Once the plants are established and growing fast, I water them with diluted fish emulsion twice a week. Every now and then, I also throw a clump of cow manure into the pot and work it into the soil. Even in our winters, the plants grow sturdy and beautiful.

Cooking with kale comes with its own quirks. Kale is a tough green – to eat it raw, it needs massaging. This tenderises the leaves without cooking. My friend Farah has a neat trick of removing the rib from the leaves, piling them on top of one another and rolling them into a cigar to cut into thin ribbons. Then she gives them a good rub, sometimes with coarse sea salt or olive oil. She uses the raw kale in Caesar salads, replacing Romaine ­lettuce.

I throw kale from the garden into my smoothies, allowing my beloved blender to liquidise it into green goodness. For salads, I tend to replace spinach with kale, sometimes combining it simply with walnuts, pecorino and a good lug of chilli- and garlic-infused olive oil. A large part of our home crop ends up in the freezer, so I can sneak it into soups and stocks well into the summer.

A very popular way to cook with kale is to bake it into chips. But the perfect kale chip still eludes me. I suspect this to be the case because of my deep and enduring loyalty to the potato chip. But kale chips are hard to ignore, especially when I go through bouts of obsessing over adopting a Paleo or primal diet. I’ve discovered over the course of many alternatively soggy and charred attempts that keeping the oven temperature low and salting the chips at the end of baking takes you a long way towards getting a good kale chip.

Despite its superfood reputation and our success in growing it, kale has by no means replaced my favourite salad greens from the garden. But kale, at this time of the year, features heavily in lunches that are light and healthy but still on the more robust side.

Shumaila Ahmed is a Dubai-based gardener, teacher, researcher and writer.