A few years ago our collaborator, Menkir Tamrat, introduced us to a number of Ethiopian peppers and mustards. One of the mustards he brought to us – Highland Kale — turned out to be particularly captivating. Since then, we have increasingly ramped up production of this “blue” mustard, and it has become a mainstay of our winter and spring crops.
In Ethiopia, “Highland Kale” is known as Gomenzer, and the seeds are typically used for their cooking oils. Indeed, in many cases another, more collard-like, green called Gomen is preferred by Ethiopian chefs. However, we were initially struck by the smooth, full flavor of Gomenzer, and also its tenderness and lack of bitterness. It is a versatile green that can be eaten fresh, and mixed into salads, or cooked in oil with garlic. We also use it in soups, often adding it last, so that it retains much of its texture.
When we took samples of this versatile green to chefs, and other friends, the response was overwhelmingly positive. With no commercial seed source available, we started to harvest seed, for ourselves and others.
When it came time to start selling Gomenzer through our primary wholesale customer – San Francisco Specialty Produce – we needed a “common” name that could be used to convey the essence of the product. What we came up with was “Highland Kale”. Although Gomenzer is strictly-speaking a “mustard” we used “kale” because the color and flavor is very reminiscent of Tuscan Kale, albeit softer and milder. The “Highland” part of the name refers to the origins of Gomenzer in the cool highlands of Ethiopia. Other names for Gomenzer (Brassica carinata) are Ethiopian Blue Mustard and Ethiopian Kale.
Highland Kale seeds germinate and grow quickly, and thus it competes well with weeds. For this reason, we use Highland Kale as part of our winter cover crop, and we also grow it in rows that are seeded by hand. We typically sell the shoot “tops” that are similar to Broccoli Raab tops (but much better tasting, as far as we are concerned). The Highland Kale tops are more leafy than Broccoli Raab tops. It is nice that, when the tops of the plants are removed, lower secondary shoots provide us with 2nd and 3rd cuttings off of the same rows. Thus it is important to not cut all the way to the ground when harvesting. Allowing regrowth can be very important, particularly when trying to get a financial return on this crop.
Highland Kale also makes a great micro-green and a great baby green. And one more characteristic worth mentioning is that Highland Kale’s flavor stands up well to warm, summer temperatures. While many types of mustard greens become bitter as the temperature warms, Highland Kale remains tender with minimal bitterness. Bolting, however, is more rapid, and Highland Kale plants grown in the summer do not grow as large, prior to bolting and flowering.
Since all of these uses require many seeds, we make sure we let a couple of rows go “to seed” in the early summer. The great thing about harvesting Highland Kale is that the seed pods do not shatter easily on the plant, but shatter readily with a bit of rubbing by a harvester. So, it is easy to efficiently harvest seeds without fancy equipment. A set of seed screens is of great help, however, for cleaning the seed. Once cleaned, the seed should be spread out and allowed to dry. Packing up seed that is not fully dried will result in molding and should be avoided. Storing seed in paper envelopes is also recommended, to avoid molding.
Of course, not everyone has the time to harvest their own seed, even when they need to use large amounts. For this reason, it is very exciting that Johnny’s Selected Seeds began selling a Highland Kale cultivar called Amara this year, that is available in bulk quantities. From what they tell us, Amara is a bit greener, and it does not have the tinges of purple that we see on the cultivar of Highland Kale that we have developed. While we have not grown our cultivar and Amara side-by-side yet, we are doing that now, as I just bought 5 lbs of Amara from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, in an effort to keep up with the strong demand for Highland Kale we are seeing this winter from our produce customers. We also have a darker green version of Highland Kale that we grow in small quantities. It will be exciting to see all 3 cultivars side-by-side this spring!
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