Two favorite fall cooking greens, spinach and kale, rise and shine when the temperature cools. Here’s how to grow and cook these healthful leafy greens.
Leaves may be falling from the trees now, but if you’ve planned well, abundant fresh ones currently color your garden green. Leafy green vegetables love fall, and their flavor improves in cooler weather — especially if grown without synthetic, high-nitrogen fertilizers. For kale and spinach, whose sugar content rises as the temperature falls, this is the best season of the year.
Our approach to greens has changed since the days of long boiling in a pot, the obligatory dab of creamed spinach next to a steak, and the generic iceberg lettuce salad. You can grow many different kinds of greens in your garden, and the distinction between salad greens and cooking greens has all but vanished as cooks gain finesse and become attuned to the flavors and textures of this nutritious fare.
Sow kale and spinach as late in summer as you can get away with, typically in late July or August, so they reach maturity before a hard frost. Both will tolerate a freeze, but their growth will slow, even with the cold-tolerant spinach varieties, such as ‘Space’ and ‘Winter Bloomsdale,’ and the hardiest kales, such as ‘Winterbor.’ Even more indomitable are the stemless kales, such as ‘Dwarf Siberian,’ which hunker down for warmth rather than growing tall. (For more detailed guidance on which varieties to choose, see Winter Gardening Tips: Best Winter Crops and Cold-Hardy Varieties.)
Both greens will bolt when spring comes, but by then you may have a new crop of each coming along. In areas with harsh summers, both kale and spinach will take a break during the hottest months, but here on the cool Maine coast, we can eat them year-round. We have three methods of protecting both crops in winter: growing in a cold frame, growing beneath quick hoops (also known as low tunnels) covered with plastic or fabric row cover, or growing under a layer of row cover inside a small, simple plastic greenhouse. In mild regions, you may be able to get away with a covering of hay or straw — or nothing at all. (You’ll find more guidance for growing kale and spinach in our Crops at a Glance Guide.)
Kale’s large, upright leaves make cutting it a snap, while harvesting spinach takes a little longer. Try picking spinach with a small, sharp knife in one hand as your other hand collects cut leaves and drops them into a nearby bucket or basket. Note how both plants keep growing by sending up small new leaves from the center. The more regularly you pick, the more new leaves they will produce. Cut large leaves for cooking, smaller ones for salads. Always leave at least a few leaves on the plant so it can continue to grow. You must also keep the beds tidy, not only by weeding but also by removing any yellowed or otherwise unusable leaves, as well as any long stems left after picking. This keeps the plants healthier, nicer to look at and easier to harvest.
Blessed with a year-round supply of both of these crops, I don’t bother to freeze either of them. (If you’d like to freeze greens, blanch the leaves in boiling water, then cool quickly and pack into plastic bags.) I have experimented with cutting the tops off outdoor kale plants and storing them in a black plastic bag in the toolshed adjacent to our house, where the kale freezes, but not completely. The kale will often keep that way for a few months, fresh and handy to use in the kitchen.
Spinach has long been popular, but kale is now giving it a run for its money. I’ve often heard kale hailed as “the new spinach.” Lured by kale’s reputation as a superfood, people who try it have found that it’s easy to grow, easy to cook and just plain tastes good. As a gateway recipe, try tossing fresh, chopped kale leaves into a pan of drippings left over from frying sausage, pork chops or bacon. Sweat them, covered, with a bit of water and crushed garlic, and then scrape the pan to mix in any crisp, meaty bits. See what I mean? Delicious.
Because of kale’s robust texture, you can drop pieces into a soup and they won’t quite lose their shape. Knowing this, you’ll find yourself stirring them into pork and beans, succotash, scalloped potatoes, and a host of other favorites, turning these foods into nutritious one-pot meals. This trait may also explain the surprising popularity of kale salads, as the leaves can support the heaviness of thick dressings, warm additions such as bacon or honey, or hefty croutons that would flatten, say, a bowl of baby arugula. (The mimosa dressing recommended in our Spinach Salad With Mimosa Dressing Recipe[link/title] would also be great with kale.)
For eating raw, I prefer the thinner-leaved types of these greens, such as Tuscan kale (also called “cavolo nero,” “lacinato” or “dinosaur kale”), or Northern varieties, such as ‘Red Russian.’ To prepare kale for any use, remove the tough central ribs, either by pulling off the soft part or by folding a leaf and slicing alongside its rib with a knife. Discarding the stem is by no means a requirement, however. Some worshippers of plant fiber slow-roast the ribs with olive oil and garlic and swear they are divine.
Anything you can do with kale you can do with spinach — and more. Spinach’s slightly milder flavor lends itself to creamy dishes, such as quiches, purées and smoothies. But it’s hard to beat just plain spinach, lightly steamed or dropped — just after washing, while moisture still clings to the leaves — into a pan slicked with butter or oil, and then stirred until barely wilted. For variety, add pine nuts, raisins, and a dash of cream or sherry. To preserve as much as possible of the greens’ vitamin-rich juices, which are loaded with chlorophyll, don’t overcook spinach. You can stockpile any cooking liquid for soups, but better not to lose it in the first place.
I remove the ribs of large spinach leaves only if they will be served raw, or if I want a purée that is as dense and deep green as a spruce forest.
Barbara Damrosch creates fresh recipes using the bounty of her garden with her husband, Eliot Coleman, at Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine. She is the author of The Garden Primer and, with Coleman, of The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.