One of the true pleasures of growing your own food is eating vegetables that you can’t find in stores. From the crunch of fresh-picked peas right off the vine to the intense flavour of frost-sweetened carrots to the mild delicacy of mache harvested in the winter, gardeners enjoy a range of unusual treats. One of my favourites is the brief springtime appearance of flowering kale buds, also known as napini or kale raab.
Kale is a member of the brassica family, just like cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, and, more distantly, arugula and even radishes. Each of those vegetables has been bred for different things characteristics, like tasty leaves, masses of flower buds, an edible stem, peppery greens and a spicy, colourful root. But when kale flowers start to grow, you can see its similarities with this seemingly diverse group. Just like broccoli, the flower buds and stems of kale are edible and delicious.
In our garden, kale flowers appear in early spring on the overwintered plants we planted last summer. Just as our arugula and other overwintered leaf crops burst into flower in the spring as daylight hours increase, kale sends up its tall flowers. In most plants, this flowering process – known as bolting – results in bitter, inedible leaves, though it can be nice to leave the flowers for bees or even harvest mature seeds for replanting. Kale is different. Its flowers, and the stems and leaves attached, are juicy and delicious.
Use clean scissors to pick your kale buds before the yellow flowers have opened, and include a good portion of the tender stem and attached leaves. The variety of kale won’t matter much, though some produce more flower buds and juicier stems than others. For the best flavour and nutritional value, eat the flower buds within a few days of harvest.
Flowering kale buds can be cooked similarly to broccoli, though their more delicate texture requires gentle handling. Flowering kale buds have both sweet and bitter notes. I’ve found that blanching (briefly boiling, then immediately cooling) the buds brings out their sweetness and reduces the bitter flavours that can sometimes occur. A simple preparation with olive oil and lots of garlic results in a surprisingly addictive dish. This recipe can also be made with broccoli florets, green beans, or, honestly, just about any vegetable.
- 4 C flowering kale buds, packed
- 1 T olive oil plus more for drizzling
- 2 large garlic cloves(or 4 small), minced
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Rinse kale buds thoroughly in a colander under cold water. Chop to pieces roughly 2” in length.
- Bring a medium-sized pot of generously salted water to boil.
- Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with cold water and add ice.
- When water comes to a boil, immerse the kale buds for one minute, until bright green. Use tongs to transfer kale buds to the ice water until cooled.
- Return kale to the colander and allow it to drain (you may need to toss the kale to improve draining).
- While kale is draining, heat 1 T olive oil under med-low heat. Once warmed, add garlic until just softened but not browned (do not let it burn). Remove from heat as soon as the garlic begins to soften. Remove from heat.
- Add kale to pan and toss with the garlic oil until just warmed. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve immediately with an extra drizzle of olive oil. To make it a meal, accompany with polenta or pasta, fish or chickpeas.