First annual Kale Festival on Martha’s Vineyard

Jacqueline Foster, who makes the feta cheese at Mermaid Farm, was also crowned for her Kale Salad with Feta and Dried Cranberries. — Photo by Amelia Smith

Strawberries, peaches, apples, and pumpkins all have their festivals. Summer and fall bring one crop after another to harvest. Strawberries go down pretty easily, eaten straight off the plant or packed away into jam jars. Apples can be stored as-is for months or turned into apple sauce, apple pie, and more. Pumpkins become pies or Jack-o’lanterns, or occasionally a soup. Then, as the leaves fall from the trees and the fields turn brown, the harvest wraps up except for a few hardy vegetables still green in the fields.

On Sunday, December 4, Mermaid Farm hosted Martha’s Vineyard’s first kale festival. The festival was inspired by a question: What on earth can you do with kale? Beyond kale soup, what is there? There’s lots, as it turns out.

The festival started off with cooking demonstrations by cookbook authors Cathy Walthers and Susie Middleton, and by caterers Jan Buhrman and Bernie Cormie. A potluck brunch and cook-off revealed a dizzying array of possibilities, which included pizzas, casseroles, soups, salads, pasta dishes, and more.

Tours of Mermaid Farm’s fields of kale began in a field of leggy plants, still putting out leaves after a full season of production. Kale is a hardy and nutritious vegetable which is at its best after a touch of frost, so the kale harvest is at its best at this time of year. The Brassica family of vegetables includes kale as well as cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and collards. Several representatives of the two families of kale, Brassica Oleracea and Brassica Napus, were planted at Mermaid Farm in the spring. The farmers’ objective was to identify the varieties of kale that would thrive here with a minimum of interventions, that would resist pests and diseases, and that would tolerate our summer temperatures well.

The growers at Mermaid Farm found that the oleracea kales, which originated in southern Europe, tolerated heat better than the napus kales, which have their roots in northern Europe and Asia. “Napus kales will go down to 10 degrees without any trouble, and people can keep it through the winter to -10 or -20 in some cases. We’re trying to figure out what keeps them going through the winter,” they said. In a second field, younger plants have been set out for winter production, some underneath hoops which will be covered with greenhouse film when the weather turns colder.

Meanwhile, Cathy Walthers, author of “Greens, Glorious Greens” and “Raising the Salad Bar,” offered tips on cooking kale. She stood at a table behind a portable burner, tearing the leaf off its stem. She said that she first tried kale in a macrobiotic restaurant in the 1970s, and found it healthy but unappetizing. Since then, she has experimented with many ways of preparing kale, and has used it in a wide range of recipes.

“Cooking it in water like the Italians do tastes best, I found. It softens it the best, and keeps it really green. Steaming doesn’t get rid of the acid that turns it army green, but when you cook it in a lot of water it just seems to work a little bit better.” She recommends tasting as you go, because each bunch of kale is different. Boiling can take 4 to 8 minutes, depending on how tender the plant is. The cooked kale can then be strained and added to salads and other dishes.

At the cook-off, four young judges, Maisie Jarrell, Bella Maidoff, Delilah Meegan, and Everett Healy, sampled the dishes to choose two winners and two runners-up. “I’m not a big fan of kale, but the food was really well put together,” Maisie Jarrell said. “I pretty much liked everything. The pizza was good, and a kale salad with cranberries.” Bella Maidoff’s favorite was the Kale Hortopita, or Greens Pie, entered by Hara Dretaki, who was crowned one of the two Kale Queens. Jacqueline Foster, who makes the feta cheese at Mermaid Farm, was also crowned for her Kale Salad with Feta and Dried Cranberries.

Kale’s practical merits are legion. It is loaded with nutrients, including calcium, iron, fiber, vitamins A and C, and omega fatty acids. It has anti-inflamatory and immune-boosting antioxidants.

But the proof, ultimately, is in the eating. Those who enjoyed Saturday’s Kale Festival will have no doubts that kale can be as delicious as it is virtuous. They left with a fistful of recipes and a bundle of gardening tips, bringing kale into their culinary lives for its whole long season.