Wednesday 20 June 2012

Kailans - gorgeous greens worth tracking down

I harvested the first of the kailans, this week. Slightly later than usual but then everything is shaping up to be 'slightly later' this year. This has been a must-grow crop for me ever since I discovered how unobtainable they are in the UK after feasting on them during a trip to Singapore in the 1990s.

Kailans are a type of brassica with thick juicy stems, deep green leaves and a small head of florets. Joy Larkcom calls it Chinese broccoli in her essential text Grow Your Own Vegetables and certainly in looks they are closest to the type of broccoli sold as 'tenderstem' by Waitrose and others. Not the same, though. Kailan stems have a distinctly nutty mustardy flavour. It makes other types of broccoli seem bland in comparison.

It's not totally unobtainable in the UK. There's usually a crate of kailans set outside the Loon Fung supermarket in London's Chinatown and the New Loon Moon on the other side of the street. But that's the only reliable source of supply I've found other than growing my own - if you know of a UK supplier, do please share the secret.

Despite being mainly thought of as an oriental vegetable, they grow much like any other brassica here in the UK. I sow the seeds indoors in modules in March, then slowly harden them off as they grow, moving them out of the propagator as they germinate on to a sunny windowsill, then into the patio greenhouse and finally, around four weeks after the shoots appeared, outside.

Once they are about three inches tall and with proper leaves, I transplant the seedlings into a raised bed with lots of good compost. The first stems are ready to cut after about six weeks. If you leave a good bit of stem and leaf on the plant when you cut, the stem will regrow, making kailans a reliable cut-and-come-again crop. Harvested regularly, each plant will keep going until the first frosts.
Kailans growing in a raised bed
Once the stems are in the kitchen, I tend to cook them very simply.The big tough foliage needs to be trimmed off, leaving a good plump stem plus the younger, smaller leaves. A quick wash and a shake to dislodge any clinging insects and then they can be either steamed or boiled briefly - I like to leave a bit of crunch in the stalks. 

The Chinese often drizzle oyster sauce over kailans; in Singapore I ate them dressed with garlic in oil. Either of these are good, as is a quick slug of soy sauce and sesame oil. Yesterday I smeared the stems with an anchovy butter which I'd originally made for the last of the asparagus: the savoury bite from the anchovies went well with the nutty taste of the kailans.

Fat stems: cut above the first four leaves
shown here to ensure the plant will regrow
to provide you with another harvest.

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