Kale has gotten big. And now it's getting small.
Kalettes, the first new vegetable to reach the U.S. market since broccolini joined produce departments in 1998, are set to debut this fall. The compact clusters of frilly green leaves are a cross between Brussels sprouts and kale, a vegetable whose reputation has soared since scientists a decade ago sought its help in making a maligned brassica more appealing. (George H.W. Bush famously classified Brussels sprouts avoidance as a valuable presidential perk.)
"Brussels sprouts were slumping," recalls Lisa Friedrich, marketing specialist for British vegetable seed breeder Tozer Seeds. She adds that the hybridization was initially designed to lessen the bitterness that bothers Brussels sprout detractors.
Sprouts are now on the upswing, with growers reporting significantly improved sales. The vegetable's newfound popularity is especially pronounced in Charleston: Limehouse Produce's Andrea Limehouse says she's had no luck persuading chefs to pull the cool-weather green off their menus in the summertime. "We literally went from selling 10 boxes a week to 100 boxes."
But Brussels sprouts' rehabilitation, exemplified by California Pizza Kitchen's Brussels sprouts and bacon pizza (c. 2012); and LongHorn Steak House's Brussels sprout au gratin (c. 2013), identified by USA Today as the chain's top-selling side dish; is kid stuff compared to kale's surge. Between 2009 and 2013, kale's menu appearances jumped 400 percent. And kale's reign isn't limited to restaurants: YouTube lists more than 54,000 videos covering how to make kale smoothies at home.
As the unforeseen craze was building, developers were finishing the slow, non-GMO process of vegetable merging. In 2010, the new hybrid made its debut in the U.K. bearing the name "flower sprout."
"With kale being hot, we wanted to emphasize that," Friedrich says of the rebranding. "And they're so petite and cute. You can probably fit two or three in the palm of your hand."
Tozer Seeds awarded growing rights to about a half-dozen producers nationwide, including South Carolina's WP Rawl (Tozer declined to reveal exact numbers, or detail where the farms are located). But the Pelion company's agricultural minds are still trying to figure out whether a vegetable destined to wow trendy eaters can thrive in South Carolina soil.
The recent kale frenzy has favored farmers in South Carolina, where leafy greens flourish from the Piedmont to the coast. The U.S. Department of Agriculture hasn't compiled statistics on individual greens since 2001, but South Carolina was then the nation's second leading producer of collards, turnip greens and kale; the state's 115 million pounds of kale represented 15 percent of total U.S. production.
Kalettes, though, are genetically more similar to Brussels sprouts, which aren't as well suited to South Carolina's climate. Although the U.S. Vegetable Laboratory in Charleston is deeply involved in brassica research, including a major project to develop broccoli tolerant of the East Coast's heat and humidity, South Carolina farmers trying to raise more delicate members of the cabbage family still face significant challenges.
"The thought was if kalettes are the hot new brassica, we should try to get into it," explains WP Rawl crop specialist Ryan Holmes. "But we've been messing with it for a while, and I have my doubts."
Whether WP Rawl has any South Carolina success, the company is fully committed to producing kalettes: The grower is so keen to capitalize on kale's popularity that this spring it released a "ready-to-bake kale chip kit," a 12-ounce bag of precut greens and a chili-lime seasoning packet. WP Rawl is contracting with a California farm to grow its share of kalette seeds.
"We think they can do it better than we can," Holmes says.
As Holmes explains, the kalette plant needs to reach a certain height before it develops nodes, so it's best grown when the days are long. The problem is long days in the Southeast coincide with extremely hot temperatures. In January, WP Rawl experimented with kalettes on a Florida farm, but the plants "just kind of sat there."
"We might still get a crop out of that," says Holmes, a plainspoken Michigander whose kalette skepticism is tempered by his scientific habit of shying away from total certainty.
WP Rawl is planning to roll out kalettes on Nov. 11. "It's not like we're up to our neck in kalettes, but we're very excited," says agricultural operations manager Matt Warren.
Holmes is one of the few Americans who has tasted kalettes. The product is in such short supply that Tozer Seeds is falling behind on developing recipes to share with prospective customers. For now, promotional materials recommend sauteing kalettes with mushrooms and peppers; roasting them with onions or slicing them for a salad with orange segments and pine nuts.
"They're not as dense as Brussels sprouts, but the stem has that flavor," Friedrich says. "They're just more tender. I don't know you would need to go through massaging the leaves."
(Because kale is tough, recipes calling for raw kale typically recommend rubbing the leaves for a few minutes. WP Rawl's organic farm manager, Ben DuBard, jokes that if consumers are already acclimated to tough greens, collards should make a comeback next, perhaps under the alias of "Southern kale.")
Kalettes inherited Brussels sprouts' shape, but they taste more like kale, at least in Holmes' estimation.
"Brussels sprouts I find a little bit overwhelming," Holmes says. "Kalettes are probably friendlier. I would describe their taste as slightly earthy."
According to Tozer's official tasting notes, a kalette offers "a fresh fusion of sweet and nutty." It's also rich in vitamins C and K, same as the vegetables from which it was spawned.
While kalettes will likely remain a specialty crop, no matter where they grow, Friedrich believes they'll appeal to kale fans, Brussels sprouts fans and, possibly, eaters who aren't yet sold on any leafy green.
"We can always hope a new vegetable will get people to eat more vegetables," she says.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.