Kale is annoying. Not only as a cultural concept, but preparing it can be tedious: Washing it, cutting out the stems, cooking it with enough spices — but not too many spices. Those in the food business have wondered if kale could be hybridized with something to simplify the preparation process and add another element of flavor. Enter the Brussels sprout.
Brussels sprouts are already a big business, but the sprouts’ bold flavor can be a bit too much for some people to handle. Crossed together, they are known as “Brussels kale,” “lollipop kale” or “Kalettes,” a product in the United Kingdom for the past couple years that is now making its way to a plate near you. Starting in California and now stocked at many grocery stores across the country, this is the newest vegetable since the broccolini, a hybrid of broccoli and kai-lan, showed up on the scene 16 years ago.
The Kalette looks like a miniature Brussels sprout with wings. It is slightly smaller in size than the standard sprout, yet more leafy, like kale. While the center is a lighter green, the outer leaves and kale-wings are a deep emerald green with a purple tint. One or two can fit in the palm of the hand and the texture is rough like kale.
“They’ve got a great sweet flavor,” says Rocky Maselli, executive chef at A16, a southern Italian restaurant with locations in San Francisco and Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood. Maselli cooks the Kalettes in a wood-burning oven which “does magic,” he says. In the oven, the edges of the small, odd-looking vegetable become caramelized and crunchy. He first served them in the restaurant a year before last fall. Maselli pairs the vegetable with fish and sells it when it’s in season during the fall and winter.
Galen Vasquez, chef de cuisine at Sons & Daughters in San Francisco, used lollipop kale last year for what he describes as a “more obscure and interesting, slightly sweet taste.” Like Maselli, Vasquez also serves it in the fall months, with meat, and in the winter he occasionally pairs it with almonds. He likes it for its versatility. “You can use it like kale or you can use it like Brussels sprouts,” he says.
Kale first became popular for its nutrients and for being easy to grow during World War II in the United Kingdom’s “Dig for Victory” campaign. These days, kale is downright trendy. You can see the “Kale Yeah!” slogan for Naked Juice on Bay Area billboards, and people have tried to establish a National Kale Day. Over the past five years, the use of kale as an item on restaurant menus has increased over 400 percent, according to the food consulting group Technomic.
Using kale as a bridge or gateway to explore other vegetables, Tozer Seeds in the U.K. began the research and development process for new hybrids nearly 20 years ago. In 1995, Jamie Claxton, director of plant breeding for the largest family-owned vegetable breeding company in England, began mixing brassica lines. (Kale and Brussels sprouts are both part of the brassica family, along with cabbage and broccoli.) Using a traditional process of cross pollination to create a hybrid, un-genetically-modified seed, the company interbred the two plants, hoping to end up with seeds that contained qualities of both kale and Brussels sprouts. Claxton also experimented with different kale strains to make a more attractive hybrid.
Tozer Seeds’ hybrid is now available to grow in the United States. Over a year ago, five California companies began their first Kalette harvest. Gina Nucci, director of healthy culinary innovation at family-run Mann Packing Co., in Salinas, California, found out about the Kalette when Tozer Seeds won third place in 2013 for the “Innovation Award” at Fruit Logistica, a convention showcasing new food initiatives in Berlin. A new product may seem risky, but Nucci is no stranger to launching innovative vegetables. Sixteen years ago she helped bring the broccolini, also known as “baby broccoli” or “Chinese broccoli,” to tables and grocery shelves. The Kalette appealed to Nucci because of its tender leaves. “It’s taken the positives of both of the vegetables,” Nucci says.
Mann Packing is a family business celebrating its 75th year. “I was born into it,” Nucci says of her early beginnings in agriculture. After her father passed away in 2005, she and her sisters took over as co-owners, along with another family. Today, the Nucci and Ramsey families lead the business. This is the first year Nucci and other California growers are cultivating the Kalette. “It’s really just trialing,” she says, explaining that this phase will include watching the plant grow and experimenting with how the seeds are planted in the soil. Nucci believes that it will take a couple of years for Mann Packing to figure out the best way to grow Kalettes.
4Earth Farms, based in Los Angeles, is both a producer and distributor of Kalettes and is one of the largest cultivators of Brussels sprouts in North America. Planting over 100 acres of Kalettes, Mark Munger, vice president of marketing for 4Earth Farms, is enthusiastic about the Kalette. “We decided to go big and get behind it,” Munger says.
Munger enjoys them grilled, alongside a steak, although, he adds, “I actually eat them raw. I think they taste fantastic.” Nucci likes them fried, but she says they are good sautéed or braised.
One of the downsides of the Kalette is that it takes a long time to grow. It can take upwards of six months depending on the climate, while kale itself usually takes around two months and Brussels sprouts take three or more months. This has been a challenge for those cultivating the product for the first time, but Munger believes farmers will find ways to speed up the process. “Just like it takes patience to get the crop to come in,” Munger says, “if you take care of a plant, it just keeps producing.”
Another potential challenge to the popularity of the vegetable may be its unfamiliarity among eaters. “Most new produce items have had the best introduction to consumers through restaurants,” Munger says. He believes trying to distribute to supermarkets without educating shoppers about it first would be useless because consumers would not know how to cook it. So Munger is working with supermarkets to place people as “shelf talkers” — people who would be hired to stand in front of the grocery shelf, give samples and chat with people about how to cook the Kalette. “It’s simply not going to sell itself,” he adds.
For now, interested shoppers can find them in some Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods stores, where they are alternately marketed as “kale sprouts.”
A16 Rockridge in Oakland served up lollipop kale this winter and it is still on the menu for a limited time, paired with McFarland Springs trout, riso nero (black rice) and Meyer lemon. Maselli plans to continue serving the newest vegetable in town on a seasonal basis.