We’re often told that once a brassica bolts, that signals the end of its life. But to me, those first few kale buds (also known as kale raab) are the start of a new life—in the form of edible flowers that are surprisingly tender and sweet (especially if you’ve had a very cold season, which brings out their sweetness more).
Raab (derived from rapa, Italian for turnip) is just another word for the flowering tops of plants from the brassica family, such as kale, broccoli, mustard greens, and Chinese cabbage.
You might be more familiar with broccoli raab, which is often sold in supermarkets as bundles of stems with tight clusters of buds, some with tiny yellow blossoms. Gailan (also called Chinese broccoli) is enjoyed for these little buds as well.
Being a cold-hardy biennial, kale (and other brassicas) survives winters in most climates. It spends its first season developing a strong root system and healthy head of leaves.
From early spring to early summer as the weather warms, kale flower buds appear after the plant has completed its life cycle. Before it sets seed, it sends up a flower stalk and the buds can (and should) be harvested for one final hurrah before the plant expires. You can even pinch the buds back to encourage more flower heads to form in the last couple weeks.
I use both the buds and the flowers, which need no more than a simple dressing to bring out their flavor: some olive oil and garlic, sauteed with a squeeze of lemon. Toss the kale raab with a warm brown rice salad and a handful of wilted greens, add it to a stir-fry, or serve it as a side dish.
I used to sigh when I looked out my window at the end of the season and faced a bed of flowering kale, but now all I see is a delicious new crop! Harvesting kale buds is a great way to get more out of your garden by doing less (after all, it means growing more food without planting more plants) so don’t be afraid to try it next time.