The strawberries and citrus fruit that Joe Bartenfelder is unloading at the Waverly farmers' market this bitter cold Saturday morning come from far away. But his deep-green, tightly curled kale is from right here in Maryland.

"It's still our kale," said Bartenfelder, who operates farms in Fullerton, in Baltimore County, and Preston, on the Eastern Shore, where this batch of kale was grown. "Which is unusual, since it is February."

Even for kale, a cold-weather crop for which Maryland's climate is perfect, harvests past Thanksgiving Day are noteworthy. But this mild winter has meant that Marylanders will be able to buy fresh fall kale at farmers' markets almost until the spring crop emerges.

That's good news for the home cooks, gourmets and restaurateurs who, after embracing spinach and Swiss chard, have come to appreciate kale for the sturdy green texture it adds to cooking and its nutritional abundance.

"I grew up eating greens," said Joretha Burrell of Baltimore, as Bartenfelder stuffed the hearty vegetable into a plastic bag. Four pounds for $3. "Now I put it in front of my kids."

For Burrell and other home cooks who grew up on kale but may be newly aware of its nutritious reputation, it is more than just a sentimental food. "I feel like [my children] are getting the vitamins they need," she said. "And it helps with the digestion if you are lactose-intolerant."

Kale comes from the cabbage family, but it has just as much in common with greens like mustard, collard and turnip.

It is Southern food. In this case, Southern Maryland, where wives and mothers for years have cooked it with smoked ham and some onion and potatoes, or stuffed it in a corned ham for holidays.

"Stuffed ham is mostly a St. Mary's County dish," said Mary Raley of Raley's Town and Country Market, whose stuffed-ham recipe has been filmed by the Food Network. "We make it for Thanksgiving and Christmas and by special order. I can't begin to describe the flavor for you."

But cooks have come up with many other uses for kale. Ned Atwater of Atwater's Ploughboy Soups in Belvedere Square cuts it up for everything from chili to stew to Hopping John.

"I love it," Atwater said. "I think if we all ate a little bit every day, we wouldn't need any other vitamins."

Deep green, blue or purple, flat or tightly curled, kale long has been used as a garnish in salad bars or deli cases because of its durability. But it probably has more nutritional value than anything around it.

A half-cup of cooked kale has only about 20 calories, but it provides a full day's supply of vitamins A and C and as much calcium as a half-cup of milk. And there is evidence the body absorbs the calcium from kale more easily than it does from milk.

It also has phytochemicals, which protect plants from disease and may decrease the risk of certain cancers in humans. And the recent snow actually improved its flavor.

"It doesn't mind the cold or the snow," said Bartenfelder. "Everyone wants the frost to hit it. That actually makes the kale sweeter. People are talking about how good it is tasting."

Dave Myers, extension agent for Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties, said, "There is nothing better than the taste of fresh-cut kale." While some localities embrace it more than others, Myers said, "There is more acceptance of the leafy greens everywhere. We're not just eating iceberg lettuce anymore."

Indeed, Gourmet magazine included a recipe for kale, sausage, cheese and pasta in a recent issue, and Fine Cooking magazine also offered a gratin recipe with kale to tempt the pickiest eater.

"There is only one secret to cooking kale," said Susie Middleton, editor of Fine Cooking, "and that is you have to cook it for 10 to 12 minutes. It isn't going to wilt quickly like spinach. You have to simmer it or braise it."

But you don't have to doll up kale with cream, bread crumbs and cheese. "I simmer it gently in some chicken stock with a few cloves of crushed garlic and some red-pepper flakes," Middleton said.