For my Tuscan family, cavolo nero, Tuscan Lacinato kale, is not a trendy vegetable. It is not a magical superfood, nor just a healthy, gluten-free, vegan ingredient to make chips with.
Cavolo nero is the most common, everyday ingredient in winter. You find it at the market, its waxy, dark green leaves hoarded in bunches next to other representatives of the Brassica genus. You spot it in every vegetable garden since the end of summer. It’s then harvested through autumn and winter, though it’s at its best after the first frost, which tenderizes the hard fibers of its leaves and makes it sweeter.
On New Olive Oil
Come November, the olive oil mills in Tuscany get busy. People queue up in the noisy rooms, holding heavy boxes crammed with green and black olives from their family farms, shining in the yellow artificial light. They debate about olive oil yield, they talk about the weather of the upcoming weeks (will they be able to finish picking all the olives?) but mostly, they rave about the flavor, the nice heat of the freshly pressed olive oil, and how they are going to enjoy it as soon as they get home.
Many of them, as soon as they get home, will toast some country bread to make fettunta, a simple bruschetta where the toasted bread is rubbed with a peeled clove of garlic and doused with olio nuovo, the new olive oil.
There’s also a dish known simply as le fette, meaning “the slices.” The protagonist is obviously the new olive oil, but there’s also a seasonal supporting actor: cavolo nero. All you need is a thick bunch of the youngest leaves of Tuscan cavolo nero and a capacious pot. Cook the kale leaves in boiling salted water for about an hour—a sign of our love for overcooked vegetables—then toast a few slices of country bread. Rub the bread with a clove of garlic and quickly dip one side of it into the cavolo nero broth. Top the bread with the brothy cavolo nero, then drizzle generously with olio nuovo.
Nothing compares to just days-pressed olio nuovo, straight from the source, but you can search for the next best extra virgin olive oil available to you. Check the olive harvest: Usually olives in Italy are picked in late fall, from October to December, so the freshest olive oil should get to you around the beginning of the new year. Extra virgin olive oil has a short shelf life, so always pick the one from the last harvest. Choose dark bottles, too, as they better preserve the quality of olive oil, which is sensitive to light and heat.
Cavolo nero is also often associated with beans, such as in hearty crostini that are very similar to le fette: Simply add cannellini beans to your cavolo nero and spoon them onto toasted bread, then pour on as much olio nuovo as you like.
When it comes to soups, two of the most traditional Tuscan soups feature cavolo nero and beans as main ingredients.
One is ribollita, the iconic Florentine soup. Cannellini beans and stale bread thicken and enrich a vegetable soup where cavolo nero is the main green, sometimes accompanied by foraged herbs, Swiss chard, or Savoy cabbage. On the first day, the soup is just a filling stew that my grandma calls minestra di fagioli, bean soup, or minestra di pane, bread soup. The day after, the soup is “re-boiled” until thick, hence the name “ri-bollita.” Sometimes the soup is reheated in a cast iron pan until it forms a delicious crust underneath.
The other soup, less known outside Tuscany but equally comforting in winter, is farinata. Cavolo nero is cooked with cannellini or borlotti beans, polenta, and the bean cooking water into a velvety soup which calls for yet more olive oil to be poured on top. If you have leftovers, pour the farinata into a baking dish, smooth the surface, and let it set until the day after. Then you can easily cut the farinata into squares and fry or grill them until crisp.
A New Take
Tuscan cuisine evolves, too. I tend to use cavolo nero in other recipes now, which usually include nuts and involve a shorter cooking time, or even avoid the heat completely.
When I roast a chicken or quickly grill pork chops, I love to make a winter salad to accompany. I remove the fibrous stalks from the cavolo nero leaves and cut the leaves into thin strips. They accumulate into a soft mass of feathery, dark green ribbons.
It is mandatory to dress the salad in advance and thoroughly massage the cavolo nero, so as to make it more tender and digestible. Make a vinaigrette with extra virgin olive oil, salt, freshly ground black pepper, and a dash of aceto balsamico, balsamic vinegar; pour it over the salad and toss it until perfectly seasoned. Finish with a handful of finely chopped walnuts, which provide a nice crunch and a nutty flavor. Just before serving, drizzle with a mild honey.
The combination of cavolo nero and nuts also works magnificently in a winter pesto. Sturdy cavolo nero stands in for summer-y basil leaves, while a handful of almonds is a good replacement for more expensive pine nuts. The result is a dark green, nutty, and slightly bitter pesto that you can toss into a bowl of spaghetti or linguine for a quick weeknight meal. Use it as it is, or top it with toasted almond slivers, crunchy pancetta bits, or crumbled fresh goat cheese.
I also like to use this pesto as a seasonal spread for crostini to drizzle with yet more olio nuovo, a modern take on le fette, and as a dip for raw vegetable sticks.
When you buy cavolo nero, look for crisp, unblemished, dark blue-green leaves. Avoid bunches that are dry, wilted, or browned. Store the leaves loosely wrapped in a paper bag in the fridge for up to a few days and don’t wash it until you plan to cook it.
Cavolo Nero and Almond Pesto
Makes enough for 4 people
- 5 ounces cavolo nero
- 1 clove garlic
- 1/2 cup (2 1/2 ounces) almonds
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil + 2 tablespoons for cooking
- 1 1/3 ounces grated pecorino Romano cheese
- Salt, to taste
Strip the leaves off of the cavolo nero and remove the fibrous stalks. Rinse the leaves under running water and gather them in a large pan with two tablespoons of oil and a whole clove of garlic. It will seem like a lot of cavolo nero, but it tends to shrink. You don’t need to preheat the oil.
Cook the cavolo nero over medium heat, turning it often with a wooden spoon, for about 5 minutes, until it softens. Remove the cavolo nero from the pan and let it cool down.
Transfer the cavolo nero to a food processor, along with the almonds. Blend, adding the olive oil in a thin stream, until you get a smooth and thick, dark green pesto.
Scrape the pesto into a bowl, add the grated pecorino cheese, and season with salt, if necessary. If it is still too thick, add more olive oil.
Use it immediately or keep it in the fridge for a couple of days, covered with a film of olive oil to prevent it from blackening.
If you want to use the cavolo nero pesto to dress pasta, put a few tablespoons of pesto in the bottom of a bowl and dilute it with some pasta water, to emulsify it into a sauce, then toss in the pasta.
Recipe by Giulia Scarpaleggia
Giulia Scarpaleggia is a Tuscan born and bred food writer and food photographer, and author of five cookbooks, including “From the Markets of Tuscany.” Find her online at her blog, JulsKitchen.com