The cold weather is here in Italy and all those hearty winter veggies are starting to show up at my local market. One of my favorites—for its flavor, health benefits*, and versatility in the kitchen—is the great cavolo nero, also known as black cabbage.
Before coming to Italy I had never even heard of this leafy green vegetable, though I may have unconsciously seen it wedged in with the other dark winter greens. I probably thought it was some unknown kind of cabbage or even kale. In fact, the great black cabbage goes by a slew of other names that echo this easy-to-make mistake, including Tuscan Kale, Tuscan cabbage, Italian kale, and, my favorite, dinosaur kale. The “dinosaur-ness” of the dino kale is not in reference to the plant’s size, which, by the way (overlooking my rather modest sized bunches), can be up to 2 feet long! The dinosaur refers to the leaves’ very particular texture, which is distinctly bubbly and rippled and in fact, rather t.rex-like. Once I learned this, I had a hard time seeing anything other than the skin of a triceratops sitting in my fridge, but I am working on moving past that and the below recipe has really helped.
Harking famously from the Tuscan region (if you didn’t catch that from all the Tuscan business in the names), this member of the cabbage-kale family is a popular ingredient in some of the area’s most quintessential recipes. One of the most recognizable among them is ribollita, a hearty soup made from day old bread, white beans, veggies, and our friend, cavolo nero. The thick leaves won’t disintegrate and so are ideal for a soup whose name technically means “twice boiled.”
Today, we’re going to use the great black-Tuscan-kale-cabbage in a slightly less common way; we’re going to make it into a pesto. The word “pesto” comes from the verb pestare, which means to mash. So really, you can mash anything! While we usually associate traditional pesto with basil (and in fact, if it is called pesto Genovese then it must be made with basil), Cavolo nero is a great substitute. In the cold months when basil can get a bit pricey or a bit less fresh and tasty, grab cavolo nero for a wonderful spin on an old go-to. The Italian kale makes for a heartier version, and while a bit less delicate and sweet, some sautéed cherry tomatoes will take this delicious (and healthy) meal to the next level. Enjoy!
(Serves 2 hungry people and 4 peckish ones)
1lb dried penne
2-4 garlic cloves, peeled (depending on how much you love garlic!)
1.5 – 2 cups of uncooked cavolo nero, leaves (i.e. sanz stems and firmly packed)
1/3 cup of pine nuts (plain or toasted)
½ cup of extra virgin olive oil (with a little extra for the tomatoes)
½ cup of grated Parmesan, plus extra to serve
salt and pepper to taste
First you’ll need to get those leaves off their stems. There are lots of techniques out there (including just yanking them off and risking getting a bit more stem than intended), but I like using a small sharp knife to separate most, if not all the leaf from the stem. It will go faster as you get the hang of it.
Once you have you cavolo nero ready to go, its time to get cooking.
Bring a pot of salted water to the boil and cook the pasta according to the instructions.
In another large pot, with another batch of salted water, throw in the garlic cloves and bring it to a boil.
Once boiling, throw in the cavolo nero leaves and cook for 5–10 minutes, or until tender. Drain the batch and save the garlic.
While your pasta is still cooking and you’re prepping the pesto, halve a handful of cherry tomatoes and throw them in a pan to sauté for 10 minutes. This will get them just a little sweet and softened but not mushy.
Toss your pine nuts in another pan for a few minutes or until desired brownness is reached.
Now, transfer the cavolo leaves, garlic, and pine nuts to a blender or food processor. Top it off with almost all the grated parm.
When the pasta is almost ready (the fresher the pesto the better!) throw the lid on your food processor and begin adding oil slowly and blending the mixture together. Add more oil only if the pesto appears dry.
Once you have it to the desired texture add salt and pepper to taste.(Admittedly, my blender can’t quite hit that super fine blend, but it is just as delicious with a more coarse texture).
Finally, take the drained pasta and toss it with the pesto. Once the pasta is coated (perhaps tossing some of the pasta water in to assist), then add your tomatoes.
Plate, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with grated parm, and serve.