Dinosaur kale. Lacinato kale. Tuscan kale. Black Tuscan palm tree kale. Tuscany palm tree cabbage. Even the farmers get confused. Whatever the alias cavolo nero goes by in America, the "black cabbage" of Italy is a gem.
A traditional favorite in Tuscany's ribollita, the hearty bean and bread soup, cavolo nero is our ruffled kale's sister and a cousin to cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli. Its imaginative names come from the plant's depth of color when cooked and its resemblance to a small palm tree, the leaves growing off a central stalk.
But at the risk of having the food co-op revoke my membership, I have a confession to make: I haven't always been a fan of kale. Yes, it's loaded with vitamins and minerals, but I too often felt I was chewing kelp, not kale.
All that's changed now. I first came across the dusky blue-green variety two years ago on an autumn stroll through the Santa Monica Farmers Market with American expatriate and cookbook author Faith Willinger ("Red, White & Greens," "Eating in Italy"). Market regular and Italophile Paul Schrade proudly approached us with a bunch of cavolo nero grown from seeds he'd brought to local farmers from Italy two years before. Willinger was amazed to find the green here, and I was on to a new culinary experience.
Chefs and savvy travelers have long revered the bumpy, palm-shaped leaves for their deep flavor and color. Now, cavolo nero, a winter vegetable in Tuscany, is grown here year-round. Commercial grower Lucio Gomiero sells it to supermarkets under the Royal Rose brand. And Thogmartin Farm and Coleman Farms supply the mineral-rich green at farmers markets for Los Angeles chefs, foodies and consumers like me looking for a hit of calcium.
David Wynns of Les Deux Cafes finds cavolo nero's earthy sweetness and lingering texture seasonless and serves a dish of hand-cut noodles, braised kale, duck confit and sweet garlic. Evan Kleiman prepares ribollita in winter at Angeli Caffe and Tuscan kale and heirloom tomato salad in summer and fall. Mark Peel cooks the rich green often at Campanile, ribboned through white beans or mounded next to baby lamb or grilled veal liver.
That's just dandy, but what am I going to do with cavolo nero when I get it home? I'm all out of duck confit.
Willinger created an easy and versatile recipe for Tuscan pesto that made me a kale convert. It's a simpler mix than the Genoese version we're used to, without nuts or cheese. As she suggests, I serve the jewel-toned garlicky spread with grilled toasts as a rustic appetizer, stir a spoonful into soups or thin it with a little water as a delicious pasta sauce.
Willinger, who's lived in Italy for 25 years, claims this pesto won her the culinary respect of Italian cooking legend Marcella Hazan. She had invited Hazan to her Florence apartment, hoping to impress her with her knowledge of Italian food. Hazan looked skeptically at the bowl of pesto, as if to say "borrring." But with one taste, she understood that Willinger had taken a signature Tuscan ingredient and fashioned it into something at once traditional and new.
If it's good enough for Marcella, it's good enough for me.
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Tuscan Kale Pesto
Adapted from "Red, White & Greens," by Faith Willinger (HarperCollins)
1 pound Tuscan kale or regular kale, or 1/2 head cabbage
4-5 quarts water
2-3 tablespoons kosher or coarse sea salt
2 cloves garlic
1/4-1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
Wash kale and remove tough central ribs. If using cabbage, core it.
Boil water, then add kale and kosher or coarse sea salt. Cook kale until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Kale takes much longer than cabbage to cook. Remove kale with slotted spoon and refresh in cold water. Drain and squeeze to remove excess moisture.
Puree kale, garlic, olive oil and salt in food processor to form smooth, stiff paste. Refrigerate pesto in glass jar or bowl as long as several days. Serve as spread with grilled toasts or use as condiment in vegetable soups. Pesto may also be used as pasta sauce by diluting it with water from cooked pasta.
Food stylist: Christine Anthony-Masterson