Yup, it’s that simple folks. Cavolo nero is simply Italian for black cabbage. I know, I know… big whoppy doo. But please; don’t click random node just yet. This stuff is far, far funkier than its humble moniker suggests. In fact, in some odd circles it is even considered – yikes! – trendy. Let me tell you why.
This marvellous and flavoursome leafy vegetable travels under many names. Apart from the Latin binomial classification Brassica oleracea var. acephala, it is also variously labelled lacinata, dinosaur kale, Tuscan kale and black kale. Some of these names may well illustrate to you exactly what kind of vegetable we are talking about. If you see the word cabbage and immediately think of the tightly heading, round cabbage, such as savoy, well then you are a tiny bit off the mark. You see, the Genus Brassica, otherwise known as the humble cabbage family, is in reality a huge and diverse group that extends way beyond the plain old round cabbage. Kale is the word you should focus on here. This sub-group of cabbages also come in a huge array; smooth leaves or frilly, plainly hued or vibrantly colourful in appearance. What most varieties of kale share in common however, is their leafy and separately foliated growth habit.
The closest commonly available vegetable I could use as a comparison is silverbeet (also known as Swiss chard, and rather confusingly, spinach in some parts of Australia). This comparison is purely cosmetic. Both have a dense, pale and crisp central stem running up the leaf. Both have dark, heavily crinkled foliage. But from then on they part company, somewhat wildly.
Silverbeet may have dark green leaves, but cavolo nero sports much darker ones. The name black cabbage is no misnomer; the leaves are deep and dark green, almost black – with a slight blue-purple tinge. While silverbeet has soft and delicate leaves, cavolo nero possesses much firmer, defiantly textured growth. Lastly, in place of silverbeet’s wide and lush leaf growth, cavolo grows in a much more slender fashion, hugging the stem to be only about 10cm at its widest point. Visually, silverbeet is a bouncy old VW beetle, and cavolo nero is a sleek, black Ferrari.
Cavolo nero seems to be available for most of the year, with the height of summer being the only time that real availability problems will be evident. It does come into the fore in winter, with lush, sweet crops signalling it as a definite cool-growing crop. What I can tell you is that we are heading into late spring down here in Sydney, and while cavolo nero is still available and delicious, it is nowhere near as magnificent as the specimens we were getting a few short months ago. If you are reading this in winter, now is the time to go in search. On the other hand, you may want to try your hand at growing cavolo nero at home. I have never done so, but I understand that it is hardy and easy to grow, and better still, adds a beguiling palm-like appearance to your garden.
The Italian name, cavolo nero, and another of its common names, Tuscan kale should leave you in no doubt as to where this stuff hails from. It is simply adored in Italy. It can be used, as with most Italian ingredients, in a massive range of dishes. However, there are a few recipes where its presence is justifiably renowned. The famous Tuscan soup ribollita is so densely flavoured with white beans, vegetables, brodo, wood-fired bread and pancetta that it makes most renditions of minestrone seem positively underwhelming. Cavolo nero is considered an essential ingredient in this wonderful soup. It is also used (and loved) in risotti, pasta, frittata as well as other Italian minestra than the aforementioned ribollita. For me however, the tastiest, simplest and most effect way of using this wonderful ingredient is probably the most common in Italy – effortlessly sautéed in good olive oil, and flavoured with garlic, lemon, chilli and sea salt. Simple food never tasted this good.
I mentioned a little earlier on that cavolo nero has found itself to be a somewhat trendy ingredient of late (outside of Italy anyway). The reason here I reckon, is that the Italians have done such a good job of keeping it a secret from the rest of the world. In Australia, and I suspect in North America and parts of Europe as well, it is pretty well unknown, with only garden markets and specialist greengrocers carrying it. There is a well known restaurant in London called The River Cafe, and about 8 years ago they released a cookbook with the devastatingly imaginative title, The River Cafe Cookbook. In 1996, it took out an award as one of the Glenfiddich books of the year. I personally didn’t think it was much chop, but millions disagreed, and as cavolo nero features heavily in the book, plenty of keen cooks started to get inquisitive about the stuff. I found customers sometimes asking about it, but had never seen it up until a year or so ago. Our vegetable providore then found a local grower and it has been on our menu ever since. Currently it sits aside a tangy, lemony risotto that is topped with smoky char-grilled octopus.
A little earlier this year, our restaurant was on the sweet end of a major newspaper review. I can still vividly remember the day they came in to dine, as The Sydney Morning Herald’s head restaurant critic’s face is well known to anyone in the industry who gives a damn. What got us really nervous however, was the fact that it wasn’t just Matthew Evans dining, but 4 other major food critics at the same table. The possibilities for performance anxiety were plainly apparent. But we knew that we were in with a sporting chance when the waiter came into the kitchen and said; “...Hey, that table of 5 is really, really impressed that you have cavolo nero on the menu. They, umm, wanna know if they can get it cooked as a side dish...”.
See, I told you it was a trendy ingredient.
Here is a recipe for what I see as the easiest and lip-smakingly tastiest way of dealing with cavolo nero. It is a firmly traditional Italian recipe, so you know you can’t go too far wrong. If you are having trouble finding cavolo nero, pester your greengrocer to search harder at the markets, or try another greengrocer entirely. An Italian family run business would be an ideal place to start searching. If all this falls however, then a good (though not entirely similar) substitute would be the leafy green vegetable Italians call cime di rapa – or turnip greens.
Cavolo nero sautéed with garlic, lemon and chilli
Remove the stems from the cavolo nero by pulling the leaves up along its length. The leaves should tear away quite easily from the stems, which you can discard. Wash the leaves well and drain. Rip the cavolo nero into pieces roughly twice the size of playing cards.
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Plunge the cavolo nero in and cook for 2 minutes (in this instance, this means 120 seconds). Drain, and plunge the leaves into cold water to stop them cooking.
Place a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the oil, garlic and chilli and cook until just golden. Add the drained cavolo nero, and turn up the heat to high. Cook quickly, stirring all the time until the leaves are soft and coated with all the flavourings. This is sautéing, so the whole process should take just a couple of minutes – no more. Season with salt and pepper, and splash in half the lemon juice. Stir well to combine.
Tip the cavolo nero onto a warmed serving platter, then pour over a generous lug of the finest extra virgin olive oil you can afford. Don’t skimp here, as this one simple touch really makes this humble dish shine. Splash over the remaining lemon juice and add a final grind of pepper. Serve hot, as a side dish that will sate 6 people along with other dishes.
¹ A bunch of cavolo nero is quite a variable beast. What you are looking for is roughly 1 metric litre (4 cups) of loosely packed leaves. No need to get too precise here, this is very much a “little more, little less” scenario.