This month, former Sienna chef-proprietor Russell Brown considers the many-monikered cavolo nero
Black cabbage, Tuscan cabbage, black kale or cavolo nero; it is all one and the same. Part of the brassica family, it is used in many traditional Italian dishes. It has, however, been grown commercially in the UK for a number of years now and is increasingly common in our supermarkets and on British menus. Earlier this year, Waitrose reported a 53% increase in kale sales year on year, with sales of cavolo nero having increased fourfold.
A lot has been made of this vegetable's nutritional properties. It is rich in calcium and folate, and has 17 times the vitamin C of carrots, gram for gram. It also contains the antioxidant lutein and has significant amounts of iron.
The cooking methods for cavolo nero are as diverse as the recipes themselves: deep-frying, dehydrating, blanching, braising and using it raw are all common. Dom Chapman at the Beehive in White Waltham is stewing the vegetable in a tomato ragoÁ»t flavoured with garlic to serve with a pork chop and lentils; Aaron Drewett, head chef at the Golden Lion in Port Isaac, braises it with garlic, shallots and white wine, finishing with extra virgin olive oil; and Steven Burgess from Rhubarb & Custard is dehydrating the leaves to blitz into a powder.
Cavolo nero works with many flavours, but some of the most common are garlic, chilli, tomato, olive oil, pancetta, nuts and citrus. It is often served as an accompaniment to richer meats or game, can be used on pizzas, in sauces, gratins and salads. One of the most memorable dishes I have had with cavolo nero was in a sharply dressed salad with burrata and almonds at Sam Harris's Zucca in Bermondsey, which is sadly closing at the end of December.
Buying and storage tips
- Cavolo nero is sold as whole heads or as individual leaves.
- Smaller leaves are more tender.
- Remove the ribs from larger leaves before slicing to cook.
- Avoid leaves that are showing signs of discolouration and wilting
- Keep in a cool place or refrigerator with the ends of the heads wrapped in damp paper.
- It is possible to prep and wash the leaves ready for cooking and store in the fridge.
- Avoid pre-sliced leaves as these are usually sliced with the rib attached.
- The fresher the leaves are, the sweeter they will be, so buy little and often.
- 1 large onion, diced
- 3 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 2 carrots, peeled and diced
- 2 sticks celery, peeled and diced
- 50ml olive oil
- 500ml vegetable stock
- 1x400g tin peeled plum tomatoes, roughly chopped
- 150g cavolo nero, thick stems removed and the leaves finely sliced
- Maldon salt and fresh black pepper
- 250g cooked white beans
- 100g day-old rustic bread, torn into small pieces
- Grated Parmesan
- Extra virgin olive oil
In a large, heavy-based pan, sweat the onion, garlic, carrot and celery in the olive oil until just starting to soften. Add the stock, roughly chopped tomato and cavolo nero. Season well and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Add the beans and cook for a further 10 minutes, then add the bread and turn off the heat.
Leave covered for 30 minutes and re-warm before adjusting the seasoning and serving. The flavours become more harmonious if the dish is cooled, chilled and reheated.
Cavolo nero, pancetta and chestnut risotto
Serves 6 as a starter
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1 small onion, finely diced
- 50ml olive oil
- 100g pancetta lardons
- 200g risotto rice
- 100ml dry white wine
- 1.25l vegetable stock
- 75g peeled and skinned fresh chestnuts, Â½cm dice
- 100g cavolo nero, thick stems removed, blanched until tender and refreshed
- 50g unsalted butter
- 50g finely grated Parmesan
Sweat the garlic and onion in the olive oil until starting to soften, and then add the pancetta lardons and cook until the onion is soft. Add the rice and cook for two to three minutes to toast the grains. The edges of the rice should become translucent. Add the wine and cook until absorbed.
In the meantime, bring the stock to a simmer. Add the hot stock a ladle at a time, stirring to break down the outer layer of the rice to create a creamy, starchy texture. After a couple of additions of stock, add the diced chestnuts.
When the rice is cooked, stir in the cavolo nero and remove from the heat. Dot the butter over the surface and sprinkle on the cheese. Allow to rest for five minutes, then stir in the butter and cheese and reheat gently without the risotto boiling. The rice should still have some bite and be creamy and fluid when cooked.
Homegrown cavolo nero should cost about £1.50 to £1.80 per kilo. It has a shorter season than other brassicas, as it is a temperamental plant that has a tendency to bolt (produce flowering stems and run to seed) and this can happen rather suddenly, so be ready to take it off at short notice or switch to imported supplies, usually from Italy or Spain.
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