The Holy Grail of Kale

I have been a fan of kale – curly kale – especially as a salad green, for a while.  I love its beefy, substantial texture, its chewiness.  Sadly, this kale has proved a hard sell for my family.  No one but me will eat it, so I kind of wrote kale off as a lost cause.

Enter Cavolo Nero, aka Black Kale, Tuscan Kale, or Lacinato Kale.

Let me admit to you, I’m a little late to the cavolo nero party.  I would hear people speak of it, read articles containing mentions of it, but never see it on menus or in the markets near me, thus I never had the chance to taste or cook with it.  Last weekend, though, on my Thanksgiving turkey-ordering  trip to Tendercrop Farm, there was the cavolo nero, partially buried between the chard and the bok choy.  I grabbed a bunch.  Maybe, I reasoned, a different variety of kale would receive a different welcome at the dinner table.

Guess what?  It did!

Cooking cavolo nero requires more steps than cooking delicate spinach or even chard, but the results are worth the extra effort.  You must first strip the leaves and blanch them, then follow this partial cooking with a good long saute.  Wilted into a little bit of submission, the once-sturdy greens will first soften then start to caramelize after their lazy turn in flavor-infused olive oil.  Not many dishes can be described as silkily unctuous and toothsome at the same time; cavolo nero sauteed as I am about to describe to you is both at once.  This vegetable dish is a real treat for your mouth.

I was in Cambridge yesterday and strolled through the farmers’ market stalls set up outside the Charles Hotel on the way back to the car.  My daughter was with me.  After we picked up some oyster mushrooms, fresh pasta, and Bosc pears, we spotted more cavolo nero.  I turned to my daughter.  How about some more of that kale we had last week, I said, one more quick purchase before returning to the parking garage.

Fine by me, said my daughter who, mind you, can be one of the fussiest eaters on the planet.

I’m not much for greens, she added, but that dish you made last week was really good.

She’s absolutely right, it was.

Sautéed Cavolo Nero (Black Kale)

Look for this kale variety under any one of the four names I listed above.  When you finally find the elusive  black kale (as I did, finally), grab it and give this recipe a try.  The saute takes the leaves from darkest green to near black when ready to eat…hence its name.

Use a delicious olive oil; the taste will be prominent.  And unless you cook vegan, don’t leave out the anchovy, even if you think you hate anchovies (e.g. left whole on pizzas or Caesar salads).  In a sauté, the anchovy will dissolve almost instantly to impart a rich salty savoriness to the dish.  No fishiness; only seductive depth of flavor.

  • 1 generous bunch black kale
  • 3 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1/2 onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 1 anchovy fillet
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 Tbsp. water

Wash the cavolo nero and strip the leaves from the stems.  Discard the stems.

Set a large pot of water to boil.  Blanch the leaves in boiling water for 2 to 3 minutes.  Drain.  Immediately submerge the leaves in a bowl filled with cold water and ice to shock and stop the cooking.

Drain again, and leave in the colander.  Slice the onion and garlic.

Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat and add to it the oil, onion, and red pepper flakes.  Sauté for a couple of minutes.

Add the garlic and anchovy to the pan.

Stir these into the onions with a wooden spoon, crushing the anchovy to dissolve.  Season the pan with 1/4 tsp. salt.  Cook until the onions are translucent and soft, and just starting to color.  This will take about 10 minutes.

Stir the drained kale leaves into the pan.  Stir.  Sauté over medium heat for about 30 minutes, maybe a bit longer.  Stir the kale often as it sautés, adjusting the heat as necessary to keep it cooking without charring.  You want the cavolo to slowly turn a deep near-black color, caramelizing slightly as it does.  It will get slightly crisp around the edges of the leaves.

If the pan seems to be too hot and the kale seems to be sticking or cooking too fast, stir in some of the additional water, a teaspoon or 2 at a time, to keep the kale from sticking.  Continue cooking until you have reached your desired tenderness, 40 minutes at the most.

Serve with anything.

©2011  Jane A. Ward