One of the leafy green vegetables that survive well into winter is Tuscan kale — cavolo nero (“black cabbage”), as it is known on its home turf, which, of course, extends well beyond Tuscany.
In fact, it does better than merely survive: Tuscan kale is said to be all the better for exposure to frost. Once on a vacation in Italy, I was told by a market vendor that she never sold it until after the night-time temperatures dipped below freezing.
I love handling Tuscan kale. Water runs off it as though it were made of rubber, and truth to tell, it often feels like something that will never, ever be eatable. It’s a dark, tough leaf, but it cooks beautifully: Brief cooking will yield a pleasantly chewy result; longer cooking will tenderize it; ultra-long cooking at low temperature — hypercooking, as I’ve come to call it — will give you an intense, concentrated, much-reduced substance that is great in other dishes, such as lasagne or stuffed pastas.
Mostly, I cook it until it is just getting tender but retains a bit of chew. I don’t parboil it the way many people do; I start by sweating sliced garlic and a dried chili in olive oil, often with some guanciale or pancetta (or regular smoked bacon). The washed kale, sliced into ribbons, goes into the pan with whatever water clings to it from its rinse — this is generally the right amount of liquid for the greens to steam-cook in a covered pan but not to be too wet when done.
Jackie and I eat the kale tepid, as a topping for grilled bread, or hot, as a pasta “sauce.” Oddly, we rarely eat it as a vegetable in its own right, which is silly. It is delicious. Perhaps it is too distinctive to share a plate with other foods.
One recent market day, the plan was to chop some previously cooked Tuscan kale (squeezed dry) and mix it with ricotta, slivered sage and grated pecorino (and, if it seemed too damp, some breadcrumbs). This mixture would find its way into ravioli, which I would then serve with a quick sauce using a few surprisingly flavorful late-season tomatoes (a great cool-weather find, don’t you think?).
Except there wasn’t any ricotta at the farmers market. The sheep-cheese guy from whom I’d recently bought ricotta said there would be no more until spring. The ewes were “dry,” as he put it. And watery, guaranteed flavor-free supermarket ricotta is almost never on my shopping list.
So, I changed the plan. How about this: Mix the cooked kale with mashed potato and grated cheese, and use this as a filling for cannelloni made with fresh egg pasta? Potato-based cannelloni baked in either tomato or bechamel sauce make a terrific dinner. I thought I’d make the tomato sauce heartier by starting it with a little garlic, dried chili and some strips of the same guanciale that went into the kale. And, before I knew it, I’d deglazed the pan with white wine and was well on my way to the sauce for pasta all’amatriciana.
To my surprise, I now had a small pan of full-flavored kale and another of full-flavored amatriciana sauce. I put a little of each onto a plate and stirred them together, and all thoughts of making fresh pasta went right out the window. The combination tasted well integrated and was a winner in every respect. It would be a perfect sauce for dried pasta — spicy tomatoes and deeply vegetal kale, both with that slightly high flavor of cured pork. Liberally sprinkled with grated pecorino, it would be pasta all’amatriciana with our recommended dietary allowance of leafy green vegetables.
I’m sure a Roman with any gastro-civic pride would call this a monstrous distortion of a great local dish, but when you’ve got a couple of preparations that can stand up to each other so well and that make such good sense together, all you can do is say “sorry” and dig in.