Kale might be all the rage these days – think kale shots, kale chips, kale juice – but this green leafy vegetable is much more than a quirky culinary fad.
Indeed, this wholesome green has been cultivated for around 4,000 years, spreading over time to many populations all around the world.
Kale is variety of leaf cabbage, the cultivars of which hail from Asia Minor and east Mediterranean.
After a number of centuries, the “Brassica Oleracea” then travelled to Greece before being introduced to the Romans. By the 14th century, kale had reached western Europe. Russian merchants took the plant to Canada and the US in the 1800s, where it spent well over a century being treated as an ornamental plant before finally being appreciated for much more than just its looks!
Having first reached Italian shores in the 1700s, the locals wasted no time in making it a staple ingredient in many dishes that are still popular to this day.
Known as “cavolo nero” in Italian, it is commonly called Tuscan kale in English but also goes by the name of Tuscan cabbage, flat-back cabbage, lacinato, black Tuscan palm, palm tree kale and – delightfully – dinosaur kale.
Today, Tuscan kale features in many Tuscan dishes, both traditional and more modern. It is readily found at local fresh food markets and supermarkets to then be transformed into a range of delicious dishes, present at the table from start to finish.
Whilst this beloved ingredient is featured in traditional recipes from various regions throughout Italy, it is in Tuscany where it truly comes to the fore (as can be garnered by the common name used for this leafy legend).
One traditional starter recipe made often in our cooking classes in Tuscany is “Crostone al cavolo nero” – being roasted bread topped with Tuscan kale and Italian sausage. This tasty ‘antipasto’ is made by removing the tough parts of the kale. Then, sauté chopped onion and pieces of the sausage in a large pan with some extra-virgin olive oil until the onion has softened. Toss in the chopped cavolo nero leaves, add a splash of white wine and allow the leaves to wither. Once reduced, add in a dash of vegetable stock to stop the leaves from frying. This mixture is then spooned over slices of bread that have been warmed in the oven and topped with some grated parmesan or pecorino (sheep) cheese. Placing the crostone back in the oven allows the cheese to melt and renders these great kale starter dishes even more delightful. (Note, this recipe can also be adapted for vegetarians/vegans by simply making it without the sausage.)
Tuscan kale is also a key ingredient in several much-loved Tuscan first course dishes.
Top of the list is Ribollita, the famous soup made with day-old bread and vegetables. It is said that the origins of this dish date back to medieval times when servants would toss all the food leftover on the diners’ trenchers into a big pot, creating the original ‘pot luck’ recipe! The trenchers themselves were originally made of flat loaves of bread, onto which food would be served. The juices would soak into the bread, which the diner could eat up, however it was also common practice to offer one’s trench to the poor.
The recipe has been refined throughout the ages to the Ribollita we know and love today. As Tuscan bread – “Pane Toscano” – does not contain salt, it doesn’t attract moisture (and thus, never goes mouldy) and is great for adding to dishes such as Ribollita as the perfect way to use up any leftover, stale bread and whatever vegetables are on hand/in season. The name of this dish with peasant origins roughly translates to “re-boiled”, owing to the fact that Ribollita is made by first making vegetable minestrone, before adding the bread and reheating it the next day to make this beloved Tuscan soup. Aside from Tuscan kale, the main ingredients of Ribollita are cannellini beans, onion, carrot, celery, cabbage, tomato and a range of herbs and spices.
Cavolo nero is also a key ingredient in Acquacotta – the Tuscan version of Stone Soup. Hailing from the Maremma area in the south of Tuscany, this soup similarly transforms stale bread into a delicacy. Its origins are likely to have come from the Butteri (Italian shepherds/cowboys) who would make the soup using up anything they could procure whilst out herding.
With its name meaning “cooked water”, the dish as we know it today contains a range of vegetables (including kale). Once cooked, raw egg is often drizzled into the pot to leave strands of golden goodness throughout.
“Farinata di cavolo nero” is yet another Tuscan delight with kale, also made from reviving day-old minestrone. This time, either cornmeal or polenta is mixed into the minestrone, resulting in a thicker potage that is hearty and warming during the colder months.
It is no coincidence that these Tuscan dishes featuring kale all hail from peasant kitchens. This hardy nutrition-packed annual plant is relatively cheap and easy to produce. Grown from seed, it survives in a variety of climates, even being winter-proof to temps as low as minus 15° Celsius, growing outdoors when not much else survives. Indeed, harsh colds can actually end up sweeting the flavour of the cavolo nero. What’s more, all kale varieties are rich in vitamins and minerals, maintaining high levels of vitamins A, C and K plus magnesium even after cooking. Not only that but growing kale can also be good for desalination of the soil.
Today, there are also delicious risotto and ravioli dishes with cavolo nero found on menus throughout Italy, having developed in more modern times.
Tuscan kale is likewise featured in Italian second courses, often with potatoes and either Italian sausage (‘salsiccia’) or cuttlefish. Another delightful Italian recipe with Tuscan kale is chicken stuffed with cavolo nero.
A couple of modern chefs have even recently offered up gelato with cavolo nero, although we’re not too sure what the old-time Butteri might make of that!