Cavolo nero – also known as black kale, black cabbage or dinosaur kale – is the swarthy Italian cousin of curly kale. In some circles, it’s considered a classier leafy green, too, and not just because of its long tradition in Italian cuisine.
Originally hailing from Tuscany, cavalo nero’s inky leaves feature distinctive wrinkles caused by a drop in temperature towards the end of the growing season. This not only imparts a gentle sweetness to the final flavour of the leaves, the wrinkles are also perfect pockets to cradle butter, sauces and flavourful jus.
Cavolo nero is robust enough to hold its shape when cooked, unlike other brassicas (such as some varieties of cabbage) that collapse into a sulphurous mush when exposed to heat. And with their distinctive iron-y tang (you can almost taste it doing your body good), cavalo nero’s a handsome and delicious addition to any dinner plate. Little wonder it’s much adored by chefs.
So how to prepare and cook this star of the leafy green firmament? Look for long and slender dark green leaves that are still perky, not limp, with a thin white vein running down the centre. With larger leaves you can cut away any thick and fibrous bits of stalk, although many chefs don’t bother. Just give them a quick rinse and trim.
Very finely sliced (roll the leaves up and cut them cross-wise), cavalo nero is delicious eaten raw in salads. Combine with more tender leaves for contrast, and anoint with good olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice, salt and a pinch of chilli flakes if you fancy. Or, similarly sliced, pop the leaves in a blender with fresh fruit, a splash of olive oil and ice for the ultimate Temple Food: a green smoothie.
In fact, finely sliced cavolo nero is an excellent way to boost your vegetable intake. Simply add a handful to whatever you have going on in the pan. Stews and tagines love cavalo nero, as do soups and stir fries. No single food performs miracles, of course, but cavalo nero tries its best. Bursting with antioxidants, vitamins A, C and K, as well as fibre, calcium, manganese and iron, it’s one of the healthiest foods on the planet.
Although kale is the hero of the wellness set, cavalo nero deserves a place in more decadent meals, too. Pair with other robust-tasting ingredients, such as venison and gamebirds, along with a cloud of creamy mashed celeriac and a puddle of red wine gravy. Simply chop the cavalo nero into large bite-sized pieces, blanch for a couple of minutes in boiling salted water, then drain well and finish off in a pan of melted butter infused with garlic.
Versatility is one of cavalo nero’s most endearing features. Add to a tray of roasted vegetables – squash or pumpkin is lovely – toward the end of cooking and serve with fish or chicken. Or blanch in salted boiling water, drain and stir fry with bacon or chorizo, mushrooms and garlic and serve with a fried egg on top.
Crisping up the edges of cavalo nero in a hot pan or oven intensifies its glorious flavour. Tear the leaves into bite-sized pieces, spread out in a single layer in a roasting tray and massage in some olive oil. Roast at 160C for 10 – 20 minutes, shaking the tray hallway through, until the leaves are crisp (but watch them like a hawk so they don’t burn). Enjoy the crisps sprinkled with salt and a glass of something cold.
Cavalo nero also makes delicious ‘crispy seaweed’, the kind popular in Chinese restaurants and normally made with very finely sliced cavalo nero leaves. Very finely slice spring greens and fry in lots of hot vegetable oil until crisp and shrivelled – do this in batches so they don’t steam. Remove to kitchen paper and then toss with a little soy sauce, salt and sugar to taste.
Cavalo nero pairs well with game birds, venison, chorizo, bacon, lemon juice, chilli
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