Cavolo nero: The humble leaf is the perfect ingredient for slow-cooked winter dishes

The first frosts are good news for lovers of super-foods such as cavolo nero, or 'Tuscan kale'
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Indy Lifestyle Online

One of the nicest things about this time of year is that some delicious, vitamin-packed green vegetables come in to their own after the first frost of the autumn: kale, chard, cima di rappe, and brassicas, such as the cabbage cavolo nero.

Known also as black cabbage, cavolo nero hails from Tuscany, where it is found in almost every vegetable garden. Unlike cabbage, though, cavolo nero does not form a head, but is made up instead of long, loose leaves of the deepest green, almost black, which are fibrous when ready to eat. It also has a tough, coarse central stalk, which is best discarded.

The leaves should be cooked in plenty of well-salted boiling water for a decent amount of time – five to six minutes at least – and drained and dressed while warm. The grassy, peppery oils from Tuscany are its natural partner, along with garlic and anchovies. Delicious in soups or tossed through pasta, it is also lovely with slow-cooked winter dishes.

We grow it in the vegetable garden at Petersham year after year with great success. Although it may appear ready as early as the end of September, it is important to wait for the first frost of the autumn before picking. When the leaves have experienced a really cold snap, they wrinkle and curl and strengthen greatly, creating a more satisfying, textural and chewy leaf. Nutritionists would label it a super-food, rich in iron and vitamins – for me that is a plus, but not the reason I am so drawn to it. I love it because it tastes so satisfying and unique.

Many people's attention was first drawn to cavolo nero by the River Café's Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, whose cookbooks have done so much to introduce us to new and delicious ingredients. Cavolo nero is available in speciality shops and good greengrocers – and these days, if you're lucky, in supermarkets too.

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627. Her book 'A Year in My Kitchen' (Quadrille) is the 2007 Guild of Food Writers' Cookery Book of the Year

Slow-cooked beef with pancetta and cavolo nero

Cooked gently, this hearty dish becomes soft enough to eat with a spoon.

Serves 4

6tbspn extra-virgin olive oil
1kg/2lb boneless rib of beef, cut in to chunks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Spanish onions, peeled and sliced
3 sticks of celery, cut in to fine slices
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
4 slices of pancetta, cut in to cubes
4 cloves of garlic, peeled but left whole
3 bay leaves, preferably fresh
4 sprigs of rosemary
4 tomatoes, roughly chopped, seeds removed
A bottle of Barolo or similar hearty red wine

For the cavolo nero

1 bunch of cavolo nero, washed
80g/3oz Parmesan, freshly grated
3tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped

Heat the olive oil in a large casserole dish. Season generously. Brown the meat in batches. As each batch becomes golden brown, remove and keep warm as you brown the rest. Don't overcowd the dish. Pour the excess oil out and add the onions, celery, carrot and pancetta and cook over a low heat until the vegetables are light-brown and soft. Add the garlic, bay leaves, rosemary, tomatoes and wine and bring to the boil.

Return the meat to the dish and turn the heat to very low. Place a lid on and cook for 21/2 hours. Transfer the meat to a serving dish, turn up the heat to high and reduce the sauce by a third and season. To prepare the cavolo, blanch for five minutes, and add the olive oil, Parmesan and garlic while still warm. Toss through and serve with the slow-cooked beef. '

Cavolo nero with farro and grilled lamb

Farro is a grain, like rice, that absorbs flavour right to its core. This combination of cavolo nero and farro works well with so many things, including roasted pigeon, guinea fowl and slow-cooked pork.

Serves 4

300g/10oz farro
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
100ml/31/2fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
100g/31/2oz Parmesan cheese, grated
1tbsp red-wine vinegar
1 boned leg of English lamb

For the cavolo nero

1kg/2lb cavolo nero
1 tin anchovies
2 cloves garlic
50g/2oz unsalted butter
100ml/31/2fl oz extra-virgin olive oil

Start by rinsing the farro well in cold running water until the water runs clear, just as you would with rice. Place in a heavy-based pan, and cover with cold water, season with a good pinch of salt, bring to the boil, then turn down and simmer until the farro is nutty and tender, this will take from 20-25 minutes. Keep tasting until it seems right. Drain and dress while warm with half the olive oil, the Parmesan, vinegar and a little salt and pepper.

For the cavolo, strip the leaves from the core, place a large pot of salted water on to boil and, when it is boiling, add the cavolo and cook for three minutes. Drain and dress while hot with the rest of the olive oil.

Now take half of the cavolo and place it in a food processor with the anchovies, butter, garlic and black pepper. Purée until smooth. Taste and add a little salt as necessary – the anchovies will add a delicious saltiness so it may need nothing at all. Remove from the food processor and toss with the whole cavolo leaves and the farro. Place in a pan to warm through while you cook the lamb.

Trim the lamb of most of its fat and, using a sharp knife, cut into eight pieces. Season well with sea salt and black pepper. Turn on the grill and, when it is hot, cook the meat without turing for four minutes. Turn, and cook on the other side for a further three minutes. Leave to rest for 10 minutes in a warm place.

Heat through the cavolo and farro until piping hot. Cut the meat into generous- sized slices, and serve on top.

Borlotti with cavolo nero, grilled monkfish and aioli

Serves 4

Allow 200g/7oz monkfish per person

For the aioli

3 organic, free-range egg yolks
Juice of one lemon
250ml/8fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the borlotti

200g/7oz dried borlotti beans, soaked overnight and drained
A head of garlic
A few parsley stalks
1 dried chilli
1 carrot, roughly chopped
A few sprigs of sage
2-3 celery stalks
12 small San Marzano tomatoes
100ml/31/2fl oz extra-virgin olive oil

For the cavolo nero

1kg/2lb stalkless cavolo nero, washed
2 cloves of garlic
100ml/31/2 fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

To make the aioli, whisk the egg yolks in a bowl with a pinch of salt, add the lemon juice and whisk until smooth. Continue to whisk while adding the oil slowly, drop by drop to begin with. Once the mixture begins to thicken, add the remaining oil in a slow, steady stream. When all the oil has been added, add the crushed garlic, season and set aside.

For the borlotti beans, heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. Drain the beans from the soaking water, place them in a baking tray and cover with water. Add the garlic, parsley, chilli, carrot, sage, celery and tomatoes. Pour over the olive oil and cover tightly with foil. Place in the oven and cook until the beans are soft – about an hour.

To cook the cavolo nero, bring a saucepan of well-salted water to the boil, add the leaves and cook for 5-6 minutes. Drain and dress with the garlic, olive oil and salt and pepper while still hot.

Set the grill to high. Cut the monkfish in to portions, brush with oil and season. Grill for four minutes on one side and turn and grill for a further three minutes.

Warm the borlotti and cavolo nero in a pan. Spoon into bowls, arrange the fish on top and finish with the aioli.

The Forager by Wendy Fogarty

Petersham's food sourcer on the best places to find cavolo nero...

Sunnyfields Farm, Hampshire, www.sunnyfields.co.uk

Ian and Louise Nelson were the first to grow cavolo nero in the UK, at the request of the River Café's Rose Gray. They continue to sell their home-grown kale through their farm shop and website and at farmers' markets in the south-west and London.

Home Grown Direct (Home Counties & London), www.homegrowndirect.com

Sells cavolo nero, and red and green kale in vegetable boxes which can be ordered online and delivered to your door.

Flights Orchard Organics, Herefordshire, www.flightsorchardorganics.com

Delivers organic vegetables from its own farm as well as its growers' group, including cavolo nero from Merrivale Farm in Kings Thorne.

Cavolo nero seeds are available from:

The Real Seed Catalogue, www.real seeds.co.uk Seeds including the Nero di Toscana, an early strain and non-heading traditional kale from Tuscany, also known as palm kale or black Tuscan kale.

Seeds of Italy, www.seedsofitaly.com

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