Remember when Mario Batali's Otto opened to oh so much fanfare, but the pizza was just so-so? The saving grace was the antipasti -- salumi, Italian cheeses, and small dishes of braised and lightly dressed vegetables -- and the much-praised (and imitated) olive oil gelato. I never had pizza again at Otto, but when I returned for the second time, things had improved. Pastas were now on the menu: For under $10, there was a selection of classics, like spaghetti carbonara, along with seasonally-inspired improvisations.
One pasta I really liked was a simple combination of linguine, cabbage, garlic, and speck (the smoked cousin of prosciutto).
I was thinking about it when I came across some Cavolo Nero for the first time and decided to try making a winter version (I believe the original dish may have been made with napa cabbage). I never cooked with Cavolo Nero (also known as Lacinato Kale, Tuscan Kale, and Black Kale) before, so I searched online for how to properly prepare the winter greens. Many of the recipes I found called for boiling or braising it for as long as 20 minutes and upward. This seems really strange, since the leaves are thin and tender, not tough. When I cooked the kale myself, it took no longer than five to eight minutes before it was cooked, but not falling apart.
I started by taking two bunches of Cavolo Nero, removing the stalks, and slicing the leaves into ribbons. After heating a saute pan over medium-high heat, I added two sliced cloves of garlic and cooked them until lightly browned. To the pan, I added the sliced kale, salt, and pepper. After cooking and tossing for about a minute, I added a cup of water, turned the heat down and covered the pan, essentially steaming the kale, adding water as needed for the next five minutes if the pan became dry. By the way, all of this can be done while the pasta is cooking. When the kale is tender (and the pasta is nearly cooked), add the linguine to the pan and toss with small slivers of speck (La Quercia's "Speck Americano"), adding pasta water if necessary to continue cooking the pasta. Lastly, toss the pasta with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
I loved the kale's texture and slightly sweet flavor. It would make a great side dish alone, torn from the stalks and sauteed with garlic and olive oil (or even better, pancetta!), or tossed with orecchiette and sausage as an alternative to the usual broccoli rabe. Do you have ideas for cooking with Cavolo Nero? If so, leave them in the comments.