A little Italian for dinner

In another life I may have been Popeye’s daughter.

Not because I have bulging arm muscles but I do have a fondness for spinach.

Usually my fridge is stocked with easy-to-use English spinach so when Perfection Fresh offered me a sample of their Tuscan cabbage, cavolo nero, I was keen as mustard (or should that be spinach?).

A member of the brassica family and a type of kale, Australian-grown cavolo nero (or black leaf kale), is widely available during the cooler months when it's perfect in hearty winter cuisine and its high nutrient content provides a good boost to the immune system -  I’m sure I’ve seen kale on a list of new super foods.

While most other cabbages develop compact heads, cavolo nero leaves resemble lush, strappy tropical foliage (reminds me of a large feather) and can grow up to a metre in the field although they are picked when they reach between 30-50cm. The dark green, almost black leaves which fold in slightly at the edges, are heavily crinkled with a bubbly appearance.

Perfection Fresh says in Tuscany, cavolo nero is grown in almost every back yard and has been at the heart of traditional country or peasant cooking for generations. There it is rarely eaten or served as a side vegetable. Instead, it is usually shredded and added to soups such as minestrone and the classic cannellini and vegie-based ribollita, stirred through risotto or pasta dishes or blanched, stuffed or braised.

This is a no-waste vegie which can be eaten from the base of its stem to the tip of its long, lustrous leaves. With so many leaves in a bunch, cavolo nero goes a long way in the kitchen.

I found the flavour has similar to spinach with a slightly tangy taste and more texture, sort of like silver beet. Its dense texture stands up well to slow-cooking techniques which enhance, and even sweeten, the flavour. The deep green colour stays throughout cooking.

Six ways to eat cavolo nero - Italian style
  • Sauté in butter or olive oil until just tender and serve as a side to meat or on crispy bruschetta.
  • Shred and braise with chopped pancetta and garlic.
  • Chop into a vegetarian soup with mushrooms, stock and polenta.
  • Sauté with olive oil, salt and pepper, lemon juice and plump tomatoes and simmer into a thick pasta sauce.
  • Toss with breadcrumbs, cream and melting cheese into a slow-baked gratin.
  • Blanch, drain and add to a crusty pizza base with onion, garlic and anchovies.
 I ate the cavolo nero surplus to the risotto recipe chopped and thrown in with scrambled eggs and feta for breakfast.  I liked the slight crunch and texture that it gave the dish – nicer than the sometimes slimy effect that you get from English spinach

I made this recipe from Perfection Fresh last night to test out the cavolo nero and I’m pleased to say I nailed it! YAY -  I got the risotto nicely creamy without being gluggy.  I particularly liked the crunch from both the cavolo nero and the walnuts.   My delight was not even spoiled by K2 and V Diddy protesting about the mushrooms – they are both mushroom wimps.

This is how mine looked on the plate

Chicken Risotto with Tuscan Cabbage
Serves: 6
Prep Time: 10 minutes.
Cooking Time: 40 minutes.
    2 cups Tuscan cabbage (cavolo nero), shredded
    1 leek, finely sliced
    2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
    200g mushrooms, sliced
    6 cups chicken stock
    20g butter
    2 tbs olive oil
    600g diced chicken
    400g arborio rice
    1 cup dry white wine
    Black pepper, freshly ground
    60g butter, extra
    3/4 cup grated parmesan
    2 tbs walnuts, chopped

Cooking Instructions

  • Place stock into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Reduce heat, cover and gently simmer.
  • In a separate pan, heat butter and olive oil over medium-high heat.
  • Add chicken and mushrooms and cook for 6 minutes until golden brown.
  • Transfer to a bowl and keep warm.
  • Add leek and garlic to pan reduce heat and cook gently for about 10 minutes without colouring.
  • Add rice and cook over medium heat for 3 minutes, stirring frequently.
  • Stir in wine and cook until nearly all of it has been absorbed.
  • Add 1/2 cup of warm stock. Reduce heat to simmering and continue stirring until all liquid has been absorbed. Continue to add stock 1/2 cup at a time allowing it to be absorbed before adding more. This will take around 20 minutes.
  • Return chicken and mushrooms to pan with Tuscan cabbage (cavolo nero).
  • Season with salt and pepper and cook for a further 5 minutes. Make sure the rice grains are nice and soft, not hard before you finish cooking.  Add more stock or water if you need to extend the cooking time.
  • Remove from heat and add extra butter, parmesan and walnuts. Stir well. Cover with lid and stand for a few minutes.
  • Spoon into bowls and serve.