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April 12, 2007

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Elizabeth

Adam: During one of a series of discussions in the Italian regional forum at eGullet.org, you observed that non-Italians rarely cook cavolo nero long enough. Therefore, I thought you might find a salad recipe in today's New York Times amusing. To quote the caption beneath a photograph illustrating Melissa Clark's article: "Tuscan kale does not have to be cooked to be edible." http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/24/dining/24appe.html?_r=1&ref=dining&oref=slogin

Adam Balic

Elizabeth: I imagine that a lot of it will come down to personal taste and also the raw materials that are used. In Tuscany the cavolo nero is a winter crop and the leaves are very mature - eating them raw would provide a similar textual sensation as chewing on aluminium foil. If you harvested young leaves, maybe they would be tender. In terms of flavour, a real depth of flavour comes after extended cooking, Giorgio Locatelli in his excellent "Made in Italy" says - "..don't listen to anyone who suggests just blanching cavolo nero briefly, because such short cooking doesn't bring out the full flavour or soften the bitterness.". He suggests 40 minutes of cooking.

It is a bit like cooking quinces, if you cook halves for 20-30 minutes they will be soft and edible, but it is only after hours of cooking that you get the development very rich flavor, aroma and colour. There are some great Indian recipes for cabbage slowly cooked in a little ghee which produce an amazing depth of flavour.

But not many people could pitch an article that suggests cooking vegetables for hours, so the salad angle is valid I think.

Elizabeth

Just reporting, not advocating. It's been so long since I've spent a winter in Tuscany that I simply cannot compare Italian cavolo nero to what is sold either in my local farmers' market or one of the two high-end supermarkets that carry the item here in a large city in the U.S. This weekend I bought a bunch from an organic farm that grows hearty greens in tunnels during the winter, so I'll make a point of seeing what it's like in January. A nibble of a raw leaf suggests it would be edible and possibly delicious coated w cheese, ground nuts and dressing, or rather, the cheese, nuts and dressing would be delicious and slivers of kale would be pliant enough to chew and digest. (I braised the rest for an hour.) I consulted Elizabeth Schneider's reference book on "uncommon" vegetables to discover why Locatelli offers his cautionary words. The author notes that once the leaves are stripped from their tough stems or core, one can blanch them first to shorten cooking time, though she recommends a 30-minute braise. The fact that she groups this variety of kale among exotic produce says a lot. I'm not sure it's been readily available in N. America for more than a decade or two and cookbooks indicate as much. Our Anna Del Conte, Marcella Hazan, recommends the use of red cabbage for a dish she calls Pollo in Umido col Cavolo Nero (1978). During the past 5-6 years, Bastianich published an excellent recipe for ribollita in which she did not specify the type of kale while Rodgers, a chef whose restaurant is surrounded by the major suppliers of our country's produce, provides clear, specific instructions for boiling Tuscan kale and turning it into a simple meal w soggy toast, an egg, or making a pappa or farinata. What you'll find on the internet is that many American home cooks treat the vegetable as medicine, whether as a way to stave off cancer or simply as something green that is good for you. For them, the entire leaf is chopped and cooked briefly or whirled in a juicer. In defense of my compatriots, I'll add that Southern regional cooking dictates cooking hearty greens and string beans to a point that would try the patience of many a Tuscan. Basta. (Thank you for *your* patience. This is an impressive blog!)

Elizabeth

P.S. Regarding your final comment, Melissa Clark was addressing a highly educated, well traveled readership who knew something about cavolo nero and how long kale should be cooked. Her point was to defy expectations and remind New Yorkers that they eat Europe's cabbage raw as cole slaw, so why not kale? We're all about novelty. Chefs are supposed to invent. The art and mystery and fashion of food.

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