In praise of the properly cooked vegetable: cavolo nero pasta for one

bucatini-with-cavolo-nero

I have come to develop strong views on greens. On kales and cabbages (and kings), and green beans and asparagus, and even Brussels sprouts.

Greens! No one likes an overcooked green thing, resigned to a grey and mushy existence following overenthusiastic acquaintance with a pan of hard-boiling water. But I think the growing middle-class dread of serving up a disintegrating plate of veg is resulting in the opposite problem, with vegetables far too often being served undercooked.

A green bean, say, tender and with a hint of crunch as your teeth break through the snappy skin, is a fine thing, perfectly balancing crispness with a soft, yielding interior. All too often, though, cooking instructions suggest as little as two minutes of cooking, resulting in hot beans with a suggestion of softness at the edges, a resolutely crisp interior, and, most unforgivably, hard, cold, mean little seeds at the centre. At that rate, you may as well give in and just served them cool, sweet and raw, so they retain that milky, sappy freshness.

Kale, too, is so often served barely cooked or raw, when its frilly edges are still spiny and throat-catching. Savoy cabbage is rarely shown to the heat long enough to allow its pebbled texture to become nubbled silk. As with vegetables, so too with pasta. Overcooked pasta is an unappestising, floppy mess, often pooled with water so thick with starch it is almost gelatinous. But undercooked pasta is crunchy and chalky and no good for winding round the fork or mopping up the sauce. Balance is essential.

cavolo-nero-pasta

Which leads me to this: cavolo nero pasta for one, in which the leaves of this deep dark Italian kale are cooked down in wine and butter and oil until delicate and submissive. Intertwined with some good bucatini – you can use spaghetti if that’s what you have – it makes a satisfying, iron-rich supper for those nights when, say, your partner in dining is trooping around the great garrison towns of Yorkshire.

When I first made this, the whole thing was a bit bland and didn’t come together until I added lemon juice and zest in at the end – remembering Diana Henry’s advice “when there seems to be something missing, the answer is lemon.” Also, if you have bacon or lardons or pancetta to hand, fry a handful of the cubes or strips off for a few minutes in the melted butter and oil before adding the garlic.

I’m also sure this will sound like, look like, a lot of cavolo nero to start. And it is, enough to make this a hearty meal and give it plenty of body, because green things will happily cook down to nothing if you let them.

You’ll notice I said ‘good bucatini’. I’m no stranger to value packs of spaghetti from Lidl and would not turn my nose up at these ever, but given the relatively sparse ingredients in this dish, a good-quality pasta will make a difference to the final dish. Bucatini, incidentally, is like a slightly thicker spaghetti with a hollow running down the centre and is a little chewier and more resilient than spaghetti; I enjoy its robustness and it stands up well to the assertive kale. If your budget can stretch to it, I’d buy it here.

Cavolo nero with bucatini, for one

  • 90g bucatini or spaghetti
  • 300g pack of cavolo nero
  • 1 tablespoon butter, plus extra to serve (optional)
  • 1 TBS olive oil
  • 4 fat cloves of garlic, smashed and roughly chopped
  • Big pinch of chilli flakes
  • a good glug of white wine – 60ml, if you want to measure
  • The zest and juice of half a lemon
  • Lots and lots of Parmesan – I like mine very finely grated on a Microplane so that it resembles cheese dust
  1. Put a big pan of water for the pasta on the hob, bring to the boil, and salt it generously.
  2. Strip the leaves of the cavolo nero from the stalks. I do this just by pinching the base of the stem between my index finger and thumb and pulling down the length of the stalk – they come away just as efficiently as if you’d used one of those plasticky kale strippersplasticky kale strippers. If you have any smaller leaves attached to slimmer, softer stems, these can just be chopped up without stripping them. Remove any yellowy bits of the kale because these will do you no favours.
  3. Tear or roughly chop the large leaves into bite-sized pieces.
  4. Add your pasta to the pan of water and bring back to the boil. Set your timer for eight minutes.
  5. Heat the butter and oil together in a frying pan over a high heat. Add the garlic and fry until fragrant and just tinged with gold – up to thirty seconds, but as little as 10-15.
  6. Add the chilli flakes and stir them around the pan for a bit, maybe 20 seconds, until you can smell their spicy fragrance.
  7. Throw in the great pile of cavolo nero leaves and stir-fry in the pan for about two minutes. Add a pinch of salt here. Pour in the wine and let it bubble for thirty seconds. Turn the heat down to medium (or medium-low if things seem to be cooking fast) and continue to cook, pushing the leaves around the pan, until they wilt down. Throw in the odd splash of water if things are getting too dry and lower the hear once the cavolo nero is wilted down. Continue stirring.
  8. When the timer for the pasta goes off, give it a test. It might need two more minutes.
  9. Once ready, drain the pasta, not too thoroughly (you want a little of the clinging water). Stir the pasta through the cavolo nero in the frying pan and stir them around together for about thirty seconds to amalgamate. Remove the pan from the heat.
  10. Zest and juice the lemon into the pan. Stir around and taste. Add some salt and pepper if you like and taste again. If you want, zest in more of the lemon and squeeze in more juice and add more salt and pepper. And, also if you want, melt in another pat of butter so the pasta become slick and glossy and the leaves tender and rich.
  11. Pour the panful of pasta and vegetables into your bowl or plate of choice and dust with lots of Parmesan. Then grate over some more Parmesan, because you only live once.

RECIPE: sausage and red pepper pasta

There are times when my motto ‘life is too short not to eat well’ is honoured more in the breach than the observance – like when I’m in the middle of an exam period, when food is more about fuel and speed than pleasure. Still, there are some ways around that.

For the following dish, roasted pepper and sausage pasta, I used roasted red peppers from a jar instead of roasting the peppers myself, cutting down on preparation time. I use the Bevelini brand of peppers, which I can buy from a local shop, but roasted peppers are sold in all the big supermarkets as well (maybe not the same brand). The peppers were preserved in vinegar, so I rinsed them twice: once upon removing from the jar and once after slicing, to get rid of as much of the acid as possible. The jarred peppers can be smaller than the ones you roast yourself so consider adding an extra jarred pepper or two. Finally, using jarred peppers means losing some of the dish’s smoky elements, so considering adding a pinch or two of smoked paprika to the spiced sausage mix with the other spices.

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