Beyond the kale…
It couldn’t have happened to a nicer vegetable could it? In just a few years that leafy wunderfood known as ‘kale’ has meteorically risen, from allotment obscurity to super-food stardom. It seems we’ve all gone completely ‘off our kale’, with lots of us stuffing those crinkly leaves into our bodies at every available opportunity. Yet this hardy brassica has actually been knocking around for over 2,000 years, before any food blogs were there to eulogise it. Kale is cultivated right across the world and, interestingly enough, it was heavily endorsed in Britain during World War II by the Dig for Victory campaign.
Of course, the main reason this virtuous vegetable is now jumping off supermarket shelves everywhere is largely down to its ‘healthy’ label. Crammed with goodness, kale is high in calcium and magnesium. It also packs loads of nutrients, vitamins and antioxidants – though don’t ask me what these are, all I know is that they’re supposed to protect you against all sorts of nasty ailments. Hence, you’ve witnessed the food industry all pile in capitalise on this great kale-naissance, with kale popping up in all sorts of unusual places on restaurants’ menus. I’ve personally encountered it: baked into cornbread, squashed into sweet pancakes, and blitzed into cocktails. And I’ve even seen kale slotted between baked beans and their toast – for me, such deviant treatment is well beyond the pale.
Thankfully the worst extremes of this kale craziness are mostly behind us. Cultural saturation has inevitably occurred, and our faddish foodie culture is moving inexorably onto the next life-enhancing foodstuff. So now that ‘peak-kale’ has passed, I’m happy to declare kale’s new popularity is entirely justified. After all, kale is relatively cheap, it’s terribly healthy and it’s also a very dependable vegetable that can be grown locally almost all year round. However, the main reason I think kale is here to stay is because kale possesses a rare quality – it is both incredibly healthy and incredibly tasty. So go and eat your kale with pride.
You may also know that kale has a not-so-distant Italian cousin: the cavolo nero (literally ‘black kale/cabbage’). This dark-green relative has slightly tougher leaves than either ‘curly’ or ‘Red Russian’ kale and has a very distinctive complex bitter flavour. Cavolo nero is well loved by the people of Tuscany, and its splendidly robust character means that it works tirelessly well in all sorts of Italian stews, none more so than the timeless Tuscan Ribollita.
Nevertheless, for this pasta recipe I usually opt for our local hero, the highly convenient ‘curly’ kind of kale. However, any variety should work wonders in this simple but full-flavoured pasta recipe, because there is really no better way to induce kale to taste amazing, than to give it a good thorough braising. By using this cooking method the kale’s rough-and-readiness softens up, as you gently cook it until tender, and it gradually relinquishes all its precious flavours. So when this braised kale is then paired with linguine and ricotta, you get this delicious soul-warming pasta supper (or ‘tea’ if you’re from up North).
Before you begin:
- For this recipe it helps if you have a pair of kitchen tongs. These allow you to swirl your pasta and manoeuvre kale into the pan, without losing precious bits down the abyss between the cooker and worktop.
- This recipe is ripe for all sorts of variations so don’t worry about sticking rigidly to the recipe. You can make adjustments (in either quantities or ingredients) to feed more or less family and friends – please get creative with it.
Linguine with kale, lemon, ricotta and fennel seeds
Serves 3 as a main course
- large bunch of kale (Approx. 300g)
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to finish
- small knob unsalted butter
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
- 1 small dried peperoncino crumbled or pinch of dried chilli flakes
- 50g whole almonds
- 200g fresh ricotta
- zest of a ¼ and the juice of ½ an un-waxed lemon
- freshly grated nutmeg, a pinch
- 300g dried linguine or bucatini
- 2 tablespoons of Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
Lay the almonds on a baking tray and toast them for 8 minutes in the oven at 180°C until golden-brown. Peel off the skins if you like and roughly chop the nuts.
Wash, dry and roughly chop the kale into ribbons. Heat up the olive oil and butter in a large heavy based pan. Add in the fennel seeds, garlic and peperoncino and mix well. Sweat the ingredients until fragrant taking care not to burn the garlic. Now add in the curly kale with some salt and mix with the oil, using a handy pair of kitchen tongs. Cook gently for around ten minutes or so until the kale has wilted down.
Now add a ladle full of water and cover the pot, letting it cook for 20 minutes more so that the rough kale has softened up nicely.
Whilst the kale is braising away, bring a large pan of heavily salted water to the boil and curl in the pasta with your trusty tongs – cook until al dente. Keep stirring and nibbling to check the pasta texture every now and then.
As the pasta is cooking, dollop the ricotta into a large bowl. Add in some of the starchy pasta-water to loosen it up into a white creamy sauce. Grate some nutmeg into the ricotta cream, stir in the lemon zest and grind in some black pepper. When the kale is tender and cooked, add it to the bowl of ricotta cream and mix well with tongs.
When it’s ready, drain the pasta and toss thoroughly with the kale and creamy ricotta sauce. Sprinkle a little pecorino in as well and toss again. Maybe add a squeeze of lemon and toss once again. Taste to check for seasoning.
To serve, divide the pasta into three individual serving bowls. Grate a healthy (or unhealthy) amount of pecorino onto each portion. Scatter over the toasted almonds. Finish with an extra squeeze of lemon and trickle of extra-virgin olive oil. Serve immediately.