Cavolo nero is such a beautiful vegetable. The dark textured leaves would look lovely in any garden, and it has a sophisticated shade of green that would be perfect on my dining room curtains – had my dining room been approximately 16 times more spacious than it is. It looks very grown-up and much less everydayish than its cousins cabbage and kale. For me, it’s also immediately associated with ribollita, the rich Tuscan stew-soup dish. And to the beginning of the end of summer.
On Saturday, after an early rise and some exercise, I felt entitled to go on a meat feast at Brockley market. I had a BLT breakfast, then bought a healthy portion of calve’s liver for dinner, and evidently could not resist a bag of homemade pork scratching for a pound. On the way home, through the much more down to earth Lewisham market, the sight of cavolo nero made me want to cook something rich and warm for the first time in weeks.
Ribollita is made with dark greens, beans – usually cannellini – and stale bread. It’s the ultimate thrifty food – the name ribollita translates as re-boiled, and this dish should keep
going for days with no risk of waste. I quite fancied chickpeas in place of beans, which is why I’m a bit wary of calling this dish ribollita. Of all the people I’ve eaten with, Italians tend to be the most precious about even the slightest variations to their dishes. I once caused a never-ending squabble between a group of Italians at work when I asked one of them for his recipe of carbonara. Little did I know the question of using onions or garlic was such a contentious one, and to this day I can’t eat a plate of carbonara without the guilty feeling I’m betraying someone. So, please accept my apologies for having the nerve of calling this ribollita. Not only did I use chickpeas, I also chucked in the leftover parsley sauce that was lying around from the previous night’s dinner – a very nice aubergine pasticcio that successfully auditioned for a future supper club. The parsley sauce worked very well as a replacement to the final splash of olive oil before serving. Since we’re confessing to food heresy, here’s another one. The smell of freshly baked naan at my local Indian shop was too sweet and irresistible, so I grabbed a packet and used that instead of a more traditional crunchy, thick crust bread. I did eat half of it with the parsley sauce, so we’re lucky there was any of either left for my counterfeit ribollita.
If you want the real thing, the River Cafe’ blue Cookbook has an authentic recipe. And you can also find the most amazing Tuscan recipes at Jul’s Kitchen blog. For an approximation of ribollita, here’s the one I made. Comforting and just warm enough for the slightly cooler evenings of late August. Ideally, make it and wait to re-heat it a few hours later/next day. It will taste significantly better.
Calls Itself Ribollita
- a large bunch of cavolo nero, chopped. About 500g / a colander full of chopped leaves and stalks
- 2 large carrots
- 1 yellow pepper
- 1 large onion
- 3 stalks of celery
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 to 2 dried red chilies
- 4 to 5 tomatoes, peeled and chopped. A tin of chopped tomatoes will work fine
- 400g cooked chickpeas. Keep the cooking water. If you want to use ready cooked chickpeas, look for a good brand and large chickpeas. I find the ones in glass jars are always of considerably better quality than the tin ones.
- 2 handfuls of stale bread pieces
- a handful of parsley
- 1 tsp capers, washed
- extra virgin olive oil
- Chop all the vegetables. Chop the dry chilies very finely.
- Gently warm 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large cooking pot
- Cook on low heat: cumin seeds, dry chilies, onions, celery, carrots, garlic. Let it sweat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is soft and well cooked, but not brown.
- Add the chopped peppers and tomatoes, turn the heat up to medium and bring it to the boil for a couple of minutes
- Add all the chopped kale and cover it for a couple of minutes so the leaves reduce in volume a bit.
- Mix well, then add the chickpeas and a couple of ladles of the cooking water.
- Season with salt and pepper, mix well, half cover half the pan and let it cook for 20 minutes on a gentle heat. If too dry, add a bit more of the cooking water. It should not be a soup, but more the consistency of a stew.
- After 20 minutes, check that the greens are well cooked and the liquid thick enough. Cook for 5 to 10 minutes more if needed. Add more liquid if needed.
- If you have time, leave the ribollita to rest for a few hours or up to the next day before reheating it and serving it.
- Chop the parsely and capers and add enough olive oil to cover them.
- Serve it in bowls and drizzle the parsley sauce over it.