I wasn’t an early adopter of kale. With each mouthful, I felt as though the robust, spiky leaf was telling me that it shouldn’t be eaten. But black kale, or cavolo nero, is a different beast. The leaves look like the frosted plumes of an exotic bird and melt down into a silky, unctuous, bittersweet pool. It works really well tempered with a nutty, chewy grain such as spelt and just a whisper of white wine, chilli and fennel. After all these years, I am still a dawdler on kale, but for cavolo nero, I’d run several country miles.
This combination of spelt and green was inspired by a fantastic nettle and spelt dish made by Matt Smith when he worked at The Old Coastguard in Mousehole, Cornwall; he now cooks just down the road at The Tolcarne Inn in Newlyn. You’ll need a blender to make it.
Prep 5 min
Cook 50 min
400g cavolo nero
5 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra to finish
1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 tsp fennel seeds, crushed in a mortar
3 garlic cloves, peeled and grated or crushed
¾ tsp chilli flakes
1 glass (175ml) dry white wine
250g pearled spelt – I like Sharpham Park’s
750ml vegetable stock
½ tsp fine sea salt, plus a pinch extra to finish
1 large handful (75g) shelled walnuts, to decorate
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Strip the cavolo nero leaves by firmly holding the base of each stem with one hand and pushing up its length with the other, pulling off the leaves. Compost the stems.
Add the leaves handful by handful to the boiling water and simmer for five minutes (you’ll probably need to keep poking them under), then drain and wash under cold running water until cool enough to handle. Squeeze out as much excess water from the cavolo nero as you can, then roughly chop the leaves and put them in a blender. Add 150ml water and blitz to a thick puree.
Put the oil in a large pan over a medium heat and, once hot, add the onion and fennel, and cook, stirring every now and then, for 12 minutes, until soft and starting to brown. Stir in the garlic and chilli flakes, and cook for two minutes. Pour in the wine, let it bubble for a couple of minutes, then add the spelt and about a quarter of the stock. Once the liquid has been absorbed, or is starting to run low, stir in a third of the remaining stock, letting it be absorbed bit by bit, and repeat until the spelt is tender – this took me about 20 minutes in all. Add the blitzed cavolo nero mixture and season with the salt, stir, leave to bubble away for five minutes, then take off the heat.
Pop the walnuts in a clean towel and whack them with a rolling pin until roughly crushed (or roughly chop them). Put a tablespoon of oil in a small frying pan on a medium to high heat and, when hot, add the nuts and a pinch of salt, and fry, stirring, for three minutes.
Distribute the spelt across four plates, place a mound of nuts on each and bathe everything in more extra-virgin olive oil, if you wish.