When I was growing up, I knew kale only as the curly leaves that served as decorative dividers inside grocery store meat and deli display cases. At some point, when I was a young adult, kale turned trendy, and I started seeing it on restaurant menus and in glossy cookbooks, baby food and in all kinds of packaged snacks.
But those who keep a garden year-round know kale well. In the depths of winter, one of a gardeners’ last spots of green will be the kale patch. “On a blustery winter day, it’s not uncommon to find me out in the garden, brushing the snow off the kale I plan to fix for dinner,” writes Marian Morash in The Victory Garden Cookbook.
Morash notes that kale can withstand a severe frost, and it’s even easier to grow than cabbage. She supplies all kinds of ideas for what to do with it, but her strongest recommendation is to blanch the thick leaves in heavily salted water until they wilt but still hold their bite. Dressed with chilli oil or lots of lemon juice, topped with a tadka or a fried egg, it makes a simple side dish or even brunch.
But drop that blanched kale into a food processor or blender with garlic, nuts, olive oil and Parmesan cheese, and you’ve got a pesto made of winter’s deepest green, full of round, bold flavours and a texture that’s pleasantly velvety.
It’s great stirred into soup or risotto, makes a lush topping for crusty bread, can be stuffed into a sandwich, used as a marinade or drizzled atop roasts. But, as with pesto Genovese, it’s an ideal sauce for pasta.
The Italians knew this first, of course. Cavolo nero, or Tuscan kale, generally doesn’t grow south of Rome. Like all kale, it’s said to turn sweet right after a frost, when it’s picked and then blanched, braised or turned into thick soups like ribollita and farinata di cavolo nero, a porridge-like dish with polenta and Tuscan kale.
But we’re after pesto di cavolo nero. It’s an old Tuscan recipe, said to be popular when the season’s fresh olive oil, pungent and green, makes an especially good marriage with the hardy leaves of cavolo nero. Countless cookbooks have published recipes for the saucy, cold-weather pesto.
I found this recipe for kale pesto, below, buried in The Washington Post’s archives from 2008. It was adapted from one published in The Real Dirt on Vegetables by John Peterson, and its ingredients and method agree with all of the other variations on kale pesto I’ve seen over the years.
And while it’s ideal on pasta, don’t let that stop you from using it to top your morning eggs or savoury oatmeal, stirring it into soup or braised beans, adding a touch of white wine vinegar to turn it into a dressing for salads or using it as a dip for or drizzle atop roasted vegetables.
Time: 30 minutes
2 tsp fine salt, plus more as needed
230g kale, preferably lacinato, thick stems removed and leaves coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, smashed
30g chopped walnuts, toasted (see NOTE)
120ml extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
40g grated Parmesan cheese, plus more as needed
Freshly ground black pepper
Deep green, thanks to hardy leaves of kale, this is a pesto designed to brighten the dark days of winter. Ensure the kale is tender enough to blend into a smooth sauce by first cooking it in boiling water. This will also set the pesto’s dark green colour and help keep it fresh for almost a week. Any dark leafy greens will work in place of kale, including collards and chard.
Tuscan or lacinato kale’s dark green leaves make an especially eye-catching sauce but any kale or dark leafy green will work here. If you use tougher greens such as collards, you may need to blanch them for longer to be sure they’re tender enough to puree.
I like the bite of fresh garlic but you could tame its peppery punch by blanching it alongside the kale or sautéing it in some of the olive oil. Allow it to cool before proceeding with the recipe.
Walnuts go well with kale but you could use pine nuts or any other kind of nut, or pumpkin seeds. You could also skip the nuts.
The cheese adds lots of flavour here but to make this pesto vegan, omit it and add a tablespoon or more of nutritional yeast.
1. In a large pot over high heat, bring the water and salt to a rolling boil. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, prepare an ice bath.
2. Add the kale to the boiling water and cook, uncovered, until tender, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon or spider, transfer the kale to the prepared ice bath and let cool completely, then strain and, using your hands, squeeze as much water from it as possible.
3. In a food processor, combine the garlic, walnuts and kale and whiz until well combined. Pour in the oil in a steady stream, and pulse until a smooth puree forms. If the pesto seems too thick, add additional oil until it reaches your desired consistency.
4. Transfer the pesto to a medium bowl and stir in the cheese. Taste, and season with additional cheese and/or salt, and pepper, if desired.
To toast walnuts: Heat a heavy skillet, such as cast-iron, over medium heat. Add the chopped walnuts and stir constantly until they start to brown and become fragrant, about 5 minutes. Alternatively, place them on a baking sheet and toast at 160C for 5 to 10 minutes. Keep an eye on them as they can burn quickly, which will make them taste bitter.
Nutrition information per tablespoon: Calories: 73; Total Fat: 7 g; Saturated Fat: 1 g; Cholesterol: 2 mg; Sodium: 64 mg; Carbohydrates: 1 g; Dietary Fiber: 1 g; Sugars: 1 g; Protein: 1 g.
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
How to store: Refrigerate for up to 5 days.
Adapted from “The Real Dirt on Vegetables” by John Peterson (Gibbs Smith, 2006).