Florida happens to grow leafy greens really well and I’m partial to Tuscan kale, also known as lacinato or cavolo nero (“black cabbage”). So, when I spotted a large luxuriant bouquet topped by greenish-black fronds at my farmers market, I snatched it up.
No plan in mind, until I came across a bag of pici, a hard-to-find variety of noodles from Tuscany. (Note to Tampa Bay friends: They’re at Kalamazoo Olive Company, an olive oil-and-vinegar emporium.) Clearly, the fates were signalling me to make pici with Tuscan kale pesto, a hearty pasta dish I’ve grown to love.
I first tasted this combination, swimming in olive oil and garlic, in a Tuscan trattoria. Experimenting over time, I found a more pleasing balance of flavors, with well-browned onions providing a savory base for the greens and walnuts or pecans echoing their earthiness.
With this formula in hand, the iffy availability of the key ingredients isn’t a problem. Fettuccine work just fine in lieu of pici, and any variety of kale will do.
Pici with Tuscan Kale and Walnut Pesto
(adapted from Piatto Unico)
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 pound dried pici noodles or fettuccine
Tuscan Kale and Walnut Pesto (recipe follows)
1. Fill a large saucepan about two-thirds full with cold water. Bring to a boil and add a small handful of salt. Cook the pasta until al dente (up to 22 minutes for pici; more like 10 minutes for fettuccine).
2. Meanwhile, heat half of the pesto over low heat in a large skillet. Drain the pasta, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking liquid, and turn it into the skillet. Mix well, adding more pesto (you may not need it all) and as much cooking water as needed for a saucy consistency; cook for a minute or two to blend the flavors.
Tuscan Kale and Walnut Pesto
Makes 2 ½ cups
1 large onion
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large bunch Tuscan kale
¼ cup walnuts or pecans
2 teaspoons sea salt or kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese
1. Halve the onion, end to end, and cut in thin slices. Roughly chop the garlic. Heat ¼ cup of the olive oil in a large sauté pan. Saute the onion over medium-high heat until it softens and turns golden brown, about 15 minutes; reduce the heat if there seems to be a danger of burning. Stir in half of the garlic during the last few minutes of cooking.
2. Meanwhile, fill a large saucepan about two-thirds full with water and bring to a boil. Strip off the kale leaves, discarding the stems. Shred by cutting crosswise with a large knife (you should have about 8 packed cups). Add the kale to the boiling water and cook until wilted and tender, 3 to 5 minutes (depending on the size and freshness of the kale). Drain and cool.
3. Combine the kale, onions and garlic, the remaining raw garlic, walnuts, salt, pepper and remaining ¾ cup olive oil in a food processor bowl. Puree until the mixture is homogeneous but the texture is slightly chunky.
4. Scrape the pesto into a bowl. With a spatula, fold in the cheese. Chill or freeze any of the pesto you don’t use immediately.