When I happened across a pasta sauce recipe in the New York Times using kale, I couldn’t wait to try it. I confess that I’m not really a fan of ordinary kale, but I do love the lacinato variety, and this recipe called for a pound of it.
Lacinato kale is dark green, almost black, living up to its Italian name, cavolo nero, black cabbage. In English it’s also known as black kale. The long slender leaves have light green ribs running their length. Many recipes say to discard the ribs, but I like to cook them. Because they’re tough, I slice and boil them for a few minutes before adding the leaves. A few more minutes’ cooking and all are tender.
A blender turns the kale and some of its cooking water into a smooth, thick, green purée, much like a pesto in consistency. Garlic cooked in olive oil and a bit of fresh lemon juice brighten the sauce. Make sure to blend everything together until the sauce is perfectly smooth.
As a bonus, you make the sauce first and cook the pasta in the kale-cooking water. Since you’ve salted the water before cooking the kale, taste the sauce carefully before adding more. Salty cheeses also go into the sauce and more is sprinkled on top, so tasting along the way is really important.
There’s enough sauce for a full pound of pasta. If you want to serve just two people, make the full recipe of sauce and refrigerate what you don’t use. The sauce keeps well, refrigerated, for 4 to 5 days.
Kale Sauce Pasta with Garlic
Makes 4 generous servings
You’ll need lacinato kale, also called black kale or cavolo nero, for this recipe. It comes in bunches of long, slender, dark green leaves (almost black) with thick ribs. Be sure to weigh the kale. Bunches differ in size from market to market. I like to use the kale ribs and all. Tubular pasta loves this sauce. If you prefer, use all Parmesan cheese.
1 pound lacinato kale
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves smashed, peeled garlic
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
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Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound pasta, such as rigatoni, penne rigate, fettuccine, spaghetti, or whatever you like
2 ounces shredded Parmesan cheese (about 1/2 cup loosely packed)
1 ounce shredded pecorino Romano cheese (about 1/4 cup loosely packed)
1. Trim the ribs from the kale leaves and slice them fairly thin, a bit less than 1/4-inch. Tear the leaves coarsely and keep them separate from the ribs.
2. Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat and add the garlic. Reduce heat to low, and cook until the garlic becomes soft and is very lightly browned on both sides, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.
3. When the water is boiling vigorously, add a generous amount of salt (about 1 tablespoon). Drop in the kale stems and cook 2 to 3 minutes, to begin to make them tender. Add the kale leaves and cook 5 minutes more, until tender or almost tender. Taste a leaf portion to be sure.
4. Have a blender jar nearby. With a slotted spoon, remove the kale leaves and stems in batches and add them to the blender with any liquid clinging to them. Add the garlic and oil. Save the blanching water to cook the pasta.
5. Peek into the blender jar to see how much cooking liquid made it there. You’ll want about a half-cup or so. Add more if needed and also add 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice. Blend the kale into a thick, smooth bright green purée. If too thick, add a bit more of the hot cooking water. Just remember the sauce should be on the thick side and very smooth. Taste carefully, and add 1/4 teaspoon pepper and some salt if necessary. Taste again and re-adjust the seasoning, adding more lemon juice if you want. Blend one more time for a few seconds.
6. Return the pasta water to the boil and add the pasta. Cook until al dente following package directions. Remove about 1 cup water to finish the dish, and drain the pasta in a colander.
7. Put the cooked pasta in the cooking pot. Pour on the kale purée, about half of each cheese, and toss to combine well. If the sauce seems too thick, stir in a splash of the reserved hot water. The sauce should be creamy, something like the consistency of heavy cream.
8. Serve in heated bowls, and drizzle a little olive oil over each. Sprinkle portions with remaining cheese and serve right away with some crusty bread. A chilled dry white wine such as pinot grigio, goes very well with this dish.