That beautiful specimen you see in the photo is a head of Savoy cabbage.
Italian cooks do wonderful things with this cabbage, which they refer to as cavolo verza. (The name Savoy refers to the historical region in northern Italy in which the cabbage thrives, and also to the House of Savoy, which ruled newly unified Italy from 1861 to the end of World War II). The cabbage’s large, ruffled outer leaves, loosely attached at the base of the head, are deep blue-green and tender. The crunchy inner leaves, pale and creamy, are wrapped tightly together. Typically, cavolo verza is harvested after the first frost, which sweetens it and enhances its nutty cabbage flavor.
Savoy cabbage is featured in regional soup recipes across Italy, including ribollita, the popular Tuscan soup of bread, cabbage, tomatoes, and beans. Farther north, in Val d’Aosta, it is a winter staple, paired, appropriately, with fontina, the region’s most famous cheese, in rich soups, risotti, and gratins. Braised sweet-and-sour cabbage is a favorite of my Abruzzese mother (it has been served as an accompaniment to our Christmas Eve seafood dinner for as long as I can remember).
I like Savoy cabbage with pasta. Although in general I prefer pasta made with white flour, I find that the nutty taste and rustic character of whole-wheat pasta go really well with cabbage. While working on The Glorious Pasta of Italy I came up with this hearty recipe for whole-wheat fettuccine with cabbage, cream, and caraway seeds. Caraway may be unconventional in an Italian recipe, but on a cold December night its spicy, assertive flavor hits the spot.
Whole-Wheat Fettuccine with Savoy Cabbage, Cream, and Caraway Seeds
(from The Glorious Pasta of Italy, Chronicle Books 2011)
My original recipe calls for fresh white whole-wheat fettuccine, made with white whole-wheat flour. The flour is milled from albino wheat, or white wheat. It is just as nutritious as regular whole-wheat flour, which is made from red wheat, but is somewhat milder in flavor and lighter in color. If you are using boxed pasta, use a good-quality whole-wheat noodle or short, sturdy pasta such as fusilli or rigatoni.
This recipe requires only 1/2 head of cabbage. Use the rest in a bean and vegetable soup, or shred it finely and make a slaw or salad.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
4 ounces pancetta, diced
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 teaspoons caraway seeds, lightly crushed (pressing on them with a small cast-iron pan works well)
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 head Savoy cabbage, quartered through the stem end, cored, and finely shredded crosswise
1/2 cup homemade chicken broth or best-quality low-sodium, fat-free commercial chicken broth
Kosher or fine sea salt (optional)
1 cup heavy cream
1 pound homemade white whole-wheat or whole-wheat fettuccine (recipe in The Glorious Pasta of Italy) or dried whole-wheat fettuccine
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Warm the olive oil in a large, deep frying pan or saute pan over medium heat. Add the pancetta, stir to coat with the oil, and saute for 5 to 7 minutes, or until it is sizzling and has begun to render its fat and become just a little crisp around the edges but is still mostly soft. Stir in the shallot, caraway seeds, and a generous grind of pepper. Saute for about 5 minutes, or until the shallot is translucent and has begun to soften.
Add as much cabbage as will fit in the frying pan. Pour 1/4 cup of the chicken broth over the cabbage and cover. Let the cabbage cook for a few minutes, or until it has started to wilt. Use tongs to turn it in the frying pan. When the cabbage has wilted, add more and another splash of broth. Cover and let cook until wilted. Continue until you have added the last of the cabbage and broth. Cook, stirring from time to time, for about 15 minutes, or until the cabbage is just tender but still slightly crunchy.
Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt, if you like. Stir in the cream, raise the heat to medium-high, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for no more than 10 minutes, or until the sauce is slightly thickened.
While the sauce is cooking, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and salt generously. Add the pasta and stir to separate the noodles. If using fresh pasta, cover the pot until the water returns to a boil, then uncover and cook the pasta for 3 to 5 minutes, or just until al dente. If using dried pasta, cook according to the manufacturer’s instructions until al dente. Drain the pasta in a colander set in the sink, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water.
Transfer the pasta to the frying pan and turn the heat to the lowest possible setting. Toss gently to combine the noodles and sauce, adding a splash or two of the cooking water if necessary to loosen the sauce. Transfer the dressed pasta to a warmed serving bowl or shallow individual bowls. Sprinkle a little of the Parmigiano on top and serve immediately. Pass the remaining cheese at the table.