Farinata di cavolo nero

Farinata di cavolo nero (Tuscan Kale and Polenta Soup)

In polenta, primi piatti, Soups, Toscana by Frank34 Comments

When I think of Tuscan cuisine, first and foremost, even before the classic bistecca alla fiorentina as wonderful as that is, I think of its hearty vegetable soups. The best known of these soups is probably  the ribollita, of course. But the most memorable Tuscan soup I’ve ever had was in a small trattoria in Florence. It was so many years ago that I’ve forgotten the name of the place, but I do remember the soup. It was called simply farinata on the menu, though the soup often goes by the longer name farinata di cavolo nero, perhaps to distinguish it from the Ligurian chickpea flatbread also called farinata. And like many classic Italian dishes, it goes by other names, too, such as infarinata, incavolata and intruglia.

Whatever you want to call it, the soup I had all those years ago was a kind of minestrone. It was so thick, it was more like a porridge than a soup. In this, it was a bit like ribollita in fact, but the thickener was polenta (hence the ‘farina‘) rather than bread. Like many classic dishes, there exist multiple versions of farinata di cavolo nero. Some are austerely simple, little more than kale and polenta simmered together. And although I love simplicity, as regular readers know, in this case I’m sticking with that fairly elaborate version I tried in Florence, all those years ago. I’ve been trying to replicate it at home for a long time, and the following recipe, while it didn’t quite capture the magic of that first experience for me, came pretty close.

Ingredients

For the beans:

  • 500g dried beans, soaked overnight
  • 12 cups of water
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, peeled and slightly crushed
  • A sprig of fresh sage
  • A hunk of pancetta or prosciutto
  • Salt and pepper

For the soup:

  • A red onion, chopped
  • A carrot, chopped
  • A celery stalk, chopped
  • A small piece of lardo or pancetta, finely minced (optional)
  • 500g (1 lb) of cavolo nero (lacinato or dinosaur kale), stems removed and cut into strips
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

To thicken the soup:

  • 250g (1/2 lb) polenta (cornmeal), or more if you want a thicker dish

For the topping:

  • Olive oil
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Directions

Soak the beans overnight. The next day, rinse the beans well, then put them in a pot with at least 3 liters/12 cups of water. Add the garlic, sage, salt, and peppercorns, as well as the pancetta or prosciutto if using. Bring the beans to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer them until tender, about 45-60 minutes, depending on the beans.

Meanwhile, make your soffritto: heat the olive oil in a casserole, preferably terracotta or enameled cast iron. If using the lardo, mince it finely and sauté it gently in the olive oil until it has rendered most of its fat and slightly browned. Add the onion, carrot and celery, and let those sauté gently, too, until they are tender and the onion has turned translucent.

Add the kale, mixing it well with the soffritto so the kale is covered with the seasoned oil and aromatic vegetables, then let it cook down until the kale is wilted and well reduced.

When the beans are cooked, add them along with their cooking liquid to the casserole, topping up with water (or broth) if the vegetables are not covered. Simmer over a low flame until the kale is perfectly tender, about 30-45 minutes. Stir from time to time, and add water if needed to keep things loose. Along the way, you can crush some of the beans against the side of the casserole with a wooden spoon to thicken the soup.

When the kale is tender, add the polenta to the casserole in a thin stream, stirring all the time so it mixes will into the soup without lumping together. Continue simmering until the polenta is fully cooked, usually another 20 or 30 minutes. Add more liquid if the farinata starts to dry out. It should have the consistency of porridge.

Serve while still hot, with a good filo d’olio (drizzle of olive oil) and freshly ground black pepper.

 

Farinata di cavolo nero

Notes on Farinata di cavolo nero

The dish is pretty straightforward. The only really tricky part might be when it comes to adding the cornmeal. If you add it too fast, or without stirring vigorously the cornmeal may form clumps. Unpleasant, if not fatal. Otherwise, you’ll need to be armed with patience. Each step of the dish, starting with the soaking of the beans, will take its good time. And do avoid the temptation to cut corners. While I usually appreciate the convenience of canned beans, for instance, this is one dish where you’ll want to use the dried kind, since the bean cooking liquid is an integral part of the dish.

Variations

At its simplest, farinata di cavolo nero is essentially boiled kale mixed with polenta. Giuliano Bugialli offers a slightly more elaborate version: you simmer cannellini beans until tender along with sage, garlic and pancetta. You then purée half the beans and put them back into the pot, reserving the other half for later. You add the kale and some tomato paste to the pot with the puréed beans and simmer until the kale is tender. Then the polenta goes in and simmers until it, too, is tender. You add the reserved beans back into the pot a few minutes before serving.

The Accademia Italiana della Cucina proposes a version, which they say is typical of Pontremoli, where you simmer the kale along with potatoes, to which you then add the polenta. You sauté a soffritto of mortadella, parsley and garlic in lard separately and add it to the pot a few minutes before serving. In some versions, you add broth to thin out the farinata, which you serve as a proper soup with slices of grilled bread. Other herbs like rosemary, thyme or basil and even peperoncino or fennel seeds feature in some recipes. Many recipes—and I suspect this is original—call for cotenna, or pork rind, rather than pancetta.

You can veganize your farinata di cavolo nero very simply. Just omit the pork products when you simmer the beans and make the soffritto. And I’d up the amount of aromatic vegetable in the soffritto for added flavor.

Farinata di cavolo nero

8 hours

1 hour, 5 minutes

Yield: Serves 4-6

Farinata di cavolo nero

Ingredients

    For the beans:
  • 500g dried beans, soaked overnight
  • 12 cups of water
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, peeled and slightly crushed
  • A sprig of fresh sage
  • A hunk of pancetta or prosciutto
  • Salt and pepper
  • For the soup:
  • 1 medium red onion, chopped
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 1 celery stalk, chopped
  • A small piece of lardo or pancetta, finely minced (optional)
  • 500g (1 lb) of cavolo nero (lacinato kale), stems removed and cut into strips
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • To thicken the soup:
  • 250g (1/2 lb) polenta (cornmeal), or more if you want a thicker dish
  • For the topping:
  • Olive oil
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. Soak the beans overnight. The next day, rinse the beans well, then put them in a pot with at least 3 liters/12 cups of water. Add the garlic, sage, salt, and peppercorns, as well as the pancetta or prosciutto if using. Bring the beans to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer them until tender, about 45-60 minutes, depending on the beans.
  2. Meanwhile, make your soffritto: heat the olive oil in a casserole, preferably terracotta or enameled cast iron. If using the lardo, mince it finely and sauté it gently in the olive oil until it has rendered most of its fat and slightly browned. Add the onion, carrot and celery, and let those sauté gently, too, until they are tender and the onion has turned translucent.
  3. Add the kale, mixing it well with the soffritto so the kale is covered with the seasoned oil and aromatic vegetables, then let it cook down until the kale is wilted and well reduced.
  4. When the beans are cooked, add them along with their cooking liquid to the casserole, topping up with water (or broth) if the vegetables are not covered. Simmer over a low flame until the kale is perfectly tender, about 30-45 minutes. Stir from time to time, and add water if needed to keep things loose. Along the way, you can crush some of the beans against the side of the casserole with a wooden spoon to thicken the soup.
  5. When the kale is tender, add the polenta to the casserole in a thin stream, stirring all the time so it mixes will into the soup without lumping together. Continue simmering until the polenta is fully cooked, usually another 20 or 30 minutes. Add more liquid if the farinata starts to dry out. It should have the consistency of porridge.
  6. Serve while still hot, with a good filo d'olio (drizzle of olive oil) and freshly ground black pepper.
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Comments

  1. Lovely memories coming back, from my mom and grandma, expecially in the early 50s when money were a little bit short, this was a tipical winter dish, hot and fullfilling, but it was also served the day after when you fried in slices……Thaks Frank, in our Lucca province we called ´´ incavolata ´´.
    Vittorio Orsi

    1. Author

      I like that idea of frying up slices the day after… will have to try that next time I make this dish!

  2. Hi Frank! It’s me again, your new best friend. Wanted to let you know again how much I enjoy your website and my husband is also quite happy, being the beneficiary of the results. I made this tonight. I 100% can’t understand when people comment on recipes after they have basically torn them apart so they are unrecognizable, but I am about to do just that for the very first time. I didn’t have dried beans, only canned “Italian white”, no cavolo negro kale only the curly kale growing in my backyard but I went for it anyway. I followed your recipe exactly except for the type of kale, keeping out the canned beans until the very last few minutes and adding chicken broth in place of the bean cooking water. It was amazing and I can’t wait to try it with real beans which I know are always so much tastier. Thanks and talk soon! 😄

    1. Author

      Thanks, Teresa. It doesn’t sound like you tore the recipe apart at all, but just made some sensible substitutions. Glad to hear you liked the result!

  3. I’ve prepared a pot of ribollita twice this fall and it looks like I’ll be preparing its cousin here in the near future. Love the idea of thickening the dish with polenta and will buy a prosciutto “heel” from my Italian market. All should do so well. 🙂

  4. Magnifico!

    I made it this week with only slight variation and decided it will be a staple in our casa for the cooler months. Frank, we are actually living in Napoli for a few years and I find your site most valuable in inspiring me to cook Neopolitan specialties. Motto grazie!

    1. Author

      Thanks great to hear! And I’m really so happy to hear that you’re finding the site useful to you. Let me know if you have any special requests for dishes to feature here. Enjoy Napoli!

  5. Oh my, this sounds and looks heavenly to me! I’ve never had this (probably because it’s a northern dish), but I’d love to try it. I’ll wait until my parents arrive though, as I know they’d love it too!

    Thanks, Frank! LOVE all your posts!

  6. Frank, how does this hold up if made ahead of time? Sounds like it might thicken up, but could it be reheated with the addition of some broth to thin it back down?

    1. Author

      It’s just as good, perhaps even better, when made ahead. Two ways to approach it: You can prepare it except for the final addition of polenta or you can make it completely ahead, but add additional water or broth so that’s is quite a bit looser than you would want to serve it—more soup than porridge. Then, when you’re ready to enjoy it, reheat it and let it thicken up to your liking before serving.

      I haven’t tried adding broth when reheating. I would guess that might not work, depending on how thick you made it to begin with. If it’s too thick, you’d wind up with a lumpy soup.

  7. What a perfect autumnal soup/stew/porridge Frank! I actually hoped that it would be thickened with chickpea flour (farinata/cecina is a favorite of mine) but I have some wonderful polenta to use, assuming I can find cavolo nero this morning at the market. Everything else I have on hand!

  8. splendid dish. I make something similar: “polenta incatenata” from the Garfagnana region: I make a thick winter minestrone, adding also diced pork rind + cooked for a very, very long time until it is super thick + then I pour this onto hot soft polenta + lots of grated pecorino.

    1. Author

      Sounds awesome, Stefano. I like the idea of “deconstructing” the dish with the minestrone over rather than mixed into the polenta…

  9. non ho mai avuto l’occasione di mangiarla nonostante la Toscana sia spesso meta dei miei viaggi, la ribollita diverse volte ma questa farinata no. Cerco il cavolo nero (non sarà facile) e provo a farla con la tua ricetta, grazie ! Buon weekend Frank

    1. Author

      Può stupire ma il cavolo nero è facile da reperire qui in America. Gli americani vanno pazzi per il “kale” sia quello toscano sia quello americano…

  10. As with many regional Italian dishes, there are local variations. The steps as you have presented them will certainly result in a “stick to your ribs” heart warming soup, perfect for a cold winter’s day.
    I studied with Giuliano and adore him, however he does lean to the complex with regard to some dishes.

    1. Author

      I’ve noticed that, too, about his recipes. The funny thing is, he is so emphatic about the simplicity of Tuscan cooking, and yet… Still, I admire his work a great deal. He should be much better known Stateside. Truth be told, I find his knowledge of Italian cooking superior to some more famous “celebrity” chefs.

  11. What a great soup, it looks delicious, filling , and full of flavors. I love polenta but I don’t remember having it in a soup. Thanks for sharing and giving us the history of these soups.

  12. Fantastic soup recipe! I love kale but usually just use it for salad. This hearty soup will definitely be on my to-make list as the temperature drops by days here in NYC. Thanks for sharing.

  13. I’ve had a similar soup (beans, greens, and polenta), but never made it myself. Love adding greens to soup! And love adding polenta, masa harina, or grits — they add such nice flavor, and of course thicken the soup too. Might be fun to try adding some red pepper flakes to the soffritto in Step 3 about a minute before adding the kale. Excellent recipe — thanks.

    1. Author

      Indeed, some recipes for this dish mention a bit of peperoncino. Personally, I don’t add it. It may just be me, but I tend to associate spicy with summer and tone down my dishes in the cold weather. Then again, that doesn’t stop me from chowing down on spicy non-Italian food in the fall and winter… Go figure.

  14. A delicious soup by any other name is still that delicious soup. This version sounds wonderfully hearty and bursting with flavor. I grew up on soups – economical and nutritious. I haven’t tried this version and I’m looking forward to doing so. I really appreciate your history and the stories behind the dishes. Have a great weekend.

    1. Author

      Thanks, Marisa Franca. I’m a soup maven, too. Practically subsist on soup in the wintertime… 🙂

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