This is one confusing leafy green vegetable, it defies categorization. Is it a kale, or is it a cabbage, or is it something in between? Seed catalogs cannot seem to agree, but it is generally listed amongst the cabbages. My nose tells me it is cabbage because when I cut into a fresh leaf it has a distinct aroma of fresh sweet cabbage and the flavor is more akin to cabbage than to kale. But for my taste it will not substitute for heading cabbage in a recipe. The texture is softer than heading cabbage. The color is a darker green than heading cabbage. And in spite of its darker hue, it is less cabbagy flavored than heading cabbage. And you certainly cannot cook it as long as heading cabbage or kale and don't even think of substituting it for kale. (Although kale is the generally recommended substitute for couve tronchuda in Caldo Verde). Really, I think it should just be in a category unto itself.
There is one thing about Couve Tronchuda that is undisputed, it is the key ingredient for Caldo Verde, a Portuguese soup - practically the national dish of Portugal. Caldo Verde is a deceptively simple soup featuring Couve Tronchuda, potatoes, onion, garlic, Portuguese linguiça or chouriço, olive oil, and water. It was a recipe for this soup in Jean Anderson's book The Food of Portugual that put me on a quest for Portuguese cabbage seeds (which she called couve gallego - this vegetable has a number of pseudonyms). I have a habit of reading about new (to me) vegetables which can't be found in markets and then searching for seeds so that I can try growing them myself if my climate allows. This vegetable was worth the search and at the time (round about 10 years ago) the seeds were barely to be found in the US. I only found one source, Comstock Ferre, but they don't carry them anymore. These days the seeds are much easier to find (use the Mother Earth News Seed Finder if you are in North America) and one of my favorite local seed companies just started to sell a named hybrid variety last year - Tronchuda Beira - which is the variety that I'm spotlighting today.
I sowed the seeds for the plants that are out in my garden now last year on August 13. The seeds were sown into a 4-inch plastic pot and then the best seedlings individually potted up into larger pots, then grown on to transplantable size. The best four plants were planted out on September 19. There's the new little plants shown below.
I harvested the first leaves on November 29 last year. Here's my first harvest of almost 14 ounces of caterpillar munched leaves. The munching cabbage worms and pecking birds were the biggest problems that I had with this crop this season. I didn't use any treatment for the cabbage worms, I just kept inspecting the leaves nearly every day and picked off the offending critters. The birds were more difficult to deter and I ended up covering the plants with a lightweight rowcover cloth.
I ended up harvesting 3 pounds of leaves last year, and 6.4 pounds so far this year, although that includes the flower shoots now that the plants are starting to bolt. The potential harvests were quite a bit more than I did harvest because I was gone for nearly a month earlier this year. All of the early harvests went into soup, both Caldo Verde and other vegetables soups.
Here's a photograph of a more recent harvest which included the flower shoots. I've been preparing the shoots by blanching them for about a minute in boiling water and then shocking them in ice water. This helps to get rid of the few aphids that are hiding amongst the buds. Then I've been lightly sauteing them in a bit of olive oil to finish them. They are delicious and mild tasting, very tender.
This particular variety of Couve Tronchuda is particularly vigorous and productive. I've grown a couple of other varieties and found that I needed four plants to meet my needs but these babies are so productive that I think that only two will suffice in the future. Just how much soup can two people eat? Ah, but I'm finally finding that it is good for more than just soup - it's taken me a while to find a method of cooking the leaves that I like. In the past I've tried to prepare it like kale with less than satisfactory results. The leaves turned too soft and I didn't like the texture. Lately I've taken to slicing the leaves as they would be prepared for Caldo Verde - into fine slivers about 3 to 4 inches long. Then I saute some onion, finely slivered prosciutto, and pine nuts in some olive oil; add the shredded couve tronchuda to the pan and toss just until the leaves wilt. Season with some mild pepper flakes and wine vinegar. Yum, I really like the texture of the wilted leaves, a bit chewy but not tough. I'll be experimenting with a few more variation on this method in the next week or so, or until the leaves get too old and tough or I need to pull the plants out to make room for some spring plantings.
Oh, and if you want a recipe for Caldo Verde, just do an internet search, there's recipes galore to be found. But do try growing Caldo Verde to put into that soup. Kale in caldo verde makes a very tasty soup, but it's just not the same.
There's a very interesting post on the Renee's Garden Seeds blog about Portuguese soups and tronchuda cabbage that you might enjoy also.
I'm joing Liz's Saturday Spotlight series at her blog Suburban Tomato. It's definitely worth a hop over there to see what other worthy vegetables are in the spotlight today.