Dinner/ Italian recipes/ One-pot recipes/ Oven dishes/ Pasta/ Quick & Easy/ Vegetables/ Vegetarian

Cavolo Nero and Leek Mac & Cheese (with Pickled Stems)

18 January 2024

This truly is a no-waste dish! The cavolo nero stems are Finley chopped and quickly pickled. The blanching water and pot used for the leeks and cavolo nero are used again to cook the macaroni al dente. But most and foremost is that this dish is suuuuper tasty! Cheesy, gooey, crunchy, healthy and studded with zingy kale pickles, it really has it all! 

The original recipe by @deliciousmag is with crispy smokey bacon mixed through the bread crumb topping, but I wanted to keep it vegetarian today and it works great without too! As an alternative to bacon you could add chopped anchovies to the crumb topping (but alas, mine were finished).

If you have less time, I’ve also made a slightly easier version of this recipe before which requires no pickling and blending, Mac & Cheese with Kale and Smokey Bacon.

Cavolo Nero and Leek Mac & Cheese

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (3 votes, average: 4.33 out of 5)
Dinner American, Italian
By Saffron & Delicious Mag Serves: 4-6
Prep Time: 5 minutes Cooking Time: 20 minutes in oven, 20 minutes cooking on stove Total Time: 45 minutes


  • 300 - 400 g cavolo nero
  • 1 leek
  • 60ml cider vinegar
  • 40ml water
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 30g panko breadcrumbs
  • 50g unsalted butter
  • 50g plain flour
  • 500g whole milk
  • 50g parmesan, finely grated
  • 250g mature cheese, coarsely grated
  • 1 tsp dijon mustard
  • 300g dried macaroni
  • To taste: Pepper, salt & Nutmeg
  • Optional for the crumb topping
  • 125 g smokey bacon or 10 anchovies fillets (see notes)



Preheat the oven to 200°C.


Remove the stems from the cavolo nero and finely slice the stems. Put them in a small sauce pan with the vinegar, water and sugar and bring to a simmer. As soon as it boils remove from the heat and let it cool.


Roughly chop the cavolo nero and the leek. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and add the kale and leek, simmer for 3-4 minutes until softened. Drain, while keeping the hot water, and set aside (I used a large slotted spoon).


Bring the water back to a simmer and cook the pasta according to the packaging, 2 minutes less than the description, drain and add a bit of olive oil to stop it sticking. Set aside.


In a sauce pan melt the butter until foaming and then add the flour, cook for 1 minute on medium heat while you keep stirring. Whisk in the milk bit by bit and keep whisking until you get a smooth and lump free sauce. Let bubble away on low heat for 3-4 minutes. Add 3/4 of both the cheeses and the mustard and stir until melted through. Taste and season with pepper, salt and freshly grated nutmeg.


Squeeze as much liquid as you can from the leek / cavolo nero mixture and add it to a blender. Scoop half of the béchamel sauce to the vegetables and blend until you get a dark green smooth sauce. Pour it back into the pan with the rest of the sauce and stir well. Taste and season with more pepper, salt and a drop of the pickling liquid.


Add the macaroni and mix well, pour it in an ovenproof dish.


In a separate bowl add the bread crumbs, the cheese and a good pinch of crushed black pepper. Mix well with your hands and divide it over the top of the mac & cheese.


Place in the oven and bake for 20 minutes until bubbling on the inside and golden and crunchy on top.


For extra flavour you can add crispy fried bacon or anchovies to the crumb topping. For the bacon, fry this ahead of time, finely chop and add to the cheesy crumb. For the anchovies, finely chop and add to the cheesy crumb.

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