Green is a winter vegetable around these parts, or in other words, so many winter vegetables are green. And when I call them winter vegetables that is because they are. Only. As in only in winter. Not a broccoli in sight around here over the warmer months, not even in the most shady of supermarkets.
Greens of very shade fill the market stalls in the form of cabbages, spinach, chicory, broccoli in various forms, puntarelle, the dark leaves of cavolo nero, bunches of shiny leaved chard (or what I grew up calling silver beet) and piles of sprouting green turnip tops. Stall holders are busy stuffing bags full of greens, trimming broccoli, and slicing puntarelle.
So, what do Italians do with all these vegetables?
Last year I started leading gastronomic tours for Casa Mia Food & Wine. Most visitors are so enthusiastic about the time we spend at the market, and I still feel that same zeal because there is just so much stuff to talk about. The fellow below, for example, is the broccolo romanesco, a variety that looks like a cross between a cauliflower and a regular broccoli conceived during an episode of star trek; sweeter and starchier than regular broccoli. Served as a side Romans like to cook broccoli (very) well and then slosh it around the pan with chili and garlic and plenty of olive oil. From here they can be cooked further along with some water from the pasta cooking pot until it breaks down into a velvety pasta sauce. This has to be one one the best ways to get children to eat more than two ‘little trees’ of broccoli, all things going swimmingly for almost the entire winter until the whole family revolts and says ‘basta!‘; ‘enough pasta and broccoli mum’.
I’m always explaining to visitors how all these wonderful vegetables falling off the stalls of the market are taken home to be turned into soups, side dishes, bakes, braises, roasts and the fillings for frittatas, terrines and rustic tarts. Because there is so much more to Italian food than pizza and pasta.
Elderly Italians; the generation that is keeping the daily neighborhood markets alive (and who hasn’t often pondered the almost certain demise of these bastions of socio-culinary life when this generation is no longer) roll their market shoppers home with kilos of greens that will be sautéed and seasoned and then distributed to various family members to help feed the extended family for the week. Scarola, a curly endive like lettuce, very bitter when eaten raw, is cooked down alla Napoletana in a large pan with small olives, capers sultanas and pinenuts and then served as a side, a light meal in itself, or used as a filling for a torta rustica.
Rustic tarts are particularly fine homes for the seasonal vegetable and one of my most well loved corners of the Italian kitchen. Torte Rustiche are the Italian answer to a quiche, a certain entrant at any kind of a ‘bring a plate’ type event; a party, picnic, day in the country, spring day in the park et al. We had a new year’s party at our house one year and I still remember the radicchio tart someone brought along; a long roll of brittle olive oil pastry * stuffed with radicchio braised with onions and pancetta. Everyone knows how to knock-up a torta rustica, even those daughters of feminists that don’t cook that make up the majority of my Roman female friends.
Rustic tarts – which generally use brisè or rough puff pastry – are a sort of blank canvas on which to mix and match seasonal vegetables, a whole gamma of cheeses, with a couple of eggs thrown in to bind everything together if needed. The standard issue is spinach and ricotta, which in Rome is usually a sheep’s milk ricotta, pepped up by a little nutmeg and grated pecorino. Putting a lid on top makes more of a meal out it it, and because my mother always does, I like a bit of botanical decoration.
Brisé pastry – for 1 large or 2 small tarts
250 g plain 00 flour
125 d butter
90 ml cold water
Sift flour and salt into a large mixing bowl or food processor. Dice butter and add to the flour. Rub the butter into the flour using the tips of your fingers (or using food processor) until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add the cold water and mix well until the pastry comes together, use extra water – by the spoonful – if the mixture is still crumbly. Work the pastry a little on a clean cool surface, wrap in plastic film and rest in the fridge for at least half an hour.
Spinach and ricotta filling for 1 roughly 20cm tart
300 g fresh, drained ricotta
300 spinach leaves
1 small brown onion
1 clove garlic, let whole and lightly crushed
Salt and pepper
50 g grated pecorino
Wash the spinach leaves well and while they are still wet sauté in a little oil and garlic until well wilted. Drain the spinach well and then chop roughly. Dice the onion and fry off in the same pan as the spinach. Combine all of the ingredients and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste.
Pre-heat the oven to 180° C. Roll out the pastry to fill a roughly 20cm tart tin. I normally line the at least part of the tin with greaseproof or butter paper. Fill the tart – it will cook best if it is about 2cm high – and cover with another disk of pastry. Pinch the sides of the tart well, add decoration and brush with an egg wash. Cook for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown.
Broccoli and Provolone filling for 1 roughly 20cm tart
Half a roman (or regular) broccoli
1 small onion – diced
150 g Provolone piccante
50 g pecorino romano
Lightly sauté the onion in a little olive oil. Wash and trim the broccoli and cook in salted water. When just al dente remove one quarter of the florets and set aside. Let the remaining broccoli cook until soft. Drain and place in a large mixing bowl where it can be mashed and seasoned with salt, pepper and a good sprinkle of pecorino. Add the eggs and diced provolone and mix well. Pour into a tart case that has been lined with paper and pastry and bake at 180° C for 20 minutes.
* I am still trying to perfect really good olive oil pastry, and will promise to share when I hit upon the perfect recipe. Would love suggestions as to good ratios.
Photos: Giorgia Nofrini, featured image Mark Chew