Greens

Greens

By
Antonio Carluccio
Contains
39 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
9781849497527
Photographer
Laura Edwards

Vegetable leaves

Many of the vegetable leaves here are very Italian, but some of them are now becoming more widely available elsewhere. If you were truly interested, you could probably grow many of these leaves yourself, depending on climate – there are many Italian seed companies that can be found online.

Barba di frate (friar’s beard), a vegetable that is also known in Italy as agretti, grows in bunches of long thin leaves that look like fat chives; the leaves taste nutty and salty rather than oniony. The vegetable is known in English as saltwort; it looks like a succulent seaweed, and grows mostly near the sea. In Latin its name is Salsola soda, and the vegetable was once burned, along with other seaweeds, to make soda ash or sodium carbonate (for soap and glass). I have never seen it for sale other than in Italy, although apparently it grows wild throughout Europe, and you can actually buy seeds (from an Italian company, of course) to grow at home. The washed leaves are briefly boiled or steamed and eaten like asparagus or samphire, dressed with oil and lemon. The vegetable is often sautéed, or cooked with tomatoes or with butter and breadcrumbs. Barba di frate is not all that popular yet abroad, but when in season – in late spring – it is very much in demand in Italy.

Chicories, with their slightly bitter flavour, are much loved in Italy, especially in the south. They come in a multitude of varieties. Perhaps the most familiar outside Italy is what the British know as chicory, spear-shaped heads of tight, pale green leaves, which are actually the blanched shoots of chicory roots after the above-ground leaves have grown and faded. It was developed in the early nineteenth century by a Belgian gardener, which is why it is familiarly known as Belgian chicory or endive, and cicoria belga; it is also known as witloof (white leaf). It is not an Italian vegetable, but we like it a lot in Italy: I eat it raw as salad and braise it with garlic, capers and tomatoes to eat as a side vegetable or accompanied by a double-crusted polenta cake.

Most chicories, however, are loose heads of curly leaves which are known variously as endive, frisée, batavia, escarole and catalogna. Curly endive or frisée (Indivia riccia) comes in a tightish head of long and thin, dark green and raggedy leaves, looking rather like its ancestor, dandelion. Escarole or batavia is a looser head of leaves, but these are broader than curly endive, flat rather than curly, and paler in the middle. We love escarole in Italy, and it is grown everywhere, its outer leaves cooked as a vegetable, the inner leaves often used in salads. Curly endive is eaten in the same way.

Catalogna is another chicory only to be found in Italy as yet; it grows in bushy bunches of long leaves that look like dandelion. In Italian markets it may simply be labelled ‘cicoria’. There is also a catalogna that offers a new dimension, a vegetable developed from the original head of leaves, and this is one which contains puntarelle (‘little shoots’). The bunches look similar to other chicories, but within the outer layer of leaves are small, pale green spears/shoots. These are delightfully tender when cooked, and look like large asparagus tips. Most puntarelle is reduced to julienne (often using a special cutter), and soaked in water to make the strips curl (and minimize bitterness) before eating or cooking. It is eaten as a salad dressed with anchovies, garlic oil and vinegar. You will hear much more in the future about this vegetable. Cicorietta and dandelion are relations, but are used more in making salads.

The radicchio family plays a large role in the world of Italian leaves. These wonderful dark red heads come in three principal varieties. Chioggia radicchio, a round balllike vegetable, is so called because it originated from the town of Chioggia (south of Venice). The colourful red and white leaves are mostly used for salads, to wrap food or to make sauces. Treviso radicchio, a speciality of the town of Treviso (north of Venice), is also called spadone (‘big sword’) because of its elongated shape. It is available in the winter and has long sweetish leaves. It is excellent for salads but also for grilling and for preparing sauces for pasta and risottos. Castelfranco radicchio Carlucci is a round head of yellowish leaves sprinkled with red, which are very beautiful, and are excellent for salads as they are mild in flavour. See also the section on Salad Leaves.

The leaves of Italian spinach (spinacio) are substantial and very wrinkled, and so require to be washed several times under cold running water. Spinach is very versatile: it can be used in many dishes from soups to fritters, from side dishes to purées, from fillings for pasta (ravioli, cannelloni, etc.) to fillings for pies and tarts, and small leaves can be eaten raw in salads. Spinach is one of the most used greens in Italy, especially in Tuscany, where dishes including spinach are mostly called ‘a la fiorentina’. (This, so they say, is because Catherine de’ Medici – who left Florence to marry the King of France – loved spinach….)

The cultivated Swiss chard (coste) can grow quite big, looking rather like a giant cos lettuce on legs. The name ‘chard’ is derived from the French and Latin words for thistle; although chard is not a member of the thistle family, cardoon is, and it may be because cooked chard stalks have a similar texture to cardoon. The subspecies name ‘cicla’ – the plant is classified botanically as Beta vulgaris var. cicla – comes from the Latin word sicula, meaning ‘of Sicily’, which is where the plant is thought to have originated.

It has two edible parts, the actual leaf and the large white stalk, which are cooked in different ways. The green is used like spinach or any other leaf vegetable, and the harder white part of the stem can be cooked as soup, braised as a vegetable, grilled or even fried in breadcrumbs. There is a wild variety called erbette, which grows in the Ligurian hills, the leaves of which are mostly used as filling for the local ravioli, pansôti, in a mixture called preboggion.

Brassicas

The botanical family of brassicas includes a variety of vegetable foods which are extremely popular throughout all the Italian regions. Brassicas are mostly cooked in winter, and they produce very tasty peasant dishes. These have recently started to become popular in stylish restaurants, but they are first strongly ‘revisited’ to make them more appealing to the eye and taste, and more sophisticated.

The original brassica, cabbage (cavolo), is one of the oldest vegetables, having been eaten for thousands of years. The wild Brassica oleracea plant did not have a heart or head; leggy and loose-leafed, it would have looked and tasted rather like kale.

One cultivar of B. oleracea formed a head of loose or tight leaves, which gave us the blue-green, crinkly-leaved Savoy cabbage (cavolo verza) and the familiar tightheaded white cabbage (cavolo cappuccio). Savoy cabbages have loose curly leaves, which are particularly pretty on the outside: these are mostly used blanched as containers for various fillings, with the paler inside leaves used as other cabbages. I remember as a teenager, when food was relatively scarce, making an occasional salad from cabbage ‘borrowed’ from a nearby field. My friend and I would eat this, dressed with oil and vinegar, with bread for tea in the afternoon. Because of our persistent hunger, the taste was heaven indeed. But the best way of eating Savoy cabbage is in a soupy mess made with stale bread, Fontina, Parmesan, butter and stock.

White cabbages, which consist of a head of much tighter leaves, can grow very large indeed and are eaten in various ways, notably in the fermented Sauerkraut or Krauti, which the Germans, Austrians and northern Italians like so much. Extremely finely cut white cabbage is fermented under weights in wooden barrels to extract moisture, after which it is cooked for some time before being served as a meat accompaniment. It plays a major part in a French dish called choucroûte garnie, fermented cabbage garnished with all sorts of pork meats; when the French reclaimed Alsace, they annexed the dish from Germany as well! The German original is called Schlachterplatte, a dish served when the slaughter of the pig takes place in winter. In Italy, with the exception of the north-east, white cabbage is eaten as a vegetable and in soups.

Red cabbage (cavolo rosso) is a tight-headed cabbage persuaded to change colour from green to red (some say as early as the sixteenth century). I like it very much for its design and pattern when you cut it in half. I don’t care for it raw in salads (as many people do), but it is delightful cooked with a little vinegar and sugar, especially served with roast pork or, even better, roast goose. I usually add some raisins, which, when cooked, are sweet and juicy.

To the palette of cabbage colours has been added the so-called black cabbage or cavolo nero. Developed in Italy in the 1960s, its very dark green crinkled leaves on long stems have become very fashionable. It is most popular in Tuscany, where it plays a major part in ribollita, a bread and cabbage soup, best eaten the day after being cooked. In London the first to produce it was my late friend Alvaro Maccioni, owner of La Famiglia, a typical Tuscan restaurant. In fact, bread and cabbage are used in many different ways for their unity of taste.

Other cabbage types retained heads of loose leaves, which can be quite bitter in flavour. These include the ‘kale’ of Scotland, the ‘cole’ of England, and the ‘collards’ of the American South. Another, if plucked early in spring, is what is known as spring greens. Spring greens and young kale can be very tender, and are eaten braised or boiled as a vegetable or soup. The wild sea kale, which I discuss briefly, is actually a maritime member of the cabbage family.

Brussels sprouts (cavolini di Bruxelles) – which look like miniature cabbages – are also a member of the cabbage family. They and their leaves are edible, and although they are not used so much in Italy, they deserve a mention. A near relation is flower sprouts (or kalettes), a cross between Brussels sprouts and kale, looking like miniature green and purple ruffled sprouts, an invention of the twenty-first century.

The origins of the brassicas cauliflower and broccoli are obscure, but cauliflower was known in Italy at the end of the fifteenth century (brought by the Moors, probably, from the Middle East), while broccoli hybrids have been developed only in the last couple of centuries. Cauliflower is a form of cabbage encouraged to flower, but in which the flowers have not developed beyond the bud stage. Clustered close together in a tight head, the white ‘curd’ is enclosed in edible cabbage-like leaves. Cauliflower (cavolfiore) is a very versatile vegetable. By boiling it in small florets until extremely tender, then mixing it with eggs and flour in a batter, you can produce delicious fritters. It makes a good purée too. Pasta and cauliflower were a staple combination in my family: my mother used to cook them together in a saucy concoction. Cauliflower is also delicious raw in salads or as a crudité, breadcrumbed and fried in fritto misto, and excellent pickled in an insalata di rinforzo.

Broccolo romanesco is a hybrid cauliflower, despite its name: its small, lively, green-coloured head is knobbly and conical, with florets in the shape of small pyramids. The beautiful colour is retained after cooking. This vegetable is used not only for soups and creams, but in salads, sautéed and boiled with lemon and oil. Cape broccoli is not a broccoli at all, but a pigmented cauliflower with a dark purple curd; this turns green when cooked.

And now we come to broccoli, the brassica that I think is the most popular and delicate of all. Broccoli is thought to be have been developed from its white cousin, cauliflower. Both are composed of stalk and ‘cabbage’ flower heads that remain in bud, clustered tightly together. Broccoli comes in several disparate forms, mostly developed in Italy. Sprouting broccoli was probably the first, as it has long stalks and separate smaller heads (the word ‘broccoli’ means ‘little arms’ or ‘little shoots’ in Italian); these heads can be green, purple or white. Purple sprouting broccoli loses its colour when cooked, but it is delicious sautéed with garlic, chilli and oil and eaten as a vegetable or side dish. Calabrese is a later form, with a large, compact, bluegreen head (its name meaning ‘from Calabria’). It is used particularly in the south in a sauce for pasta, it also appears in soups, and can be a side dish vegetable at any time. Broccolini or Tenderstem broccoli (‘Tenderstem’ is now a trademark) is a cross between broccoli and kai-lan, also known as Chinese broccoli or kale.

Cime di rapa – literally ‘tops of turnip’ – are also known throughout Italy as rapi or rapini, and as friarielli or broccoli di rapa in Naples, and as broccoletti in Rome. Despite looking a bit like broccoli, and its many broccoli-related names, it is not really a broccoli at all, but a kind of rape (oilseed rape, Brassica napus), which is very closely related to turnip. (Turnip, although mostly classified as a root vegetable, is actually a brassica, its botanical name is Brassica rapa rapa.) Used in much the same way as sprouting broccoli, cime di rapa is very popular in the south of Italy.

Kohlrabi, known as ‘turnip cabbage’ (cavolo rapa), is probably the oddest-looking of all the brassicas. It resembles a sputnik, a round turnip-like vegetable (it’s actually a root stem) studded with leaf stalks, either green (in summer) or purple (autumn and winter). The vegetable, after peeling, is cooked or eaten raw; the leaves can be cooked as well, just like kale.

Then there are shoots of a brassica, very much my favourite, which appear in cultivated fields in spring. They are from the mustard plant. What I pick are the still closed flowers before they open to become that wonderful yellow you see all over the countryside. They seed themselves later in the year and grow on the border of the mustard fields as an escape, allowing you to pick them without trespassing. They are delightful and you must pick them before they are sprayed. I eat them braised with crusty polenta . . . mmm! You can also eat the leaves earlier in the year, when they are known as mustard greens.

Pods and seeds

In this section of the vast chapter concerning ‘Greens’, we are going to talk about the huge variety of edible pods and their seeds, in other words, beans and peas. These belong to the legume family, a group of vegetables in which a double-seamed pod contains a single row of seeds. (Botanically speaking, beans and peas are actually fruit, as they consist of pods, fruit, which contain seeds . . .) There are three types of beans and peas: those that are edible, pod and all, before the seed is ripe; those with seeds that are eaten when podded or shelled; and those in which the seeds are left to mature in the pod and then dried. We are going to deal with the fresh vegetables here, the first two types, and you can find information on the dried varieties in the section on Pulses.

Perhaps the most interesting thing historically to learn about beans is that they were brought back from the Americas in what is known as the Columbian Exchange. Before Columbus discovered the New World, the only bean variety known in Europe was the fava or broad bean. These new plants – in their great variety, including haricot, black-eyed, cannellini, borlotti, butter and black beans – were embraced enthusiastically by everyone, as they were easy to grow, good to eat and could also be dried, which meant they could be enjoyed all year round. Beans have always been a good food for the impoverished, but now, of course, with the rediscovery of peasant food, they have become more sophisticated, and appear on the menus of chic restaurants…

First I would like to talk about the beans which are grown and appreciated for their fresh pods, generally known as ‘green’ – although this is a bit of misnomer, as a number of these vegetables, especially those most prized in Italy, come in many different colours. These mostly green beans (fagiolini verdi) include haricots verts or French beans (string or snap beans in the USA), whose pods are round, and runner beans (fagiolini taccole or romano), whose pods are flat. I presume the name for runner beans comes from the fact that they grow very quickly. They are mainly eaten when the tender pod is young, as it becomes too dry and woody to eat later on in the season. However, it is at this stage, when you leave the pod on the plant, that a wonderful multicoloured large bean is produced that can be cooked like any other large bean, after podding, or dried to cook later.

A particularly long variety of green bean, which measures about 30cm in length, is the originally Asian yard-long (or asparagus) bean. We grow a lot of this in the south of Italy. (I like that on Italian seed packets it is called Fagiolo rampicante – running rampant perhaps?!) Another bean we appreciate is the wax bean, which is virtually the same in look and taste as the green bean, but its pod is cream-coloured, while its tiny beans are lime green.

Green beans should be eaten when young, when the pods are very tender. At one point, the sides of these beans had to be de-stringed (it’s why they have the name ‘string’), but now most green beans have been bred to be stringless. Often these bright green beans can turn out a muddy olive green when boiled. This is caused by the chlorophyll in the beans reacting with acids in the cooking water. You should cook the beans in plenty of water, so that the acids are diluted, and never cover with a lid, thereby allowing the acids to escape. My preferred way of cooking all these beans, though, is to stew them in a tomato, garlic and basil sauce, accompanied by bread for a starter.

And now we come to the beans which are podded, and the ‘seeds’ eaten. Prime among them in Italy, particularly in the north, is the borlotti bean, which can be found fresh in late summer. The beans are beige streaked with magenta, and turn brown when cooked: the pods are magenta and white, easily the most colourful of all the beans. Many times as a child I was ‘commanded’ to pod the borlotti beans for minestrone or pasta e fagioli or fagioli in insalata with onion and tuna.

Cannellini beans are the next most popular in Italy, especially in Tuscany, but these are most commonly eaten dried.

The broad bean, the only one of the huge bean family to be native to the West, is another podded bean used fresh. (However, if you grow them yourself, you can eat the pods too if you catch them young enough.) In Italy, the podded beans are generally eaten raw and very young, in Puglia accompanied by fresh Pecorino cheese, bread and a good glass of wine. If the beans are a little older, you can cook them briefly and remove the sludge-green outer skin, revealing the inner brilliant green seed. Fresh, you will find broad beans cooked together with peas, onions and artichokes in the Sicilian frittedda, a lovely stew of the springtime vegetable. Broad beans are known as fava and Windsor beans in the USA; the American lima beans, known also as butter beans, are closely related to broad beans, and are eaten in the same way.

The edamame bean (fagiolo soia) is an immature soya bean cooked in the pod. The beans are sprinkled with sea salt, and you eat them by sucking the beans out of the pod. Very popular in Japanese restaurants, these beans have a wonderful pale green colour and taste very nutty. You could combine the podded beans with onion and tuna for a salad.

The pea is an ancient vegetable. When dried, it used to be an important form of protein in ancient times. Garden peas (piselli), varieties that can be eaten fresh, were not developed until the sixteenth century in Italy. The inner skins of garden pea pods were inedible, so the peas were always removed from the pods. It wasn’t until at least a century later that a pea pod was cultivated without that inedible inner skin. The mangetout pea, or taccole in Italy, is edible, pod and all (thus the French ‘eat-all’ and the Italian mangiatutto), and is eaten when the pod is still flat, before the peas begin to swell. Snow peas are similar, but the peas are in a later stage of growth. The American sugarsnap peas have even larger peas within the pods, but are still edible, pod and all, and much sweeter than any of the other peas (apart from petits pois). All these pea varieties are best stewed with tomatoes, or just boiled with butter.

The pea is found in almost all cuisines of the world, eaten both fresh and dried. From my garden I used to eat them raw because of their sweetness. In supermarkets and greengrocers they are often not very tender – because they have been hanging about for a while – and sometimes I use frozen peas instead, as I can be sure they are truly sweet – they are frozen straight from the field, when very young and tender (as are most broad and soya beans). Frozen petits pois are garden peas picked at a very early stage of development, and are very sweet indeed. Risi e bisi, the famous risotto of Venice, is an amalgam of rice and peas. Frittata di piselli, pasta e piselli, piselli al prosciutto, zuppa di piselli and piselli e patate are among the many Italian ways to use peas.

Recently developed and in fashion are pea shoots, which are the tips of the pea plant; these are used as a green vegetable or for decoration of ‘modern’ dishes.

Stalks and shoots

Stalk, stem and shoot vegetables are growths from plant roots, namely the parts of the plant that grow above ground. They are quite rare among edible plants, as they do not on the whole form fruits or leaves: it is the stalks, stems or shoots themselves that are eaten.

Primary in this group are asparagus, cardoon, celery and my own particular favourite, hop shoots. Growing similarly, and many of them considered here, are Swiss chard, fennel, sea kale and, perhaps surprisingly, rhubarb. Globe artichokes are also included in this section because it is the stalk or stem buds, the immature flower heads, that are eaten. Kohlrabi, although it is a swollen stem, is discussed in the Brassica section.

Asparagus (asparago) is the best example of a shoot vegetable. It is a member of the lily family, as are garlic, leek and onion. There are several varieties available: green, white, purple – which come in different thicknesses – and wild asparagus. The latter grows in the wild throughout Europe. I will never forget travelling by car through Sardinia: at various points along the roadside shepherds were selling bundles of wild asparagus, which they had collected while grazing their sheep. (This often happens in Italy, with many different items, grown in the wild or in a garden plot, offered for sale: fresh wild mushrooms or whatever is locally in season. It’s a joy to take home such fresh produce, for certain organically grown.)

Asparagus stems or spears grow from an underground rhizome, known as a crown. Spears can be male or female. Female spears are less productive because they put much of their energy into producing red berries, which are mildly poisonous to humans. (Asparagus is the only vegetable in the lily family to bear seeds and not fruit.) Male hybrids are the ones most available commercially, because they concentrate on spear production! The spears are cut from the ground when the tips are still firm and closed; if allowed to grow on, frondy growth would develop from the tips.

Green and white asparagus, although they look so different, are the same plant. The white is deliberately blanched by growing it totally under the earth (or, often today, polythene). It is never exposed to sunlight, in order to prevent the development of green chlorophyll. This type of asparagus is tender and subtle in flavour, and the Germans, French and Spanish are particularly fond of it. It is eaten in Germany freshly boiled with new potatoes, melted butter and big slices of Black Forest ham. The French prefer it with sauce hollandaise. The only part of Italy where white asparagus is grown is in the Veneto, in the area of Bassano del Grappa, where the local restaurants hold competitions to see who produces the best white asparagus dish.

Green asparagus, which is preferred in Britain, America and Australia, is allowed to grow naturally out of the earth, bathed in sunlight, in order to encourage the green coloration, and it is collected when still very tender. There are a myriad ways of cooking asparagus: obviously you can plainly steam or boil it and serve it with melted butter or hollandaise; but you could add a little freshly grated Parmesan as well. You could roast thicker spears of asparagus, cook them with onions and eggs, purée them as a ravioli filling, and serve them whole baked in a quiche or tart.

Purple asparagus was developed from green, and is so tender from tip to base that it can be eaten raw; wonderful for dipping and salads. Italian growers were responsible, and they gave it the name ‘Violetto d’Albenga’. ‘Burgundine’ is a purple asparagus now being grown in Britain.

Another shoot, which looks like mini asparagus, is the hop shoot. The hop is the plant that produces flower heads/cones that are used to flavour beer. When the plants are under cultivation, they are cut right back at the end of the season; numerous new shoots then grow from the rootstock in spring. It is these that can be cut (so long as you leave one or two to grow on for beer production!), and cooked, often being called ‘the poor man’s asparagus’. In Italy hop shoots can be collected from the hedges (as they probably can in hop-growing areas of England), and used in frittatas, risottos and salads. In springtime you can find hop shoots in the markets of Venice, labelled as bruscandoli. They are sold in small bunches by farmers, who have collected the shoots on the many islands of the lagoon. In Belgium, a famous beer-producing country like England, hop shoots are a local speciality: they are often blanched to produce white rather than green shoots. You could grow hops yourself at home: buy plants and site them where they can climb up a hedge or a wall.

The cardoon (cardo) is a member of the edible thistle family, as is the globe artichoke. In fact it is thought that the wild cardoon – native to the Mediterranean and North Africa – may be the ancestor of both vegetables. Left to grow, cardoon plants can reach a height of 1.8 metres, with a typical purple thistle flower. However, it is the cardoon ribs and stalks that are eaten, not the flower buds or heads. The plant looks like celery, with flatter, longer and wider silver stalks growing in clumps, surrounded by silvery-green leaves. They need to be extensively trimmed before being used – you have to get rid of all but the very white bottom stalks, and there are many prickly outer leaves and strings.

The cardoon is very much loved in various parts of Italy. In Piedmont they blanch the stalks by bending them over and banking them up with earth. This keeps the stalks white and tender, and they are known colloquially as gobbi, ‘hunchbacks’. Young fresh stalks are mainly used raw in Piedmont to be dipped into bagna cauda (the anchovy and garlic dip) at Christmas time. More mature stalks are used in soups, in flans, in frittatas and baked: I love pieces of cardoon breadcrumbed and deep-fried.

But perhaps the most intriguing stalk or stem vegetable is the globe artichoke (carciofo), which, like cardoons, belongs to the thistle family. It is the tender parts of the unopened flower buds – and residual stalk – that are eaten, rather than the ribs and stalks, as with the cardoon. If allowed to grow on, like cardoon, the plant would reach a good height, and the head would develop into a classic thistle flower. It was the Italians who brought it into successful cultivation, and it is still in Italy that it remains most popular, being such a staple food in season that in the south they sell them in big bundles for virtually nothing! Artichokes are predominant in Rome and Lazio, part of the Jewish food culture. There are many varieties available, and many sizes: in Italy, the biggest, la mamma, is the one to appear at the top of the stalk; secondary heads, which grow later below the main head, are called figli (children); and the smallest heads, which grow last and furthest down the stalk, are called nipoti (nephews).

What you eat of the artichoke are the tender fleshy parts at the base of the leaves (the rest of the leaves are simply too tough), and the heart, bottom or ‘fond’. You must first remove the prickly central choke (of a mature vegetable), which is what would develop into a flower. Most artichokes are boiled whole to eat as a starter with melted butter, vinaigrette or a sauce like hollandaise. They can be stuffed and braised or even preserved in vinegar and kept in olive oil for antipasti. If they are very young and small, artichokes can be eaten raw, very thinly sliced. In Italy and many places on the Continent, globe artichokes are sold ready prepared, the hearts only, and these can be cooked together with onion, olives and potatoes, fried in a batter, roasted on a grill, fried in oil. An essence of artichokes is used in an aperitif called Cynar, which also serves as a digestif.

The stalk celery (sedano) and its close relative celeriac were both developed by the Italians in the seventeenth century from a wild plant, called smallage. There are several closely related types: white celery has been blanched in cultivation (by earthing up or covering with polythene); green celery, which is stronger in flavour, is unblanched; and a Chinese celery (kun choi), which is occasionally available, is like very small celery with hollow thin stalks. Celery is eaten raw (pinzimonio) – good for dips and with cheese (in the English fashion). As a foundation vegetable, it is cooked in a ‘soffritto’ in Italy, with onion and other root vegetables as the start of a ragù sauce, for instance. Elsewhere it is often used in the same fashion, as the basis of a stock, stew or soup. Celery leaves and seeds can also be used, as they carry a good celery flavour.

There are three basic types of fennel (finocchio), also classified as a stem or stalk vegetable. A wild form still grows wild in Italy, and is now used mainly for its seed as a spice. Sweet fennel is closely related, and it is grown for its feathery leaves (herb) and seeds (spice). The Italians developed a third type around the late seventeenth century; known as Florence or bulb fennel, this is used as a vegetable. The base of the stem or stalk was encouraged to expand and swell, forming a bulb with overlapping layers of ‘leaves’. These bulbs can be squat and rounded, or elongated (female and male); the females have the best flavour. Bulb fennel is blanched during cultivation (earthed up or covered with polythene) to keep it white and to sweeten its gloriously aniseedy flesh. I love fennel raw (pinzimonio) with dips like bagna cauda, and sliced thinly in salads. Raw, it is often served after a meal in Italy, as it is considered a digestive. It is good cooked (although much of the anise flavour is lost), and served with light meat and fish. I have developed a way of using fennel as a sauce for pasta, which is delicious with prawns.

Sea kale (cavolo marino) is another shoot and stalk vegetable, which grows wild on beaches in Europe. In cultivation it is blanched, so that it has fat, succulent white stalks, which can be eaten like asparagus. It is rarely found in markets, so I have not given a recipe. Yet another stalk is that of rhubarb (rabarbaro), which, although botanically a vegetable, is eaten as a fruit, so has no natural place here. And a final stalk vegetable is Swiss chard; both stalks and leaves are eaten, and I talk about them elsewhere. Celtuce, known as wosun in China, is a cultivar of lettuce, grown for its thick stem: this is shaved thinly and eaten raw or cooked, or chopped and sliced and stir-fried.

Salad leaves

By ‘salad leaves’, I mean those leaves – green, red, yellow, a myriad colours – that are mostly eaten raw in salads (although some of them can be cooked). To this group also belong ‘wild’ leaves, most of which are easy to collect and find, provided you have access to the countryside. As a child in the spring, I would go either with my parents or some neighbouring farmer through the fields in search of small and tender dandelions, nettles, wild garlic and, a little later in the year, wild rocket and sorrel. All these items are essential, whether wild or cultivated, for a good salad, and the more the merrier. The French call a salad of mixed leaves ‘mesclun’ (meaning, appropriately, ‘big mixture’), and on the Continent you can find such combinations for sale on market stalls.

I shall start, though, with lettuce in all its variety. The botanical name of lettuce is Lactuca sativa (lattuga in Italian). ‘Lac’ means milk in Latin, which is an allusion to the white substance, now called latex, exuded by cut stems. This latex is mildly narcotic, which is possibly why Beatrix Potter’s famous Flopsy Bunnies fell asleep after gorging on Mr McGregor’s lettuces – and why health writers say that lettuce is a good thing to eat at night.

Three types of lettuce are most worthy of note. The most common in the UK, known as round lettuce, has floppy, loosely bunched leaves and is the most widely planted, used mainly in salads. The lettuces known as Romaine and Cos – they are the same (lattuga romana) – have loose heads of long leaves, which are much crisper than round lettuces. These are used mainly for salads, sandwiches and for dipping and stuffing, and have a starring role in Caesar salads. (The name ‘Romaine’ came from the Romans, who grew them, while Cos are thought to be have been developed on the Greek island of Cos.) Little gem lettuces are a compact variety of Cos/Romaine lettuce. The third type of lettuce is the crisphead, better known as iceberg (lattuga iceberg!), which is used in salads and as containers for salad ingredients.

The Italians, once again, have developed many different types of leaves to be used in salads, including the loose-leaved lollo rosso (crinkled leaves tinged deep red at their ends), lollo biondo and lollo verde. Oakleaf lettuces, loose-leaved again, have serrated green leaves, sometimes tinged with red. But we must not forget other cultivated leaves that can happily be used in salads: the chicories such as curly endive or frisée, escarole or batavia, and the various types of radicchio (all discussed in the section on Vegetable Leaves). Small chard leaves – green with red stalks and spines – can be plucked young and used in salads, as can other young leaves, particularly spinach. A Japanese leaf, a mustard green known as mizuna, forms part of many pre-packed salad mixes, and adds texture and good mustardy flavour.

Watercress (crescione) is a wonderful leaf to add to salads, with its peppery and pungent flavour. Unlike other salad leaves, it is grown in streams, in clean running water, and can be cultivated or collected from the wild. Most of us, unfortunately, have to buy it in closed plastic bags. However, it is still good, used raw in salads or as a garnish; it makes magnificent sauces and soups, and adds savour to sandwiches. The botanical name of watercress is Nasturtium of ficinale, which points in the direction of another salad ingredient that can be grown or collected: the actual garden flower nasturtium (nasturzio). Apparently the name means ‘twisting the nose’ in Latin, referring to its strong scent: the buds, flowers and leaves are incredibly peppery in flavour.

As a child I used to collect corn salad, lamb’s lettuce, or mâche (valeriana) from the wild, but the cultivated variety, bought usually in packets, is very tender and is a delicious addition to any salad. Apparently it has the name ‘corn’ because it used to grow as a weed in grain fields: I used to collect it from between the rows of vines in the local vineyards. Rocket (rucola in Italian, which became arugula in the USA) is another salad leaf that has become popular, fashionable indeed, but it is one I could find growing wild in the northern Italian countryside. Its sharp taste – almost of horseradish, it is so peppery – adds immeasurably to a mixed green salad. It is very easy to grow at home, and is delicious dressed with a good oil and with shavings of Parmesan on top. Commercially, I feel rocket has been over-exposed, so it is not so interesting any more . . .

What is known as mustard and cress (again crescione) is actually a combination of two herbs, garden cress (Lepidium sativum) and white mustard (Brassica hirta). The seeds are scattered on damp kitchen paper, or cotton wool (or similar) and, after germination, the tiny plants are cut when they are some 5cm tall. The combination of the two, the mustard spicy, the cress blander, is delicious as a garnish, or in a sandwich in the British style. Sadly, some punnets sold in British supermarkets have been found to be composed of oilseed rape seeds with a small amount of cress, which is not nearly so tasty.

Now to the truly wild leaves. The dandelion, Taraxacum of ficinalis, is the weed plant known as ‘piss-en-lit’ in French and ‘piscialetto’ in Italian, so called because it has diuretic properties. You can find it for sale in Italian markets as simply cicoria di campo, as its bitter flavour is reminiscent of many of the chicories. If you choose young leaves, and clean them well, dandelion leaves make a wonderful salad leaf, and can also be cooked, with beans and pork, say.

The tender leaves of wild sorrel are ideal for salad in that they give an amazing acidity. They are also good in risottos or soups. You can grow sorrel in your garden, one of the first plants to appear in the spring. As a child, I used to chew sorrel stems because of their pleasant sour taste. Another wild leaf, that of wild garlic, I talk about in the Garlic section.

And finally the nettle, the stinging leaf of a weed that grows everywhere throughout Europe (usually near human settlements, oddly enough). These leaves contain many more natural goodies than they do taste, but it’s still worthwhile picking them to eat (please, always with gloves on!). Nettle leaves are actually cooked rather than eaten raw, for a filling for pies and ravioli, in risottos and in soups. My tongue still remembers the taste of the wild herb soup that Nina, my farmer/hotelier friend from the Aosta Valley, used to make: she would go into the local fields and collect at least ten different wild greens growing in that very short season at 1,800 metres above sea level. She would make with them what she called THE BEST SOUP IN THE WORLD!

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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