Vegetable fruits

Vegetable fruits

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

The vegetables I have written about so far come from various parts of different plants. Celery, for instance, is a classic stem vegetable; cabbage and lettuce are leaf vegetables; cauliflower and broccoli are bud vegetables; and carrots, onions and potatoes are all included in the (somewhat arbitrary) category of root vegetables. However, fruit vegetables, or vegetable fruits, are actually the fruits of their parent plant. They grow on vines, developing from a flower; their bodies are pulpy and contain single or many seeds, from which the next generation of plants might develop. Botanically, they are classified as fruit – primarily because of that seed content – although most of them are known and treated as vegetables.

One plant family with many vegetable fruits is the Cucurbitaceae, which originated in Central and South America. Members include the melons and watermelon; most of the pumpkins and squashes (known as winter squashes); the cucumber and gherkin; and the vegetable marrow and courgettes or zucchini (known as summer squashes).

Other vegetable fruits, also hailing from the Americas, are the bush fruits such as tomatoes, peppers and chillies, as well as aubergines (eggplants), the latter from Asia. Tree fruits are avocado and olive, both of which have an interior seed/stone – like a plum, for instance – but which are categorized as vegetables. Strictly speaking, in a botanical sense, peas and beans are vegetable fruits too, as the ‘fruits’, the pods, contain seeds.

Winter squashes

Winter squashes belong to the genus Cucurbita maxima. These are the ones that can be stored through the winter; they have skins which thicken and harden, and thus protect the flesh during storage; their seeds too are fully formed. Belonging to the genus C. pepo, summer squashes, on the whole, are harvested when immature, with soft skin and barely visible seeds – but there are types of squash which can be considered as either. Some so-called winter squashes can be picked early and cooked without peeling, but most are grown on and stored, when the skin becomes hard and the flesh more fibrous.

Late summer and autumn is the time when winter squashes such as pumpkin (zucca) are available, as well as a plethora of other squashes and gourds (many of the latter used as decoration). We all know that pumpkins came from America: the pumpkin plays a major part in Thanksgiving celebrations, candied as a vegetable to accompany turkey, or as a gloriously sweet and spiced pumpkin pie. We adopted it enthusiastically in Italy, and pumpkin to me means those large bright orange wedges to be baked and used as a stuffing for ravioli di zucca, a speciality of Cremona in Lombardy. It is also pulped for use in soups and risottos, or pickled – I have developed a sweet and sour pumpkin dish that I use as an antipasto or as a side dish for a roast. In Britain pumpkin is now the vegetable of choice to be carved out at Hallowe’en (it was once the swede, a rather more difficult task). And you must never waste the seeds of pumpkin. They are not just for the birds, but can be eaten after drying and roasting: scatter over breakfast fruit or into a salad, or just eat in the hand, as they do in Near Eastern and Middle Eastern countries, sold at small stands by the roadside. And, in Austria, there is a wonderful dark and flavourful oil made from pumpkin seeds; it’s used mostly in Austrian cooking, but has the depth of sesame oil (almost) and should be better known.

Other winter squashes include the butternut, kabocha, Marina di Chioggia and acorn. The butternut squash, shaped like a medieval musical instrument – wide at the foot, thinner at the top – has a sweet intense flavour similar to pumpkin, and, like all the squashes, can be baked, stuffed, grilled, used in soups, breads, pies, risottos, etc. The kabocha squash is known in Australia and New Zealand as the Japanese pumpkin (it was developed in the East). Marina or Piena di Chioggia comes from the Veneto, obviously, and it is an amazing squash, shaped like a turban, with a warty skin worthy of the wartiest toad. It is known locally as suca baruca (warty pumpkin) and was once a baked treat offered by street-vendors. The acorn squash, although belonging to the summer squash genus, is used as a winter squash.

The most curious of winter squashes is, however, the spaghetti squash. Although a C. pepo, it is classified as a winter squash. When raw, the flesh inside the squash is solid and very similar to other squashes; but when cooked the flesh between seeds and skin turns to strands which resemble, and can be used as, spaghetti. And then there is the cucuzza squash from the south of Italy, which is also known as super-long squash or snake squash (and as zucca lunga or zucchino rampicante). It can grow up to 1.5 metres in length. It is easy to grow, is delicious to eat, and can be used as either a summer or winter squash. In Sicily this type of squash is candied for use in the local speciality dessert, cassata siciliana.

Squash and pumpkin flowers – try to use the male ones, which will not form fruit – can be used as we use courgette (zucchini) flowers. They are smaller than courgette flowers, but have a more intense flavour.

Summer squashes

Summer squashes belong to the same family as winter squashes, being Cucurbits, and are classified botanically as C. pepo, with various subspecies. On the whole, the following summer squashes are harvested when immature, and most cannot develop skins thick enough to protect them during storage. Their seeds are immature as well. None of them should ever be over-cooked, as the flesh reduces to a mush.

The best-known summer squash, certainly in Italy, is the zucchino (‘little pumpkin’). This is the Italian name, which has been also adopted in America; it is the French name, courgette (‘little squash’), by which it is known in the UK. Zucchini have long been appreciated on the Continent, but it was only in the 1950s and 1960s, primarily through the writings of Elizabeth David, that they were introduced to the UK.

The courgette produces a fruit and a pretty flower, both widely used in Italian cooking. It is a plant grown all over the world and is very prolific, producing fruits all through the summer and even in autumn, at the end of its life, in my London garden. It gives me great pleasure to use the last fruits and their tops for a delicious soup. In fact in the south of Italy a variety of courgette is grown especially for its tender shoots, which are sold as tenerume, used in a soupy minestra. Courgettes can be sliced, fried in oil and marinated with garlic and mint to make scapece, or cut into longish slices to be either grilled or fried in batter, and can even be baked for a parmigiana, with cheese. When young and tender, courgettes can be eaten raw, as crudités with bagna cauda for instance. At one point, courgettes needed to be salted (like aubergines) to draw out some of the water from the flesh. This is not so necessary now.

Courgettes come in a wide range of sizes and shapes, from the familiar oval green, to bright yellow and striped balloons. If you let them grow on, they produce the vegetable marrow, which is popular in England, but nowhere else to my knowledge. This can be stuffed and baked. Like other plants in the squash family, courgettes have edible flowers. The non-fruit-bearing male flowers, grown on a thin stem, are sold in bunches in Italian markets; the female flowers, often still attached to their courgette fruit, are rarer. Both flowers can be stuffed with ricotta and other flavours, or battered, and deep-fried, and there is a delicious courgette flower risotto. (Do investigate the interior of the flowers first: they could be a home for insect life!)

Another typical summer squash is the cucumber (cetriolo). Many members of the Cucurbit family originate from the Americas, but cucumbers are thought to come from South India, and to be one of the oldest cultivated vegetables (over 3,000 years). There are many varieties – among them the long British, the stubby American and the prickly Asian – but all are similar in flavour and texture. Like many of their relatives, they contain a huge amount of water, some 96 per cent, so they are the mildest tasting of all – but also the most refreshing, perhaps their principal culinary quality. As a result they are mostly used raw in salads, and the British seem to have a thing about thinly sliced cucumber in sandwiches. Cucumbers are good diced in yoghurt for the Indian raita and the Greek tzatziki, they make crunchy crudités for dips, and slices to decorate poached salmon. In my Neal Street restaurant I used to produce a cold summer soup based on puréed cucumber and tomato. Cucumbers can also be cooked, a good accompaniment for fish or chicken, and pickled, especially the very small variety called gherkins (cetriolini in Italian, cornichons in French). Of the pickled cucumbers, I like the medium-sized ones, flavoured with vinegar, sugar, dill and coriander seeds, which goes fantastically well with cold meats or roast pork. The Americans like cucumbers and gherkins with dill, thus the American ‘dill pickles’.

Bush and tree fruits

From the fruit of trees and bushes, at least a third of all Italian food can be produced, either by itself, or combined with other ingredients. Much of popular Italian cooking, especially that of the south, is based on using bush and tree fruits in imaginative ways to produce tasty and substantial dishes. These were able to substitute for expensive meat and fish, making food that was affordable for everybody, including the very poorest. The recipes would have been developed over centuries by the farmers and contadini (peasants), eating what they could grow and produce. I myself often prefer to eat a well prepared and flavoured, not too elaborate, dish of vegetables, quite without meat. It is enough for me to eat something like a parmigiana of aubergine or zucchini, or both together, to understand the significance of such a philosophy.

Most of the bush fruits I talk about here come originally from the Americas. Peppers – both sweet and chilli – and tomatoes come from the same family, the Solanaceae, as do the potato, tobacco and, rather more alarmingly, deadly nightshade. The aubergine belongs to this family as well, but its origins, for some reason, are thought to be Asian, possibly brought to Spain by the Moors. All of them were regarded, post the Columbian Exchange, with great suspicion in Europe, with the fruits being ignored and the plants grown for decoration. In France, the ladies of the court used to wear potato flowers (which are rather pretty) in their hair! Aubergines, for instance, were thought to cause epilepsy, and this is reflected in the Italian and Greek names, melanzana and melitzana (which both mean ‘apple of madness’).

That aforesaid aubergine (melanzana) is a fruit that comes in a variety of shapes and colours. Some of the first seen in Europe may have been white and round (thus the alternative name of ‘eggplant’, used particularly in America), but most of the ones we see are dark violet in colour, shaped like a fat policeman’s truncheon. Other types are pea aubergines (small, green, used in Asian curries) and green aubergines, which are very long and thin, like fat runner beans. They all grow on low bushy plants, with prickly stems and leaves (the calyx can ‘sting’ you). They have a yellow-green flesh, which is full of seeds if the fruit is quite mature.

Aubergines, like their cousin, the potato, must be cooked. Aubergine flesh used to be bitter and so once needed to be ‘degorged’ with salt, but this bitterness has now been bred out. It is still a good idea to salt, though, as this breaks down the cells of the flesh slightly, helping prevent those same cells absorbing cooking oil. (To avoid aubergine soaking up oil, you could blanch pieces instead in boiling water.) Aubergine can be fried – the best way is al funghetto – or stewed as part of a Sicilian speciality, caponata (the Italian equivalent of the French ratatouille), and a wonderful pasta sauce. Slices can be grilled, fried plain or coated in egg and flour for a parmigiana. It can be pickled from raw with vinegar, garlic, oregano and garlic for an excellent antipasto. Medallions can be baked in the oven. When boiled and squeezed dry, aubergine flesh can be mixed with minced meat (ground meat) and flavours to make wonderful patties or fritters. Aubergine can be stuffed either by hollowing out the pulp and replacing it with a flavoursome filling, or cooked in slices and rolled with a filling inside.

The sweet pepper or capsicum (peperone) is another very versatile vegetable, imported originally from the Americas, which became naturalized in Europe, especially in Italy. (I find it very interesting that it was only at this time, when peppers were introduced, that many national cuisines gained their defining culinary characteristic: India its chillies, Hungary its paprika – a spice made from peppers – and the Mediterranean its sweet peppers.)

Sweet peppers can be eaten raw or cooked. There are many types and they come in many colours – green, red, yellow, even black and orange. Some are almost square in shape, quite fleshy, and some are shaped like a horn, the flesh of which is thinner, but all have seeds inside (even in sweet peppers, these can be hot). Peppers can be grilled, roasted and eaten as salad, fried, pickled sweet-sour and stuffed. When I was a child we had a big damigiana, a large glass container with wickerwork around it and a big aperture at the top. In this my mother used to preserve fleshy peppers called pepacelle in pure white wine vinegar. The taste of those peppers when cooked together with pork was delightful, and it was mostly me who was in charge of fishing the peppers out of their liquid. Yes, peppers were then also cooked whole, especially a small green variety called friarielli, fried in oil and eaten with the seeds. Today a Spanish variety called pimientos de Padrón, from Galicia, is quite fashionable, and eaten in the same way. A special category, but no less important, are very small red peppers, the size of a walnut, which are slightly hot in flavour: these can be deseeded and stuffed either with a flavoured cheese or with a mixture of thyme and breadcrumbs. You find these as an antipasto or finger food.

And I cannot forget the essential chillies (peperoncini) that are used mostly in more southerly Italian regions such as Abruzzo, Puglia, Calabria, Sicily, Campania and Sardinia. There you can often see chillies hanging in long strings from balconies and windows, ready to be used in a myriad sauces, salamis, sausages and stews. They are closely related to sweet peppers, but the seeds, white membrane and skin all have much more of the alkaloid capsaicin, which is pungent to hot in effect. Spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino (spaghetti with garlic, oil and chilli) is reputedly an aphrodisiac. It’s probably the simplest of Italian recipes, often eaten as a midnight feast, when one comes home late, still a bit peckish. The chilli – or diavoletti/diavolilli as they are called in dialect – is a much desired flavouring but only in certain Italian dishes, one of which of course is the all’arrabbiata (angry) sauce for pasta. As well as using chillies in very spicy sausages, along with fennel seeds, Calabria has two further chilli specialities. One is called ’nduja, a paste based on pork fat and chilli, and the other rosamarine, a mixture of chilli with newly hatched fish (neonata). My mother was a champion at producing an offal stew made of lung, heart and liver of either pig or lamb, along with a load of chillies. Called soffritto di maiale, it is eaten in winter to warm up the stomach and, in my opinion, the brain as well! Chilli peppers are also dried in Italy to make chilli powder (peperoncino inpoldere) and cayenne pepper (pepe di cayenna).

The avocado (avocado) is a relatively new fruit in Italy. Trees have been planted in the south – they are originally from the Americas – but the fruit is mostly imported as yet. Avocados are usually eaten raw, although they can be cooked, very briefly. Their skin is inedible. The avocado has the highest protein and fat content of any fruit – over 20 per cent of its weight is fat (which is mostly good, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated). When cutting an avocado, immediately rub the cut surfaces with lemon or lime juice, or the flesh will discolour.

The most useful role of avocado is as an appetizer, halved, the large stone removed, and stuffed with prawns and mayonnaise, vinaigrette or a crab salad. They can also be used in salads – in Italy for the insalata tricolore (along with tomatoes and mozzarella), or to make a spread or dip (the most famous being the Mexican guacamole).

And where would Italian food be without olives (olive)? Olive trees are native to the Mediterranean, and have been grown in Italy for at least 2,000 years. Each of the eighteen regions produces olives – both for eating, and for oil – often growing the trees in fairly difficult conditions (for most of Italy is mountainous!). For instance, in Liguria (which produces a delicious oil), the trees are grown on steep terraces that can only be reached on foot, and of course the olives have therefore to be picked by hand. Olive oil is a staple ingredient of the Italian kitchen, produced by pressing various types of olives at various stages of ripeness. The best is obviously extra virgin olive oil, which is preferably produced from newly hand-picked olives, which are then coldpressed for their wonderful oil. This is perfect in salads and dressings. Lesser oils can be used for cooking.

The olive fruits themselves, if to be eaten in the hand rather than made into oil, have to be treated before use as they are very bitter. They are cured for some time in water and brine, and then preserved. Thereafter they can be oven-baked, semi-dried and flavoured with the likes of garlic, chilli, fennel, or stuffed (with anchovies or slivered almonds). They can be eaten with bread as an antipasto – they’re good as an accompaniment to a glass of wine – and they can be stuffed and fried as they do in Ascoli in the Marche region.

The tomato (pomodoro) is probably the most important vegetable fruit in Italy, forming the backbone of much of Italian cooking, although, again, it has only been known in Italy since around the sixteenth century, after the Columbian Exchange. The Italian word ‘pomodoro’ means ‘golden fruit’, as the first tomatoes introduced were yellow. Tomatoes are so valued now because they can be used fresh, or tinned or preserved in some way. I could not cook without them.

The latest news about tomatoes is the development of one weighing more than a kilogram (a couple of pounds). I wouldn’t know how to deal with that (perhaps throw it, at politicians or villains?), as I am very happy with the cuore di bue (oxheart), the biggest available so far. I quite like the pomodorini of Puglia, a cherry-sized tomato, which can be kept all winter, hanging like bunches of grapes and used mostly to make fresh sauces. They shrink and are quite tough, which is why they can be preserved for a long time, but are extremely sweet in taste. Tomatoes for salads, especially in the north of Italy, are eaten almost green; they are also good when they start to blush, but I prefer ripe and red like those which produce the best tomato sauces. My granny used to preserve tomatoes in two ways. She would pulp them, let them dry slowly in the sun, then use them as a concentrated tomato paste. She would also use the elongated plum variety looking like a little flask (San Marzano type), cut into quarters (filetti), put them into a bottle with a large opening, like a milk bottle, with salt and some basil, and sterilize them. Even though the industry offers such a great variety of preserved tomatoes in tins, jars and tubes, many people in Italy are still nostalgic for the old days, and produce the occasional ‘pomodoro in bottiglia’.

To sterlize bottles and jars, wash them thoroughly and dry in a hot oven at 220°C for 30 minutes, allow to cool before filling but do not allow anything to touch the insides.

Tomatoes can be eaten raw in various salads, or used as the topping of a bruschetta: they can be part of a pommarola, a Neapolitan sauce for pasta, a chutney or, after getting rid of the seeds and membrane, fresh tomatoes can be stuffed with rice, tuna or breadcrumbs and baked. From sun-dried to sun-blushed to preserved in their own juice, the tomato is omnipresent in any Italian larder and in most Italian meals… I am writing only five basic recipes here for you, but tomato recipes in Italy are endless.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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