I’m raving about vegetables. I’m far from being vegetarian or vegan, I still crave for the occasional beef steak, pork chops or grilled fish from the coast, but lately what excites me the most in a meal are vegetables. This rediscovered love and curiosity for vegetables is due to many reasons, not last my recent trips to markets all over Tuscany to research recipes for my latest book on Tuscan food markets.
Let’s be honest. There was a time when grandma used to grow and tend our family vegetable garden. There were rows of tomatoes where I would happily get lost as a child, whose smell is forever stamped on my memories. After that, for years our only way of supplying for vegetables was a trip to the local supermarket. Vegetables would come neatly packed in plastic bags. They had a bland taste, an almost inexistent smell and they were standardized in shapes, colours and sizes. Vegetables were frankly boring.
A few years ago mum and grandma ventured again in a vegetable garden project, pushed by our desire to eat something we could know the provenance, taking the km 0 philosophy literally. This is when I fell in love again with a tomato salad for lunch: every tomato had a different taste and texture. A drizzle of the best extra virgin olive oil, a sprinkle of Maldon salt and a few balsamic basil leaves torn with my hands were the only addition required. Vegetables were slowly becoming the leading role of the meal.
Bringing my cooking class clients to the local market and exploring Tuscany through food markets was another great push to bring back vegetables to where they belong to. I found pale and sweet courgettes from Pistoia which rivaled my favourite Ligurian zucchine trombetta, the most diverse aubergines in a Lucca farmers’ market, some purple and long, some striped, some white and round.
Spring is the most exciting season, when the winter brassicas leave space on the stalls to wild asparagus, tender peas, baby artichokes, bitter radicchio and other greens from the fields. Exploring the markets, I met for the first time agretti, monk’s beard, which are now a staple for my spring cooking, although they have the shortest season: yet another reason to eat my weight in agretti as long as they are available.
Visiting farmers’ market opened my eyes on the many-sided universe of vegetables, giving me ideas on hundreds of possible ways to cook them to make them shine in the meal. So recently, more than ever, I rave about vegetables.
It is partly thanks to chefs that brought vegetables back into fashion, from Ottolenghi to Nigel Slater to name a few, as I told you in this post, and partly to the incredibly interesting work of Bee Wilson. I’m currently reading her First Bite, How we learn to eat, after having devoured her This is not a diet book. You can anyway read her perspective on eating vegetables in this article she has written for The Guardian Trouble eating enough fruit and veg? All you need is love, where she clearly points out that the secret to getting your five – or 10 – a day is to find the joy in eating the vegetables. We need to shift from eat vegetables because they are healthy to eat vegetables because they are actually delicious.
Vegetables have always been important in my eating habits, though recently they substituted chocolate and cookies in my dreams. When I stand on a queue or when I drive in the countryside, I dream about fennel wedges cooked until caramelized, slow roasted cherry tomatoes as sweet as candies to accompany a buffalo mozzarella, a plateful of bitter greens sautéed with chili and garlic, a jammy fig with goat cheese and a refreshing cucumber salad with mint and yogurt.
Spring and the abundance of new vegetables added new shades of colour and taste to my dreams, from char-grilled asparagus with a poached egg on top to fava beans shelled on the table and eaten raw with morsels of pecorino.
What helped me to change my perspective have been undeniably good vegetables, fresh, seasonal and local.
Do we eat just our vegetables from the garden? Not at all, even though during the peak of summer we have plenty of tomatoes, courgettes, aubergines and cucumbers to feed us through the season.
Do I buy just organic vegetables from local producers at the market? I wished I could! These markets are weekly or monthly, and there are days when I need my supply of vegetables and the only place where I can find them is at the supermarket. Luckily nowadays there are local and regional options at the supermarket as well, so I am lucky enough to find artichokes from the Tuscan coast and asparagus from Maremma when they are in season. Other times, I make with Italian vegetables, as long as they are in season.
Now that temperatures are changing again, I need salads more than before, and I’m happy to call them a meal. Don’t’ tell me that you find salads boring, as it means you have never met this on your path.
L’insalata di Caterina – A Renaissance salad
This is a Renaissance salad, described by the Tuscan gastronome Paolo Petroni as the insalata di Caterina, where Caterina is nothing less than Caterina de’ Medici, which later become queen of France. There are no proofs that she actually liked this salad, or that she invented it, but I am happy that a certain Caterina back in the times put together these ingredients, as my meal was comforting and satisfying, and it allowed me to get back working in the afternoon without feeling bloated or weighed down by a heavy meal.
This recipe is known also as Renaissance salad or shepherd’s misticanza, where misticanza means a mixed salad of wild herbs such as sow-thistle, terracrepolo, ceciarello, burnet, barba di cappuccino, chicory, lettuce, dandelion, raperonzolo and wild rocket. This is what you can usually find on farmers’ market stalls in these days, or directly in the fields if you know where to forage for them.
The other ingredients are anchovy fillets, hard-boiled eggs, brined capers and cubes of Pecorino Toscano, which turn this salad into a great meal with some bread. Season with your best extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, a shy amount of salt and some black pepper.
So here it is the recipe, the fourth and last one developed with the Consortium of Tuscan Pecorino PDO, a cooperation which brought me to explore seasonal recipes with my favourite cheese!
A Renaissance salad
- 400 g of mixed radicchio and wild herbs
- 150 g of aged Pecorino Toscano PDO
- 4 anchovy fillets in oil
- 1 tablespoon of pickled capers
- 2 eggs
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Red wine vinegar
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Boil the eggs, peel them and let them cool down.
- Wash the radicchio and wild herbs, dry them well in a salad spinner and collect them in a large bowl. Cut them in equal size pieces.
- Season the salad with the chopped anchovy fillets, the well drained capers and the hard-boiled eggs, sliced or crumbled. Add also the diced pecorino. Season with salt and pepper: for once, be timid with salt and black pepper as anchovies and capers are already quite savoury. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and vinegar, toss and serve with some bread.
Link Love – What I am reading and cooking in these days
What have you been reading or cooking recently? Share links in the comments!
- Speaking of love for vegetables, I recently stumbled upon this commercial of a French supermarket Intermarché, please watch it! It is a love story with food as a mean of seduction, which perfectly represent the powerful force of a well cooked meal!
- Learn more about agretti here and here.
- Vegetables need to be paired with cooking to be appreciated and to influence our mindset. This article will give you yet another scietific reason to get back cooking and baking: The Science Behind Why Cooking and Baking Help You Feel Better.