The arrival of spring always inspires me to check out the neighborhood's farmers' markets and even community gardens in the quest for culinary ideas. After my FreshDirect-fueled winter hibernation, I crave flavors and colors beyond the boundaries of the chain grocery stores.
I'm embarrassed to admit that when I find anything new, or that I haven't cooked in a long time, I simply stick it into a pizza or a calzone - at least the first time. The reason is very practical: my kids will eat positively anything if it's deep-fried, or in the form of a pizza topping.
For the past two weeks, I've been on what my husband has deemed a "weed-spree": no, that's not what you think - I'm just referring to edible plants and herbs that sprout literally everywhere, on the side of the street and in your backyard; but while they are highly prized in Italian and French cuisine, here in the US most people never take advantage of them.
Growing up in Italy, I tried countless recipes with edible weeds. My mom made salads and frittatas with dandelion greens (the scourge of any lawn perfectionist!). One of our housekeepers, Pierina, would bring us baskets of "bruscandoli", hop shoots (yes - from beer hops) that literally invaded the street sides near her house in the suburbs of Venice: they tasted better than young asparagus and made fantastic risottos! My nonna, in Tuscany, would take me stinging nettle-hunting... armed with contractor's gloves and "jungle boots": her nettle soup and gnocchi were worth all the trouble. Finally, during a vacation in the Cinque Terre we discovered borage, which tastes like young cucumbers and the locals combine with ricotta in their traditional ravioli filling. Here in New York, most people consider it as a pest and will go to any lengths to get rid of it, bringing on the chemical warfare . They usually lose the battle, because borage and dandelions are among the most invasive plants. That's why I recommend that, if you can't kill it - you should eat it! (just make sure it's not treated with any dangerous pesticides).
After almost twenty years in America, I have come to terms with the fact that here barbecue is an expression of national pride. Barbecue expresses American identity through food as accurately as jazz does through music. It’s simple, honest, and… manly. I ’ve come to love it. However, to stay true to my origins, I always make room on the grill for some vegetables! Italians (with the exception of Tuscany) are not so big on barbecuing meat, but grilling is a favorite cooking method for everything else! Besides the obvious advantage of being quick and easy, it preserves most of the ingredients’ nutritional qualities while enhancing their flavor. The secret of a good vegetable “barbecue” is the grilling temperature, which needs to be inversely proportional to the size/thickness of the food: the thinner pieces should be grilled quickly on high heat, and the thicker/larger ones should be cooked more slowly on lower heat. We don’t usually marinate the vegetables before grilling. In order to enhance (rather than hide) their flavor and texture, we just brush them quickly with a little oil while on the grill. Each vegetable needs some individual attention: eggplants, for example, tend to dry out a bit during grilling; besides, it’s best to salt them first, to cut down their bitterness, but this also removes some moisture.
For this reason, they should be sliced pretty thick (about1/2 inch) and cooked longer. Zucchini are delicate and should be sliced thinner and cooked very quickly. If you use a mandoline or your food processor disc, you will be able to set your desired thickness and cook the vegetable slices more uniformly. Tomatoes are quite watery, and should be seeded, salted and allowed to drain for twenty minutes before cooking. They should only be grilled on the side of the peel, or they’ll fall apart. Just make sure you give all your veggies some TLC and individual attention!
MORE IDEAS WITH ARTICHOKES:
Madonna del Piatto's Artichokes & Lemon Salad
Academia Barilla's Artichoke Fricassee
Jul's Omelet with Artichokes
Lidia's Stuffed Artichokes
JOK's Artichoke Chicken
Barbara's Lamb Shanks with Artichokes
- 1 lb Swiss chard or fresh spinach, hard stems removed
- 8 ounces stale bread, coarsely chopped in the food processor
- 1 ½ cup milk
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 4 to 6 tbsp white flour
- 2 pinches grated nutmeg
- 1 tsp salt, or to taste
- black pepper to taste
- 4 to 6 tablespoons butter, or to taste
- a few fresh sage leaves
- 2 pounds carrots
- 1 onion
- 1 celery stick
- 1 ½ quarts vegetable stock or to taste
- 2 garlic cloves
- 4 or more tablepoons extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ cup Italian rice (short grain - Arborio, Carnaroli or Vialone)
- 1 ½ tablespoons of freshly chopped parsley (or basil/parsley mix)
- 1 bay leaf
- salt and pepper to taste
- 3 or 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 a large onion, finely chopped
- 1½ cups pearl barley
- ½ cup dry white wine (optional)
- 6 cups hot vegetable stock or as needed
- 1 cup total diced vegetables (you can use 3 or 4 of your favorites, such as carrots, peppers, asparagus, zucchini, green peas, corn…)
- about ¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano or Grana cheese (optional, for a dairy version)
- salt and pepper
In many households, minestrone is made at least weekly and (thanks to the fact that it tastes even better when reheated), served several times as a primo piatto (first course) with both dairy and meat meals. I usually serve it plain on the first day; on the second day, I reheat it with some leftover cooked rice, pasta or even spelt. If it’s cold outside, or I'm simply too busy for multiple courses, I just throw in some beans to transform this light soup into an earthy meal. At the end of the week I add a boiled potato and turn the leftovers into a creamy passato (blended soup) with my hand blender.
Just keep in mind, if you plan on stretching your soup over the course of a week, that you should skip tomatoes or it will spoil too quickly. In Italy we have countless regional and seasonal variations for this soup, depending on the local produce! Just to give you a few examples, the Genoese minestrone is flavored with pesto; my Tuscan grandmother liked to add rosemary, and the Lombard one preferred Arborio rice in it.
The only key rules are that all the ingredients should be very fresh and the oil high quality; the soup should be cooked very slowly, on low heat; and finally, the vegetables should be chopped very small, Israeli salad-style.... other than that, have some fun!
- vegetable stock, 1 1/2 quarts
- 2 whole cloves garlic (optional)
- 1 onion
- 2 carrots
- 6 leaves of kale or Swiss Chards, chopped
- 1 large slice of butternut squash or pumpkin
- 1/2 a small cabbage (1/4 if large)
- 2 celery stalks
- 2 small (or 1 large) zucchini
- 1 cup peas
- OR asparagus tips, or green beans
- 1 small or medium potato (optional)
- 1 medium tomato, seeded (optional)
- salt and pepper to taste
- extra-virgin olive oil (I use a low-acidic, mild Ligurian or Tuscan)
- fresh rosemary or parsley, if liked
- (tip: if you rarely make it to the green market.... it does work even with frozen vegetables!)