Eating Italian: Six vegetables you must have in Italy – or at home
by Judith Newton
I went to Italy this April, having failed to lose the weight I gained on our October cruise. October, as you know, is followed by Thanksgiving and by Christmas, and, oh, never mind. Let’s just say I promised myself I would stick to vegetables and fish this time around.
I found higher reasons for this regimen, just to bolster my resolve. I knew from previous journeys that Italians do wondrous things with artichoke, eggplant, and zucchini. I could research a fuller range of vegetables and then write about them in a post. I also thought I’d test a theory about fish. Was it my lack of access to authentic Italian fish that accounted for the disappointments I’d been having with Italian seafood recipes of every kind? Having doubly determined my agenda, I decided (because why be mean?) that I would allow myself exactly one risotto, one pasta, and one gelato during our three-week stay.
It was the price of fish that threw me off my game. Eighteen-to-twenty-six dollars would have seemed reasonable for a tender piece of bass, but we’re talking Euros here, my friends. We’re talking one-and-a-half times the cost; twenty-eight to forty-one dollars, and the fish I did sample was good, but not fabulous. (So much for the theory about authentic Italian fish.) Well, once I did have sea bass stuffed with potatoes and a view of the Arno river in Florence, and it was fabulous, but, the cost!
I had also, strangely, gone off meat. Maybe I had read once too often in my Italian guidebooks that Bistecca alla Fiorentina is served al sangue, which is supposed to be really, really red. What was left but vegetables for me to eat? Except, well, tagliatella with lobster and luscious squid ink ravioli stuffed with bass and covered with a creamy sauce of mullet roe. (I’ll get to these dishes another time. It’s best not to think about pasta again just yet.)
I did eat my vegetables, however, and here are six you shouldn’t miss in spring and summer. I mention spring and summer because Italians do eat what’s in season, which is one reason their vegetables are so good. Really, make or order one as your appetizer, or have two of them as a meal. You won’t be sorry. (And if you’re really hungry, you can add that squid ink ravioli for only 16 E.)
1. Asparagus with butter and Parmesan cheese.
2. Sautéed spinach. You haven’t tasted spinach until its sautéed with olive oil and garlic.
3. White beans with olive oil and thyme.
4. Fresh peas sautéed with pancetta.
5. Ribollita. This is a thick vegetable soup made with tons of bread that my husband kept ordering. (He likes routine.) I had to sample it, despite all the bread, because it was full of Italian vegetables. It can be very good, but it’s different every place you go.
6. Pumpkin Flan at La Zucca restaurant in Venice. Okay, not seasonable, but, mmmm…
FLAN Di ZUCCA (PUMPKIN FLAN)
(adapted from Chowhound)
1 pound pumpkin, cut in pieces
Small piece of butter, salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces potato flour
10 ounces mascarpone cheese
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fine bread crumbs
2 tablespoons softened butter
1 teaspoon ground sage (salvia)
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1. Cover pumpkin with water, add salt,pepper and a small piece of butter. Then cook until tender. Drain and cool.
2. Scrape flesh away from the skin and place in a blender and blend until smooth.
3. Add the potato flour, mascarpone, eggs and spices and blend again.
4. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 6-cup round flan mold and sprinkle the bottom with the bread crumbs.
5. Spoon the pumpkin mixture into the mold and place in a larger pan filled half way up with hot water.
6. Cook for 1 hour and 10 minutes in a baking dish filled with water. The flan will still be wobbly.
7. Remove from the water bath and let cool for 15 minutes. Invert on a round plate. Mix together the butter and sage and spread this over the flan. Sprinkle the Parmesan over the top. Makes 6 servings.
Zucca Picture by CityKnown