PRODUCE - Ingredienti: Marcella's Guide to the Market - Marcella Hazan, Victor Hazan

Ingredienti: Marcella's Guide to the Market - Marcella Hazan, Victor Hazan (2016)


Gli Ortaggi



I Carciofi


Baby, spiny, and globe artichokes

I have never boiled an artichoke. There are cooks, I understand, who have never made artichokes any other way. What a pity. Artichokes possess more fascinating ways to please than almost any other vegetable. Just on their own, they can be sautéed, braised, fried, or grilled; they can be delicious sliced very thin and eaten raw with lemon juice and olive oil. They can be used in a risotto, a frittata, a soup, terrific lasagna, a rustic torta, a gratin, a stew. Cooking them is not at all complicated. Prepping them, however, is indisputably an exercise in patience, particularly so with the small ones.

There are two basic varieties of artichokes grown for the American market. One of these, the globe, is round in shape as its name suggests. The leaves, which have a small indentation at their tip, curl tightly inward. They are almost always available, but their ideal season is from very late winter to early summer. The globe resembles the Italian artichoke known as mammola in Rome, where it is often served alla giudia, flattened and fried to a crisp, its leaves curling in imitation of a chrysanthemum.

The other variety is smaller than the globe. Its leaves, which are often purplish, lean slightly outward with a thorn at their tip. Their flavor is more intensely artichokey than that of the mild-mannered globe.

Small artichokes, whose growers describe them as babies, have made a welcome entry into the market. They come from the same plant as the larger ones, but they are clipped from a lower section. They don’t have a fuzzy choke at their heart, and they have a fine taste, but they require at least as much patience to prep thoroughly as the larger ones.

When you are about to buy artichokes, look them over carefully to be sure that they are fresh and worth the effort you’ll be putting into preparing them. Bend back a leaf, which should snap, not fold over limply. Check the ­bottom end of the stem where it has been cut. It should still be green and possibly dewy, at least in part. If it is dark or even black and lifeless, it was cut from the plant too long ago. Keep fresh artichokes for up to a week in the ­refrigerator, stowed in a large open plastic bag. Baby artichokes are ­usually sold in a plastic box in which you can refrigerate them for about a week.

When you are ready to prep them, set the following equipment out on your counter: a half lemon, a bowl of water into which you’ve squeezed the other half of the lemon, a sharp chef’s knife, a paring knife or grapefruit spoon, a vegetable peeler with a swiveling blade (sometimes called a Y peeler), and a large empty bowl or a trash can for the discards.

Begin by holding the artichoke bulb by its base. Press the thumb of one hand against the base of a leaf; with the other hand grasp the tip of the leaf and pull it sharply back against the thumb of the first hand, snapping off the leaf just above its paler base—do not remove the base because it’s a desirable part of the artichoke; go around the bulb snapping away leaf by leaf until you have exposed a pale-colored central cone dark only at its tip; using the chef’s knife, cut off the top of the cone leaving just its pale base; with the half lemon rub the cut edges of the artichoke to keep them from getting dark.

You are now able to look into the artichoke’s center, where there is a ring of soft, tiny leaves with prickly tips that curve inward. Use the tip of the paring knife or the grapefruit spoon to scrape them away along with the fuzzy choke beneath them. Do not carve away any part of the artichoke’s tender and delicious bottom. Take a last look at the outside of the bulb, where you see the stumps of the leaves you snapped away. If you spot any remaining dark green part, pare it away now.

If you are making artichokes Roman style, in which the full stem remains attached to the bulb, leave the stem on. For other preparations, detach it, but do not discard it, because it is very good to eat. Cut off a quarter-inch disk from the stem’s bottom. A dark green layer sheathes the stem’s pale core. The core is tender and delectable, but the outer dark green layer is tough and stringy and must be stripped completely away with the paring knife or vegetable peeler. Drop the trimmed bulb and stem in the bowl of lemony water, and continue until you have prepped all your artichokes. Keep large trimmed artichokes in the water up to a few hours before you cook them. If you are working with baby artichokes, you can keep them for at least a week in the refrigerator. Pack them as close as possible in a glass jar with half a squeezed lemon, and fill the jar to overflowing with lemony water. Screw the cap on tightly.

Victor’s note: In the last week of her life, Marcella prepped an entire box of baby artichokes. They are in the refrigerator in a glass jar where they are to remain.


La Rucola


Find a forager and ask for wild arugula. It brings a salad to life. It will bring your palate to life. Foraged arugula was the only kind one used to buy in Italian markets. Black-robed old women with aprons tied at their waists used to hunt for it in the country alongside irrigation ditches where it often grew. They cupped their aprons and, when they bulged with arugula and possibly some radicchietto, they would head home, empty the aprons, and if they had a strong back, head to the ditches for more. When they had had enough, they would sell what they had collected at the market stall that handled greens.

You would need only a few leaves of nutty and explicitly peppery wild arugula to accent a large salad. If you don’t have a forager connection, the arugula that you’ll be bringing back from the farmers’ market or the store is a cultivated green that comes in two forms, either large or small. They are both mild in taste, but the smaller is prettier. The larger leaves have tough stems, which must be cut off.

Wash arugula in a large basin of cold water. Scoop up the leaves, pour the water out, refill the basin, then put the arugula back in. Repeat the procedure until you see no more dirt settling to the bottom of the basin. Retrieve the arugula leaves, and if you are using them shortly in a salad, spin them dry in a salad spinner. If you are going to use them at another time, place them on a layer of paper towels and spread another layer of paper towels on top. Press firmly, but gently, to absorb as much moisture as possible. Wrap the arugula in a fresh sheet of paper towels, place it in a large resealable plastic bag, close the bag, and store it in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator. In a really cold refrigerator it will keep in good condition for as long as ten days.


Gli Asparagi

Good asparagus stands straight; the overlapping leaves that form its crown are packed tight. Asparagus will stay fresh for several days if you keep the stalks moist. Look for a jar that can accommodate the whole bunch, put a crumpled paper towel on the bottom, and pour water about an inch high over it. Moisten another sheet of paper towel, wrap it around the asparagus bunch, and stand the bunch upright inside the jar. Refrigerate for up to a week before prepping and cooking.

One of the most useful things I can say to someone who will cook this glorious vegetable is that if you are going to eat it on its own, and not cut up as an ingredient for a sauce, a frittata, or a risotto, you want the thickest stalks you can get. The sweetest, juiciest part of an asparagus is in its stalk; the thicker the stalk the more of that sweet, pale green flesh there is. To make use of it, you must pare away the tough dark green rind that sheathes the stalk. The broader the stalk the easier it is to work the peeler around it. There is no question that you must peel it. If you don’t, you will end up discarding better than half of what is good to eat in an asparagus.

Before peeling, slice off a thin disk from the stalk’s bottom. If the bottom is moist and fresh, a half inch may be sufficient, but if it is dry and woody, take off more. Working from the bottom of the stalk and moving upward, use a vegetable peeler with a swiveling blade to remove several layers of the dark skin until the pale core is exposed.

The tastiest thing you can do with asparagus is to ­gratinée it. I first blanch it for about a minute in boiling salted water, then I lay it flat in a baking dish dotted with butter and covered with a liberal grating of Parmesan cheese. I bake it in a 450° oven until a brown crust forms on top. If I feel very self-indulgent, I serve it with a fried egg on top. If I were to blanch it a little longer, I would drain it and serve it cold or still warm as a side dish, seasoned with salt, red wine vinegar, olive oil, and a droplet or two of balsamic vinegar.

Thin asparagus is what you want when you are cutting it up for a pasta sauce, perhaps one with cream and prosciutto, or adding it to a vegetable soup, or using in a risotto. You can then discard most of the stalk, which is too thin to peel and too tough to chew.

White asparagus is not a different variety; it is the same plant that has been denied access to chlorophyll-producing light by keeping it covered with soil or mulch while it grows. It is a culinary curiosity, not as sweet as green asparagus. I never buy it. If you do, you definitely must peel the stalks, because its skin is very tough.


I Fagioli


I Fagioli da Sgranare: I Borlotti, I Cannellini, Le Fave

Shelling beans are those whose pods we don’t eat. We may cook them freshly shelled or buy them dried to cook at a later time. Of the varieties of shelling beans I have tasted, borlotti and cannellini surpass all others in taste and texture. They both excel in any dish in which beans have a presence. Borlotti are earthy and meaty; cannellini are sweet, creamy, and delicately nutty. Borlotti triumph in the Veneto’s pasta e fagioli, cannellini in the iconic Tuscan soup la ribollita.

Cranberry Beans/Borlotti


For Italian cooks in the north, borlotti are the default beans, matchless for pasta e fagioli, frequently part of a lamb stew or with other braised meats, sometimes paired with fresh shellfish, enjoyed in risotto or in a pasta sauce, but never more satisfying than when served alone, spilled still warm from the pot onto the plate, glistening with olive oil and speckled with black pepper, their dense, chestnut-like flesh accompanied by thick slices of soft country bread.

From late summer into deep autumn, the most striking sight in a produce market is a binful of fresh cranberry bean pods, pale yellow with flaming pink streaks. The beans within are white and marbled by pink markings that last only as long as they are raw, because they turn brown during cooking. Select pods that are firm, intact, and whose colors are bright. Reject any that are blackened or limp or show any sign of mold. I prefer to shell them immediately after bringing them home, because the pods do not stay fresh long in the refrigerator and take up a lot of space besides. Keep the shelled beans for up to a week in a tightly sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator’s vegetable drawer.

When they are fresh, I like to cook borlotti in olive oil with onions and a pork bone of some kind or a piece of guanciale. If they are dried, I first soak them overnight, adding a pinch of salt to the water. The following morning I retrieve the reconstituted beans, strain the soaking water, and put the beans with their strained water, a few peeled garlic cloves, a bunch of fresh sage, and olive oil in a saucepan, with sufficient liquid to cover them by one and a half to two inches. After a very brief but lively initial boil, I add a tiny pinch of salt, turn the heat all the way down to a gentle simmer, then cook until tender, about two hours. You can also cook them for six hours or more in a slow cooker, the one job that contraption does best.

Dried beans will last a long time in the pantry if they are kept in a tightly closed glass or steel container, but they don’t improve with age. At the end of a year there is a marked loss of flavor and texture. I keep vacuum-packed beans in the refrigerator and try to use them within six months of their harvest.

Should they ever come your way, do not pass up Italy’s mountain-grown borlotti. They come from the northeastern­most corner of the country, grown in the foothills of the Alps at 1,800 feet above sea level. They are known and certified as fagioli di Lamon, the name of the township where they are produced. Fagioli di Lamon have thin skin and extraordinarily creamy flesh. Should you be visiting Venice, buy a pound or two of dried Lamon beans at Mascari’s store in the market to cook when you are back home.


If you find yourself at a trattoria in the Tuscan countryside and the waiter suggests an appetizer of fagioli sgranati, what he will bring is a plate of warm cannellini, ­transparently tinged with the yellow-green of the olive oil in which they were cooked and with which they have just now been dressed. They’re cannellini to the rest of the world, but for Tuscans the generic Italian word for beans, fagioli, is specific enough. What other kinds could matter?

There is a small, hilly area northwest of Florence called Sorana, near the town of Pescia, in whose soil and climate cannellini beans achieve perfection. The skin of Sorana’s cannellini is almost impalpable, enclosing creamy flesh unique in its nutty delicacy. The zone, no more than twenty-five acres, is as precious to the world of beans as the vineyards of Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée-Conti are to the world of wine. The cannellini grown there are legally certified and protected by the appellation fagioli di Sorana.

Soak and cook dried cannellini beans, as well as other dried beans, by the method I described for borlotti.

Fava Beans


I love all food—meat, fish, cheese, grains, fruit—but where I have found the most profound and varied flavors has been in vegetables. If I were to rate a cuisine by what it does with its vegetables, by how simple are the preparations, how clear the tastes, lively and endearing like nothing else coming to the table, if those were the criteria on which to base my judgment, I’d have to give the prize to the cooking of the lower half of the Italian peninsula. Many of those dishes benefit from the presence of fava beans, the sequence and complexity of whose flavors are theirs alone, the wrinkled texture, the bristly earthiness of the skin, then the smoothness and suavity of the bean within it.

Fava beans need to be fresh for the best expression of their flavor and texture, but they can be either young or mature. If they are very young, the size of a pinky’s nail, enjoy them raw, with their skin on, the most flavorful part of the fava. Moisten with olive oil and serve with slivers of Parmigiano­-Reggiano. If they are mature, the size of the first phalanx of a thumb, the raw skin will be chewy and bitter and should be eliminated by blanching the beans. Drop them into a pan of boiling water for one minute, drain, let them cool a moment, then, using the sharp tip of a paring knife, slit the narrow seam at the top of each bean, and squeeze the skin off. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and serve with slivers of a mature pecorino, preferably not the salty romano. A six-month-old cheese from Tuscany, Corsica, or Spain is what I would choose. Drizzle olive oil over all and top with two or three fresh grindings of black pepper.

In the spring, Rome gives us fave al guanciale, fava beans cooked, with their skins on, in olive oil together with cured hog jowl. In Rome again, the taste of spring comes to a complete summation in the three vegetables of la vignarola, a dish that combines the earliest peas, the youngest fresh fava beans, and the first artichokes. Sicily has a nearly identical version called la frittedda. In Liguria—the Italian Riviera—fresh, small fava beans display their sweetest side when made into soup with romaine lettuce.

Fava’s soft, velvety pod is as fuzzy to the touch as the beans inside it are smooth. The pods of fresh fava should have no dark pockmarks, no moldy spots, no limpness. Test one by holding it at each end and twisting it open. It should come apart crisply. Use the same method at home to shell them. The pods have no culinary value; discard them after shelling.

There are also dried fava beans, which must be soaked before they are cooked. Their flavor is simple, but intense. The most devastatingly delicious thing you can do with dried fava beans is the Apulian dish in which the cooked beans are pureed through a food mill or potato masher, then beaten, in the upper half of a double boiler, into milk-soaked bread and olive oil. Separately, sauté blanched rapini in olive oil and garlic, then combine on a plate with the fava bean purée.


Ceci, Cicerchia, Lenticchie

To soak or not to soak, canned or dried, these are questions that may have different answers. When it comes to borlotti and cannellini, I find that recently harvested dried beans have better flavor and texture than the canned, therefore I am obliged to soak them many hours, usually overnight, before cooking. For several years, I used dried chickpeas that I soaked and cooked as I continue to do beans. Chickpeas, however, take a long time to cook evenly and fully, and the results are inconsistent. Canned chickpeas packed under the Goya Premium label are completely satisfactory, and I no longer struggle to soak and cook dried ones. There are so many uses for chickpeas—in soups; in a pasta sauce; sautéed in olive oil, garlic, and chili pepper with a green vegetable such as rapini; with braised meats, especially a lamb stew—that I buy a case at a time online directly from the company. Opening a can of high-quality chickpeas is such an easy, lazy way to complete a delicious salad. My own favorite is the simplest one: a tender lettuce such as Boston, chickpeas warmed briefly in a saucepan with a little water and drained, tossed with sea salt, red wine vinegar, olive oil, and a fresh grinding of black pepper. I may be the only person who skins the chickpeas after draining them, but it really does produce a pleasanter taste.

Chickpeas have been around a long time, but the ­origin of cicerchia, a similar pulse, is even older. Smaller than chickpeas, it has a more rustic flavor. Cicerchia doesn’t come in a can that I know of. It must be soaked a minimum of eight hours, during which the water should be changed once or twice, and cooked at a simmer in fresh water. It is most satisfying in a country-style soup with vegetables and a couple of tomatoes.

The general opinion about lentils is that they don’t need soaking. I have a different opinion. If you don’t soak them, they absorb too much fluid from a soup or from other liquid cooking mediums, which dilutes some of their flavor. I don’t soak them overnight; two hours are sufficient.

Some lentils are described as having zero tannins. Theirs is a thin coat on a small seed. They cook quickly, their color stays bright, and they do not “muddy” the water. These may be desirable features, but their taste does not surpass, or sometimes even match that of other lentils. My favorite lentils are the tiny ones from the Colfiorito plateau in Umbria.


Le Rape Rosse


There may be no point in telling you about the beets I used to buy at the Rialto market in Venice, but I want to tell you anyway. They are very small, so small that one of my editors who was visiting thought they were radishes. They are pink, very pale, and sometimes nearly white. Venetians, who have their own names for everything, call them erbette—“small grasses”—which other Italians find mystifying. What is even more mystifying about erbette is how something as low on the social scale as a beet can have such an enchanting taste, divinely sweet and delicate.

Beets have a long shelf life, but that is no reason to be less than selective when buying them. The first thing to look at is the leafy top. It must not be limp; it should spring healthily from the root and be colored a vivid green. If it is fresh you can assume that the root it’s attached to will be equally so. The tops, moreover, make an excellent cooking green, nearly as sweet as spinach when fresh. The beet itself also deserves a look. Pass up any whose skin is damaged or wrinkled.

You can keep beets loose in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator for a week or more, but if the tops are fresh enough to cook, detach them right away, cutting them about an inch above the beet’s bulb. Separate the red stalks from the green leaves, but do not discard them, because they are also good to eat. Put the stalks first in boiling salted water. When they have boiled three to four minutes, put in the leaves, which will cook very quickly after coming to a boil. I serve the stalks and leaves separately so that one may take as much of either as one may like. I like them best of all dressed with salt, lemon juice, and olive oil.

Cook the beets either by boiling them or roasting them, wrapped in foil, in a 400° oven. They are likely to be a little sweeter when roasted, but I prefer to boil them on top of the stove, where I can more easily take an occasional look at them. Whichever method you choose, they will take a long time to become tender, how long is difficult to predict. Depending on their size and the specific qualities of individual beets, they may take from one and a half hours to three hours or more. They are done when a fork or other sharply pointed implement pierces them easily. Drain them. It seems a pity to discard the intensely red liquid, but there is no use for it that I have found. Rinse the beets in cold water to make them more comfortable to hold, and use a paring knife to peel them. If you don’t want to stain your fingers, use gloves. I dress sliced beets in the same manner as I do the leaves, except that for beets I prefer red wine vinegar to lemon juice.


For me, red beets are the most satisfying in taste and hue, but beets do come in other colors: orange-gold, turnip-white, purple, and with internal concentric fuchsia candy stripes. The latter are known as Chioggia beets after the town south of Venice where they were developed. Candy-­striped beets have two winning features. They are sweeter than the red, for some almost too mild-tasting, and they don’t dye their cooking water with a color hard to eradicate should it spill on your clothes. The pretty concentric stripes fade in cooking. It is often suggested to add lemon juice or vinegar to the water to make the stripes more visible, but I don’t find that it alters the outcome. If it’s the stripes you are after, serve the beets raw, sliced very thin, possibly with a mandoline. All beets call for a generous dose of vinegar in their seasoning, and Chioggia beets even more than the conventional red.


Il Broccolo a Testa

When I see broccoli florets bagged for sale at the store, I wonder: What happened to the stems? The flavorful, juicy stem is every bit as good as asparagus, but cooks often ­discard it, first because they don’t know how delicious it is, and second because they won’t be bothered to peel away the hard, dark rind. It’s a pity, because the meaty, pale flesh at broccoli’s core may well be more enjoyable than the cabbagey florets. Even children might like it.

When buying broccoli, examine the stem. It should have an overall fresh look, and the exposed center of its cut end should be a pale, moist-looking green. Avoid exceptionally thick stems, because they are overgrown and stringy. The head of florets must be tightly packed and a bright, solid green color. Any yellowing and opening up of the head are signs of age. Fresh broccoli will keep up to five days in an open plastic bag in the refrigerator’s vegetable drawer.

To prepare a stem for cooking, detach it from the head and use a vegetable peeler with a swiveling blade to pare away all of the dark, tough rind that surrounds it, thus exposing the pale, tender core. If you find any strings after it’s cooked, it means either that the broccoli was old or that you didn’t peel it down enough.

To my taste, the best thing you can do with very fresh broccoli is to cook it in liberally salted boiling water. Drop in the well-trimmed stems first, cook for about three to four minutes, then put in the florets, their tops facing up, and cook for an additional four minutes. Drain, sprinkle it with crunchy sea salt and either a fine red wine vinegar or lemon juice, toss, and anoint with a good, fruity olive oil. Eat it while still warm, if possible.

Other excellent employments for broccoli are baked under a thick cover of grated Parmesan cheese, sautéed with garlic and olive oil, in a vegetable soup, or as a pasta sauce. If choosing to make pasta sauce, briefly blanch the broccoli, chop it coarsely, and sauté it in olive oil with garlic, chili pepper, and mashed anchovies.

The stems are also very nice raw. After peeling them, cut them lengthwise into two or more pieces and season with salt and olive oil. I have had them in Asian restaurants served with sesame oil, and I loved them.


I Cavoli



The pleasure of cooking with Savoy cabbage is such that in my cookbooks I had difficulty limiting myself to just a few examples of its flexibility. My editor snapped, “What are all these recipes? Did the market have a sale on Savoy cabbage?” Where does one stop? Rollups with pork and rice? A salad with cannellini beans? Frittata with leeks? Soup with chickpeas? Pasta sauce with sausages? Stuffed together with ground meat in ravioli? In risotto with cranberry beans or pork ribs? In Valtellina’s pizzoccheri pasta? Smothered Venetian style? With meatballs? Cut up with Swiss chard and rapini and sautéed in garlic and olive oil? I could have gone on, and indeed I did. Among leafy cabbages, this native of Piedmont has no competition.

Unlike tightly packed green cabbage, which is not popular with Italians, the beautiful, frilly, ribbed outer leaves of Savoy cabbage are loose and open. The center of the head should feel firm, however. The colors range from very deep to light green. The flavor of the lighter green is better developed, but both are good. Savoy does not keep as long as ordinary cabbage; do not let it exceed ten days in the refrigerator. Do not wash it before refrigerating it. If you cannot use the whole head at once, cut off what you need and store the remainder in a loose plastic bag.


Had Victor not mistakenly picked up a green cabbage in the market instead of the Savoy cabbage I had sent him for, I probably never would have cooked one. At home, the only cabbages my mother used were the infinitely versatile Savoy and the sweet red cabbage. The frugal cooks of Venice, however, where we lived for many years, make liberal use of the humble pale green cabbage, shredding it fine and cooking it over the stove in olive oil, a little bit of red wine vinegar, and its own odorous vapors. It’s a method called sofegao—“smothered”—in the local dialect. I liked the taste so well that I put it in one of my cookbooks.

Green or white cabbage is almost never absent from the market bins, and when there is no Savoy, I use it if I am making a vegetable soup. I can never have too many vegetables in my minestrone; Victor once counted eighteen. I may even put it alongside pork in a stew, or with chicken in a fricassee.


Red cabbage I love. It is sweet and gentle and does delicious, dark things when it is shredded fine and braised with small meats, such as chicken, rabbit, or lamb.

Select cabbage heads by their solidity and the compactness and crispness of their leaves. Greengrocers keep their cabbages looking fresh by stripping away the outer leaves when they begin to wilt. The inner leaves are always paler, therefore the darker the outside leaves are, the fresher the cabbage is and the tastier it will be. Another clue to its freshness is the stem, which should not show cracks or appear parched. If taste and freshness matter, do not buy shredded cabbage. If the head is intact, it will keep quite well for at least a week and a half refrigerated inside an open plastic bag.


Le Carote

Carrots are the least problematic vegetable to buy, store, prep, and cook, and no other can produce a more universally endearing flavor. A generous handful of chopped carrots, slowly sautéed, provides the sweet foundation of a Bolognese sauce or a base on which to rest the step-by-step assemblage of a classic minestrone’s many vegetables. When serving them entirely on their own, I am fond of slicing them into thin rounds and braising them very slowly in butter in a broad skillet with just enough water, replenished tablespoon by tablespoon, to keep the cooking going without ever turning them until they become wrinkled and colored a dark orange-brown. With slow and patient cooking, the intensity of flavor that the humble root can release is a revelation. The one cooking method that does nothing for carrots, or for anyone eating them, is boiling or steaming. Water can be most unkind to carrots.

Buy carrots that are brightly colored; smooth of skin; firm, not limp; and sound, not cracked. I prefer medium-size carrots to the overly large, which are doughy and not as sweet. If the tops are still on, you can easily judge their freshness. You may want to use the tops. I do not, but even if you do, cut them off before stowing the carrots in the refrigerator; otherwise they will drain away moisture from the root. Store carrots in a plastic bag in the refrigerator’s vegetable drawer, where they will keep for as long as two weeks.

Before using the carrots, rinse them in cold water, cut off a thin disk from the stem end, and peel them using a vegetable peeler with a swiveling blade. I peel even small carrots—I don’t mean miniatures—because otherwise they will have a slightly musty taste of earth.


Il Cavolfiore

There are two sides to cauliflower’s profile, one brash, the other mild. Each modifies the other and rounds its appeal. Boiled and served still warm in the Italian manner, seasoned with salt, red wine vinegar, and excellent olive oil, cauliflower can be extraordinarily soothing. Or it can be feisty in a pasta sauce with garlic, olive oil, anchovies, and chili pepper. Or it acquires a polished manner when blanched and baked with béchamel and bits of ham. If there is a context that I find uncongenial to cauliflower, it is with seafood, although there are chefs who think otherwise. Raw it is definitely unpleasant; should it land on my plate next to a chop or some shrimp or anything else, I would push it to a far side.

However I choose to cook it, I always blanch it first to soften it. To my taste, and to the characteristic taste of Italian cooking, there is nothing enjoyable about an unyielding crunch in vegetables, and in cauliflower it would be the least agreeable of all. To prepare cauliflower for cooking, detach the leaves and pare away the very bottom of the base. The head can be cooked whole or, to save time, it can be halved or quartered. Do not discard the core, which has good flavor if cooked until tender.

Buy cauliflower whose head of tightly packed florets is unblemished, completely free of dark spots. A small head will taste sweeter and cook faster than a large one. Cauliflower doesn’t keep very long, and it should be tightly wrapped in plastic wrap before refrigerating. Cook it within three or four days.

Romanesco or Broccoflower

It is a cauliflower of Roman origin whose beautiful green head is cone-shaped with many tight little pyramidal floret clusters. It is cooked like regular cauliflower. The green color fades when cooked, but the taste is sweeter than that of other cauliflowers. One may also cook its tender leaves.


Il Sedano

Should you decide to make a Bolognese sauce or a full-scale minestrone or any of scores of dishes that require a vegetable soffritto—a base of sautéed onion and minced carrot—you must absolutely have celery on hand. It keeps a long while, so there is no reason not to buy it before you need to use it. The question you might have is whether to get the precut packaged ribs or a whole celery. The packaged celery takes less room, but a whole celery is a better choice. It is fresher, as you can judge from the condition of the leaves, which must be bright green and erect. The leaves, moreover, are very useful cooked in a braise or in any dish where you need a stronger celery aroma than the ribs alone can provide. When possible, choose celery whose green color is pale rather than dark, because it is sweeter.

Whenever I bought celery at the market in Italy, the stall keeper handed it to me wrapped in butcher paper. I stored it in the vegetable compartment of my refrigerator still wrapped in that paper and placed loosely inside a plastic bag. It stayed fresh for close to a month. In Florida, where we now live, I wrap a whole celery in paper towels and refrigerate it inside a plastic bag. To keep its moisture from leaking to the base and the leaves, I trim away some of the base and cut off the leaves, keeping these in a separate airtight bag.

Peel away as many of the strings as you can, particularly from the thick outer ribs, using a vegetable peeler with a swiveling blade. Work up from the bottom.

Celery’s role in cooking is usually a secondary one, but it can also emerge on its own, as it does in one of my family’s favorite dishes. When you have pulled away all the strings, cut the ribs into two or three pieces, peel some potatoes and cut them into wedges, put both celery and potatoes in a saucepan with salt, olive oil, and lemon juice, cover the pan, and cook over gentle heat until the potatoes and celery are tender. Look into the pan from time to time, turning its contents and, if necessary to keep them from sticking to the bottom, add a little bit of water. Serve as soon as done.


Le Cicorie


Il Radicchio, La Belga, La Scarola, Le Puntarelle, La Catalogna, Il Radicchio di Milano, Il Dente di Leone, L’Insalatina Riccia


Radicchio Tardivo, Radicchio di Chioggia, Radicchio di Treviso

In the vegetable world, there is no feistier family than the chicories. Raw they can be defiantly crisp; cooking will soften the crispness while stirring the palate with bitter accents that can be either understated or bold, but never easy to ignore.

Radicchio chicories constitute the main branch of the family. The most familiar one to American cooks is the dark red variety known as radicchio di Chioggia, named after the town near Venice where it originated. White-ribbed leaves cling tightly to a firm cabbage-like head. Before the grocer pulls off any wilting and discolored outer leaves, the head is the size of a large grapefruit. When it becomes the size of a large orange, it’s a sign that some of its leaves have been removed, and it is no longer quite fresh. Chioggia is better raw in a salad, when one can enjoy its lively crunch and blunted tang of bitterness, which in cooking turns sharp. In one of my favorite salads, I shred radicchio leaves with a knife, slice some onion very thin, and toss everything with warm cannellini beans, seasoning the salad very simply with sea salt, red wine vinegar, and olive oil. For another of my radicchio salads, I tear the leaves into irregular pieces, rub a few crusts of bread with garlic, and toss both together with the usual insuperable dressing of salt, red wine vinegar, and olive oil. No, no balsamic.

The torpedo-shaped radicchio di Treviso, which is less bitter than the Chioggia, is a better choice for cooking, shredded and sautéed with pancetta or split in half and baked with olive oil. Its romaine-like leaves are excellent in salads.

When the radicchio di Treviso plant is subjected to a laborious cultivation method forcing the direction of its growth and shielding it from sunlight, it develops into the spectacular end-of-season vegetable known as radicchio tardivo, late-harvest radicchio. The technique of forced growth pares down its leaves to just a frilly, fiery red fringe bordering thick, glossy, white ribs that curl, flamelike, upward and inward from an elongated root. Radicchio tardivo is extravagantly good in salads—no other green matches it—but its destiny is in cooking. Grilled tardivo, risotto with tardivo, and fettuccine with tardivo and bacon are some of the dishes that showcase the glorious flavors of this noble vegetable.

The belle of the radicchio clan is radicchio di Castelfranco. Its soft leaves, the color of corn and cream speckled with lavender red, unfold like flower petals around a tender head. Castelfranco pairs well with cheese and makes an admirable contribution to salads.

Store all radicchio varieties in loose plastic bags in the refrigerator’s vegetable drawer, and expect to use them within a week.

Belgian endive is a lovely, small chicory grown by a method similar to that used with radicchio tardivo. It is kept in the dark to turn the color of the leaves, tapering tightly along the head, into a delicate ivory white with pale yellow tips. When I use Belgian endive in a mixed greens salad, I cut it across into rounds. It is ravishingly good baked, and the best method is also the simplest. Split each head in two lengthwise, sprinkle with salt and pepper, coat it liberally with olive oil, and bake until it is very soft and its edges are lightly browned. Chicory bitterness subsides after this treatment. Belgian endive is sometimes crossed with radicchio di Treviso to stain it red. It is pretty if raw, but it turns white when cooked. Choose medium to large heads that are full and firm with leaves of a glossy ivory color. When the endive is no longer fresh, the leaves become duller and darker, and a rusty tint may appear at the base. Store each head wrapped in a paper towel in a plastic bag in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator. They will stay in good shape for about ten days.

Curly endive is not a variety of Belgian endive, but the larger form of frisée, described on page 45. A more interesting chicory is escarole, scarola in Italian, a vegetable with broad, wavy, light green leaves forming a soft head whose center is composed of a thicket of small, pale leaves. When it is grown shielded from sunlight, some of the green in the leaves turns to white. Its taste is almondy, not bitter like radicchio. It has a great many uses in the kitchen, aside from being an excellent salad vegetable. It can be braised or sautéed in olive oil, it is sometimes boiled and dressed with lemon juice and olive oil, and it finds its way into the filling of rustic pies and inside rolled-up meats and meatballs. You can store a whole head of escarole for four or five days in the refrigerator, wrapped tightly in a large plastic bag.

Another fascinating chicory is the tall asparagus chicory, catalogna in Italian. A crown of long, slender dark green leaves cradles within it a mass of white, twisted spears called puntarelle, whose tips resemble those of asparagus. One removes the spears, which are hollow, and slices them lengthwise into thin strips one-quarter-inch wide. They are soaked for about an hour in a bowl of ice water wherein they curl up. You dry them and sauce them with a mixture of salt, vinegar, garlic, minced anchovies, ground black pepper, and olive oil. It becomes a salad that is incomparably refreshing, crunchy and tasty. When puntarelle are not available, you can apply the same treatment to the leaves of Belgian endive.

Sugarloaf chicory, known in Italy as radicchio di Milano, is a green radicchio that resembles a head of romaine lettuce. The pale core is mild in flavor and it is very crisp, delightful in salads.

Dandelion, dente di leone, and sometimes cicorino, in Italian, may be either cultivated or foraged. The stem is hard and as much of it as possible should be trimmed away. It can be served, shredded fine, in a salad of small mixed greens or added to a vegetable soup. Refrigerate wrapped in a paper towel inside a large resealable plastic bag. It can stay fresh up to a week.

A sweeter-tasting, very small cultivated radicchio called radicchietto in Italian is an essential part of a misticanza, the mix of tiny, fresh salad greens better known here as mesclun.

Frisée, the smaller edition of curly endive, is purely a salad chicory that contributes its frilly, gently bitter, yellowish­green leaves to a misticanza. It adds variety to a mix but becomes tedious if served only on its own. Keep it inside a loose plastic bag in the refrigerator’s vegetable drawer, where it should stay fresh for a week.


I Cetrioli

When I was very young, the fragrance of the first freshly sliced cucumber of the summer was my signal that for the following few weeks I could swim, play volleyball on the beach, race around town on a bicycle with my friends, and consume a daily salad of tomatoes, raw onion, and sliced cucumber. It was the very smell and taste of the Italian summers of my youth. Cucumbers have long since become available every day of the year, losing in the process most of their stirring seasonal flavor.

I’ve heard about many varieties of cucumbers, but I usually find only three: The basic ones that most people buy are thick, smooth-skinned, and glossy; there are elongated dark green cucumbers called English or Continental that are usually tightly wrapped in plastic; there are short, gnarled ones sometimes labeled Kirbies. The first two are for slicing. The thick, smooth-skinned cucumber is often waxed and I always peel it. If you need to see whether it has more seeds than you’d like, split it in half along its length before ­slicing it to expose the seed-laden core. If it is too thick with seeds for you, use a teaspoon to scoop them out. The skinny, plastic­-wrapped cucumber does not need peeling. It has very few seeds, a pleasant flavor, and a subdued, hardly perceptible aroma. The Kirbies are the ones that people buy for pickling. I don’t do that, but I buy them to eat raw because I like their compact flesh and recognizable cucumber flavor. They don’t need peeling.

Choose your cucumbers by their firmness. They must not have a single soft spot. It is desirable for the smooth, glossy variety to have a narrow streak of yellow—a yellow belly—a sign of ripeness. I keep an unwashed whole cucumber for no more than a week in the refrigerator, wrapped in a paper towel and stowed in a loose plastic bag. If cut in half but unwashed, I wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for two or three days. If sliced, I close the slices in a resealable plastic bag and keep them in the vegetable drawer of the fridge for two days.

Cucumber performs its finest role when sliced in a salad with ripe summer tomatoes and raw onion slices. ­Season it with coarse sea salt; a fresh squeeze of lemon juice or red wine vinegar, but not balsamic; and excellent olive oil. Salt causes cucumber, which is nearly all water, to weep copiously. To prevent it from making the salad soggy, toss the cucumber slices with salt and a few drops of lemon juice in a ­separate dish. When the salad is ready for the table, retrieve the cucumber slices with a slotted spoon, leaving behind the liquid they have shed, and combine them with the already dressed tomato and onion. My mother used to add basil, my mother-in-law parsley. If the tomato is what it ought to be, it can manage without such herbal scents.

I like cucumber with smoked salmon. Whichever kind I am having, I peel it because the skin’s bitterness doesn’t flatter the salmon. I cut it in four or more lengthwise sections, depending on its girth. If it is a long cucumber, I also cut it across in half.

I sometimes use a scooped-out half cucumber as the recipient of a mousse of prosciutto and minced pickles or of a whip of tuna, butter, and anchovies or just of good anchovies mashed with unsalted butter. Serve it with drinks or at table.

I also dice peeled, seeded cucumber and mix it, with a Middle Eastern accent, into the soft flesh of a baked eggplant.


Le Melanzane

The eggplants you buy at a farmers’ market are usually quite fresh, whereas the ones from the supermarket are likely to have experienced a longer interval between harvest and the move into the store’s vegetable bin. There is one accurate clue to freshness. Look at the little green cap by which the eggplant was attached to the plant. The brighter green that cap, the fresher the eggplant. When it has been around a long while, the cap turns brown, dull, and dusty-looking. Examine the skin; it should be glossy, taut, and completely smooth. Squeeze the eggplant gently. It must not feel spongy; it should spring back firmly from your touch. When held in the hand, it ought to feel light; if it is heavy in the hand it could be weighed down by too many seeds.

All eggplants, whatever their color, which may be purple, pale lavender, striped, or ivory white, and whatever their shape, which may be thick and bulbous, round, or skinny and short or skinny and long, yield flesh that is creamy and sweet when the vegetable is baked whole or sliced and fried. It is less sweet, and even bitter sometimes, when cut into chunks and sautéed. In this instance, you may first purge the eggplant of bitter juices by cutting it open and placing it along the sides of a colander, dusting it with kosher salt, and allowing the issuing juice to drain away over thirty or forty minutes.

If frying eggplant slices for a parmigiana or a Sicilian pasta sauce, it may be prudent to follow the purging method, salting them ahead of time and allowing possibly bitter juices to drain away. Pat the slices dry and dredge them in flour before frying.

One type of eggplant that is guaranteed to be sweet is the Asian variety, long and skinny. White or striped eggplants also have very good flavor, but their skins are tougher, and you should peel them.

Grilled eggplant slices may sound good in a menu and add to the visual appeal of a plate, but they do nothing for taste. If you want to grill an eggplant, halve it lengthwise, use the point of a sharp knife to crosshatch the flesh, dust it with salt, sprinkle lightly with lemon juice, and moisten the flesh with olive oil, forcing some of it into the crosshatched cracks. Grill it skin side down until it feels very soft when poked with a fork.

If I have a large, bulbous eggplant, I’ll bake it whole in a 400° oven for about forty-five minutes, turning it once, until it collapses. Melt a little butter in a small skillet and toast a handful of pine nuts, allowing them to darken. Scoop the very soft flesh out of the eggplant, add salt, drops of lemon juice, olive oil, and the toasted pine nuts; and mix it all up.


Il Finocchio


In earlier, more wicked days of the wine business in ­Florence, when merchants poured samples of the new vintage for their customers, they first served them nibbles of sliced finocchio, believing that the taste of licorice on the palate would soften the edges of rough young wine. The practice led to the coinage of a verb, infinocchiare, which means to hoodwink.

Finocchio, the icon of Italian vegetables, has many other more respectable and appetizing uses. Without doubt, most of it is consumed raw, either sliced very thin horizontally or cut into wedges. If sliced, fennel often finds its way into a mixed salad, but it is most refreshing served alone, seasoned with salt, a drop of vinegar or lemon juice to dissolve the salt, black pepper ground fresh from a mill, and fruity olive oil.

This white bulb, which can be as hard and large as a ­boxer’s fist, holds luscious reserves of aromatic juices that it releases only when it is cooked by one of the methods in the classic Italian trilogy of vegetable cookery, braised or fried or baked. In each instance it must first be cut into quarter­inch slices, cutting the bulb straight down from the top. To braise, cook the fennel slices with olive oil and barely enough water to cover them in a deep skillet or open saucepan for about thirty minutes, until they are tender at the pricking of a fork.

To fry the slices, first blanch them briefly in salted boiling water, drain, and let them cool down. Dip in beaten egg, then coat with bread crumbs. Fry in very hot vegetable oil, turning them once, until they form a crisp, golden-brown crust on each side. Sprinkle with salt and serve while still hot.

To bake, slice and blanch the fennel, arrange the slices in a baking dish, dot with butter, blanket with Parmesan grated at that moment, and cook in a preheated 450° oven until a golden crust forms on top.

You may see fennel in the market all year, but it is best from December to early spring. The bulbs have two shapes: round and squat or flat and elongated. Italian cooks refer to the stockier shape as the male and the flat, tapered shape as the female. The male is juicier and sweeter and certainly better to eat raw. It would be better in cooked dishes as well, but there the female, if fresh, can also be satisfactory. Sometimes the bulb is small, light in weight, and very flat. It was harvested too soon and did not have time to develop. Don’t bother with it; leave it in the store.

Look for fennel with its tops on, because bright, unwilted leaves are a sign of freshness. You will cut off the tops before you use the bulbs. If you like their aroma, you may find use for the fragrance of the leaves in soups and stews. The bulb itself should feel heavy for its size, and its thick outer leaves should be intact, bearing no gashes or bruises. If you are not cooking it immediately, cut off the leaves and store the fennel’s bulb in an open plastic bag in the vegetable drawer for up to a week or even ten days, depending on its freshness. When preparing fennel for a salad or for cooking, wash it on the outside under cold running water, then wash it again after cutting it.



The garlic population is divided into hardnecks and softnecks. Which neck to buy, assuming you have a choice? It depends on whether you store garlic for a few weeks or a few months, whether you are adept at peeling the cloves, whether you prefer large cloves to small. Most important, it is a decision about taste.

A hardneck garlic bulb is impaled on a long stem, known as a scape, which grows through the center of the bulb, emerging with considerable length beyond the bulb’s top. Softneck garlic is spared penetration by a scape; hence, where the garlic head comes to a point, its “neck” remains soft.

The single great advantage of the softneck is that the skins can cling tightly to the top of the bulb, bestowing on it a long storage life by sealing in its moist juices. If stored well, softneck garlic will last in good condition for as long as a year, compared with approximately four months for hardnecks. Softnecks are what you find in the grocery store bin, grown either in China or California. They can be braided, either for kitchen decoration or for presentation as gifts. Softneck garlic has a large number of small to medium cloves tightly enclosed in their skin. Peeling requires varying degrees of pressure, applied by placing the flat side of a large knife over the clove and giving that side of the knife a sharp rap.


Hardneck garlic

Hardneck garlic thrives in cool growing zones, although it can be cultivated in a mild climate by dedicated growers. The ones we find in farmers’ markets, often tied by their necks in bunches, are likely to come from Canada. There exist hundreds of varieties that, when cooked, release marvelous aromas and flavors that softnecks cannot match. There are few cloves in a hardneck bulb, as few as eight, not more than twelve. They are large and lovely, those cloves, easy to peel, often requiring no pressure at all. I can usually lift and loosen the skin by gently poking the tip of my fingernail into it.

I buy hardneck garlic online, because so far no one brings it to the Sarasota markets. My favorite variety is called Georgian Fire. It usually has about six magnificent, burnished bulbs ready to slip out of their skin. The flavor is rich, harmonious, and warm. One of the best-known hardneck varieties is called Rocambole, from Canada. It is a beautiful garlic, with large, shiny cloves and deep, round flavor.

Prepare garlic for cooking with a view to the flavor you are after. For the mildest flavor, the kind that you want in a fine tomato sauce, use whole, peeled cloves. Cook them ­gently in olive oil, turning them from time to time, until they become colored a tawny gold. Do not ever let them burn, which is the flavor of crudely interpreted Italian ­cooking. For a slightly deeper flavor, crack the clove with the handle of a large knife or with a meat pounder. If you cut the peeled cloves into very thin slices you move one small step up in intensity. For the headiest garlic flavor and aroma, in rustic preparations where you are using chili pepper and mashed anchovies, chop the peeled cloves very fine. If I am caught critically short of time or feeling lazy, I drop the peeled cloves into the smaller bowl of a food processor while the blade is running. Do not heat up the oil before putting in the garlic. It may have become too hot, and the garlic might burn. I always put in the oil and garlic at the same time. It’s the commonsensical and reliable way to do it. I apply the same principle to sautéing chopped onions. I usually do not use both onions and garlic, but if I do, after the onions have become lightly colored, I turn the heat down a bit and add the garlic.

There are some things I never do with garlic. I do not use a garlic press, which extracts too much pungency. I do not remove the green sprout. It is said to be bitter, but I have never used so much of it that it could make a discernible difference. I never mash salt into chopped garlic. That is a French technique, which makes the garlic moist and difficult to brown efficiently.

Select garlic heads that are plump, firm, and heavy for their size, their papery skins clinging tightly. Avoid those with dark or soft spots. Store garlic in a dry place. I find that having a couple of large, perforated, and lidded clay containers is a reliable way to keep garlic dry and well-­ventilated. Humidity is its enemy. Do not refrigerate it. Do not experiment with keeping peeled cloves in olive oil. It is unnecessary and even dangerous. Do not buy peeled garlic in jars. Nothing compares to the taste of freshly peeled, healthy garlic cloves. Check the garlic in your containers periodically to verify that it is still in good, dry condition.


I Fagiolini

Some people call them snap beans, and that is exactly what a fresh green bean should do when you bring its ends together between your thumb and forefinger: It should snap crisply in two. If it bends without snapping it has lain around too long. Another indication of freshness is at the end where the stem was attached to the plant. If there is still a piece of the stem on it and it is a bright green, the bean is fresh; if it is brown, the bean is old. The general appearance of a mound of green beans should be bright. The beans should be fairly uniform in size. If they are of various sizes, if they are dull-looking, if some are mottled, if they are cut and missing their ends, they have been carelessly harvested or are old or both. They are not worth cooking.

If they are fresh, it is best to cook them soon, or refrigerate in an open plastic bag for no more than two or three days. Before you cook them, rinse them thoroughly in cold water, then snap or cut off both ends. I used to do them one by one, but I no longer have that patience. I line them up on the counter, a dozen or so at a time, and chop off the ends.

Really good beans deserve the simplest of treatments. They should be cooked in salted boiling water until they are tender yet firm, but not crunchy. Crunchy beans are grassy in taste, and moreover, they are not enjoyable to chew. I time the cooking at seven minutes after the water I dropped them in has returned to a boil. A minute more is preferable to a minute less. Season the drained, warm beans with sea salt, red wine vinegar, and very good olive oil and have them with bread to sop up the oil.

In another favorite way to cook them, I slice a small onion very thin, sprinkle it lightly with salt, and cook it in olive oil with diced pancetta or guanciale and a pinch of red Italian chili pepper until it is golden and soft. I add tomatoes, either fresh, ripe Roma tomatoes peeled and cut up or canned, imported, genuine San Marzanos. I turn the tomatoes once or twice, then drop in the raw, trimmed beans and cook them at moderate heat for about an hour, occasionally turning them over.


Il Cren

Venetians like to forget that, for a brief time in their past, Austria was their master, but culinary mementos of those otherwise humiliating decades were welcomed to the ­Venetian table, where they survive today. One of them is horseradish. It has a couple of Italian names, rafano or barba­forte, but Venice continues to use the original German one, cren.

Horseradish is a thick root, available fresh in many American markets. It must be peeled, cut up, and grated so that it can be made into a sauce. The homemade version is infinitely more flavorful than anything you can buy, and it is extremely simple to make. The basic ingredient of the sauce, aside from the grated horseradish itself, is white wine vinegar, which stabilizes it. Also add a pinch or two of salt. Venetians and other cooks often put in a spoonful of sugar to round off the sharp horseradish bite. I prefer to use a teaspoon or two of good balsamic vinegar. I also add olive oil to the mixture, because it gives it a silken texture as well as good flavor.

The food processor is an ideal tool for grating the horseradish after you’ve peeled and chopped it. It creates a superbly uniform spread and spares you the tears as well as the effort that come with a hand grater. The fumes of grated fresh horseradish are seriously strong. Avert your head when you lift the food processor cover. Refrigerate the sauce in a tightly closed glass container. It should keep its potency for a month or longer. It is the ideal condiment for a bollito misto, the Italian assortment of boiled meats, and it adds a piquant, fragrant accent to a roast, a mixed grill or smoked fish, lunch meats, or hot dogs.

Choose horseradish root no thicker than one and a half inches because over that it begins to be fibrous. Look for a pale, fresh cream color. The root should feel solid, with no dark, spongy spots.


Il Cavolo Nero


Some vegetables, like zucchini, say, or potatoes, seem en­dowed with ubiquity. They are an easy fit. Others thrive in a ­narrow culinary habitat, a small repertory of dishes that allow their temperament complete freedom of expression. The ­variety of kale known in Italian as cavolo nero, and here often labeled lacinato, needs a liquid medium for an uninhibited and enjoyable release of its earthy flavors, finding its most favorable opportunity in the Tuscan bread soup called ribollita, to whose alchemical twice-cooked fusion of vegetables and cannellini beans kale is indispensable.

The green-black, knobby, deckle-edged leaves of this un­­usual cabbage do not come together into a solid head. They are sold loose by weight. Choose firm, dark leaves with no discolorations or blemishes. If you are not using them the day you buy them, refrigerate them unwashed in an open plastic bag. They should keep at least a week. Before cooking, however, wash them thoroughly in several changes of cold water.

The stem at the center of the leaves is too tough to eat and must be removed. The neatest way to do it is to lay a leaf flat on a cutting board and run the sharp point of a paring knife along each side of the stem, separating the leaf in two halves without tearing them. Once you’ve liberated them from the stem, roll up each half leaf and slice it into ready-to-cook strips.


I Porri

Leeks enjoy a privileged place in my memories. When Victor and I married, we could afford a honeymoon of only one day, which we took in Sirmione, a resort on Lake Garda. It was winter, there were no tourists, only one or two commercial travelers, and we could indulge ourselves in imagining that the modest pensione where we stayed was open just for us. The food that was brought to our table in the small dining room tasted embracingly of good family fare. We still remember a robust soup of leeks and potatoes, a soup that I have been making since, for my husband and myself, in every year of the six decades that followed that night.

Leeks, looking like scallions with grossly enlarged bulbs, are invariably described as related to onions and garlic, but milder. Yes, they are milder, but they have scents and tastes that want to be admired for what they are, not because they are shyer than those of onions and garlic, but because they are subtle, distinctive, desirable, and irreplaceable. Leeks are magnificent, sweet braising vegetables on their own, cooked with either olive oil or butter, or braised with meats. The pork loin with leeks that I published in Marcella’s Italian Kitchen has been a favorite meat dish for me and for many of my readers. Leeks are excellent with dark-fleshed fish such as bluefish and mackerel and fresh sardines. They are obligatory in a mixed ­vegetable soup. They make a gracious companion for cannellini in a bean soup. They dissolve creamily in a risotto. They elevate the fragrance of a meat broth when you add their tops, as well as the bulbs, to the other ingredients in the pot.

The leeks you buy must have bright green, firm, crisp leaves, the long white stalk must be intact, showing no bruises, and the bulb’s bottom should be more flat than round. Leeks come small to very large, but exceptionally large leeks are the least desirable. When the bulb is much broader than one inch, it may have a fibrous center that you would need to discard.

To prep for cooking, begin by cutting off the roots and a thin slice from the base of the bulb. Detach the bulb and the white stalk, which are parts you will cook. Make a lengthwise cut to strip away the first green outer leaves from the tops, which must be discarded, exposing a pale, whitish green core that you detach and add to the bulb and white stalk. Make one or two additional long cuts to strip away the remaining green portion of the leaves, exposing some more of the pale leek core that you will add to the parts you have already set aside for cooking.

In order to produce leeks whose stalks have more of the tender, edible white part, farmers pile up dirt over them to shield them from light during their growth. This means that there can be a considerable amount of soil in between the leek’s layers that you must wash away thoroughly, both before and after prepping. After I have cut up a leek, I soak its parts in a basin of cold water, changing the water until there is no longer any soil settling to the bottom of the basin.

Unwashed leeks fresh from the market will keep in a loose plastic bag in the refrigerator for three to four days.


I Funghi

After a rain, thousands of different wild mushrooms raise their heads in the woods, but it is rare that any of them makes its way into our kitchens. Virtually every fresh mushroom we buy in America is cultivated and, with few exceptions, it is produced from a single variety that can be either white or brown. When immature, the white mushrooms are called button mushrooms, champignons, or simply small white mushrooms. The small brown ones are labeled either baby bella or cremini. When a baby bella matures, developing a large meaty cap, it is known as portobello.

The other variety of fresh mushroom that I often use because it merges well with Italian flavors is shiitake, which has been so successfully cultivated that it has become available everywhere. I shop where shiitakes are sold loose and choose the ones with the largest unblemished caps. They make a fleshy biteful, those caps, juicy and aromatic. I discard the stems, which are fibrous and too tough to eat. Foraged wild mushrooms such as chanterelles and morels would be lovely to have—and have them I did at the Rialto market when I lived in Venice—but they rarely appear fresh in my Sarasota, Florida, market. If fresh, frilly chanterelles come your way, their color must be a bright orange, they should be free of slime, and their fragrance, for which they are prized, may suggest peaches or apricots. Don’t let dried chanterelles tempt you. Some foraged mushrooms dry beautifully; chanterelles do not. Dried morels, on the other hand, can be quite good, and mostly free of the sand that, when they are fresh, infiltrates the honeycomb of a morel’s spongelike pointy cap.


Shiitake mushrooms

The paragon of foraged mushrooms, with whose texture and fragrance other mushrooms cannot compete, is Boletus edulis, familiarly known by its Italian name porcini. It is found growing spontaneously in many parts of the world, where it expresses the character of the territory from which it has sprung. I used to look forward to finding freshly foraged porcini from Borgotaro, in my native Emilia-­Romagna, heap­ed high on a market stall. Borgotaro is also the legally protected name of its mushroom, and you may find it on packets of exquisite dried porcini imported from Italy.

Fresh porcini grow in American woods as well, but there are only a few markets that sell them. You can buy both domestic and imported fresh porcini online, where they are also available frozen. What is even more interesting for a cook, however, is that porcini are widely available dried. The drying of porcini has created a product whose aroma is far more intense than it was when the mushroom was fresh.

Dried porcini must be soaked in water for an hour or more before you cook with them. The more water the better, because after the rehydrated mushrooms are scooped out and the water is strained to filter it clean of grit, you have a fragrant porcini broth with many uses in cooking: in making a mushroom risotto, in any meat braise or stew that needs liquid, or for bestowing porcini aroma on other mushrooms.

The traditional method that Italians use for cooking porcini can be applied to all mushrooms to enrich their flavor. Described in Italian as trifolati, the sequence is easily summarized: olive oil, garlic, parsley, the mushrooms, salt, fast heat followed by low, slow heat. Lightly mashed garlic cloves are sautéed in a skillet with olive oil, parsley is added, fresh cleaned mushrooms, cut up or sliced, are dropped into the pan, they are sprinkled with just a little salt to encourage them to shed their liquid, a lid goes over them, the heat is high, and quickly the mushrooms fill the pan with the liquid they produce. When no more liquid is being shed, the lid is removed, the heat is turned down to medium-low, and the mushrooms cook very slowly for perhaps thirty minutes, until they become dark, glossy, and very soft. If you are cooking large portobello caps, you can skip the part about shedding liquid over high heat. Sauté minced garlic in olive oil, then cook the cap at medium-low heat without turning it until it is tender and dark. Sprinkle with parsley, salt, and serve.

Before I cook mushrooms, I always wash them—rehydrated dried porcini included—under fast-running cold water, and then I quickly pat them dry with absorbent paper towels. Both cultivated and foraged mushrooms, when they are fresh and firm and unwashed, keep well for up to a week in the refrigerator, stored loosely in a cloth or brown paper bag. I have found that cremini and white button mushrooms also keep well in the unopened plastic-wrapped container in which they come from the supermarket. Dried porcini keep for a year or more in the refrigerator in a tightly closed tin or jar.


Le Cipolle

Rare is the day in my kitchen that I don’t call on an onion to perform. It is the bass player in the combo of flavors that I am putting together, the rhythm section that sets and drives the pace of its fellows. At times it will even come forward to perform a duet as in fegato alla veneziana, Venetian liver and onions, and occasionally a captivating solo as in the pasta composed solely of caramelized onions that I developed for one of my earliest cookbooks.

Of the many varieties of onion, the one I always have at hand and use most frequently is the dry, yellow storage onion. Caramelizing onions isn’t something I want to do for every dish, but when I do, a yellow onion produces the nuttiest result. For sweating onions—lightly salting them and softening them at medium-low heat under a lid—I also like the delicacy, the aromas of white onions, which are usually larger than the common yellow ones. I hardly ever use red onions, which have a sharp back taste, unless I am using them raw, drawn by the appeal of their color, in a salad such as the classic one with tinned Mediterranean tuna in olive oil and warm cannellini or cranberry beans. I understand that some farmers are beginning to grow the incomparable torpedo-shaped Calabrian red onion, la cipolla di Tropea. When that becomes available, it will be an important source of rich flavor, whether cooked, made into jam, or used raw.

I don’t buy sweet onions too often. They are more perishable than conventional onions, particularly in a Florida kitchen. When I do get them, and I particularly look forward to the local Florida sweets that look like fat-bellied, giant scallions, I keep them in the refrigerator. Sweet onions are most useful in salads, and I can sweeten any onion for that purpose. Using a very sharp knife, I cut a peeled onion into the thinnest possible slices. I put these in a large strainer and run cold water over them, squeezing them for twenty or thirty seconds, then transfer them to a bowl filled with cold water. I squeeze them again until I see the water becoming milky. I then drain them, refill the bowl with fresh cold water, and put the onion slices back into the bowl. I repeat this operation once or twice over the next half hour or more. It’s a method that will take the edge off the bite of any onion, including the red. Before adding the slices to a salad, I pat them as dry as I can between paper towels. I follow the same procedure with diced onion, if that is what I want in a salad.

My favorite onions in Italy, the small, flat cipolline, no broader than a silver dollar, are now being grown in America, where they are called cipollini. (I don’t understand the reason for changing the endings of Italian words, lasagna instead of lasagne, linguini instead of linguine, scaloppini instead of scaloppine. What was wrong with using the original correct ending?) Cipolline, or cipollini, are the most delicious little onions for a stew, or as a side dish on their own, or pickled. The only drawback for the cook is that their very thin skin is hard to remove without mangling the onion. Some people blanch the onions first, but that is too much trouble, I find. Using the skinny blade of a small paring knife, I start at the stem end and slip the blade under the first layer of thin, papery skin, pulling it down to the root end. When I have reached the onion’s tender core, I complete the preparation, cutting off both the stem and the root ends.

I also like very large Spanish onions, which I choose as flat as I can find. I cut them in half across their middle, but I don’t peel them. With the point of a very sharp knife, I cut a crosshatched pattern in the exposed flesh. I sprinkle with salt, add a drop of lemon juice to each side, spreading it with my fingers, pour good olive oil liberally trying to force some of it in between the cuts, and top it off with a fresh grinding of black pepper. The onion goes, cut side facing up, in a baking dish and into a 400° oven, cooking until tender when tested with a fork, about thirty to forty minutes.

When mincing an onion, I may find that I need only part of it. I leave the skin on the unused part, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap (I like the Glad Press’n Seal brand best for this purpose), put the wrapped onion in a resealable plastic bag, and refrig­erate it in the vegetable drawer. It will keep for a week or longer.

Take a very close look at the onions you buy. Make sure there are no black or soft spots, particularly at the root end. The skin should cling close to the bulb, which should feel heavy for its size.


I Piselli


English peas

Allow me to dispense immediately with the myth that frozen peas are a valid substitute for fresh peas. It depends of course on what you want food to provide. The taste of very young fresh peas—in dishes that illustrate the Italian genius for cooking vegetables such as the Tuscan pisellini e prosciutto, tiny peas braised with prosciutto and olive oil, the Roman vignarola or Sicilian frittedda, similar spring preparations in which peas cook in olive oil together with seasonally young small artichokes and fava beans, or the Venetian soupy risotto, risi e bisi—the taste of those peas is the most enchanting in the whole vegetable kingdom. And it cannot be produced with frozen peas.

Tiny peas—pisellini or petits pois in French—are delightful, but size is not quite as important as freshness. It’s freshness that delivers the sweetness, because the moment peas are picked their sugar begins to change to starch. Peas need to be absolutely freshly picked and very young, and then they are delicious, bursting crunchily in the mouth with sweet juice, the flavor of one’s childhood.

Choose peas by their pods, which must be a dewy green and full. Pop one open. It should snap. Taste the peas; they should be juicy, not floury. If you have the good fortune to acquire really fresh peas, cook them that day if possible. Or keep them two or three days at most in the refrigerator, unshelled and loose in a plastic bag.

Braising fresh peas with romaine lettuce and onions is a dish I learned to make in Rome, where we once lived. Shell the peas, slice an onion very thin, shred several large green leaves of romaine, put everything in a saucepan with olive oil and a pinch of salt, cover, and cook at medium heat. The lettuce should provide all the liquid the peas need, and if they are very fresh they should be done in fifteen or twenty minutes. If they take longer and need a little more liquid, add a spoonful or two of water. Serve immediately or warm up gently before bringing to the table.

Frozen peas? They are quite serviceable in meat braises and stews, with meatballs, in a pasta sauce, or in soups.


I Peperoni

Sweet bell peppers come to the market in many shades, of which the desirable colors for Mediterranean cooking are red and yellow. A not fully ripened pepper is green. At one time in this country, green was the default color for bell peppers, whereas in Italy’s market stalls then, it rarely appeared. Green describes not only the color of the pepper, but its taste. It is not disagreeable; one may even find it pleasantly, if pointedly, vegetal, but it lacks the sweetness that red or yellow peppers have when sautéed or fried and with which they enrich a sauce, a braise, or a soup.

Choose a pepper by its size, shape, and heft. It should be large, heavy, shiny, firm, and cubical in form. The long tapered ones are not as solidly meaty. Examine the skin and pass up any with bruises or cracks or soft spots. A sound, unblemished pepper will keep in good condition for nearly a week if refrigerated in the vegetable drawer. You may store it there loose or in an open plastic bag.

The only thing that a cooked bell pepper’s skin contributes to taste is a faint bitterness and the annoying sensation of a papery foreign object in the mouth. If you are making stuffed peppers, you must leave the skin on to hold the hollowed out pepper in shape. Otherwise, a discriminating cook peels peppers before cooking. Cut them lengthwise along the furrows, pry them apart, and remove the seeds and white pith. Shave away the peel with a swiveling blade peeler. You can use the resulting skinless, fleshy strips of pepper as they are or, if the recipe requires it, cut them into squares or dice.

If you are going to eat the pepper raw, remove the skin by charring it over a charcoal flame, or under a broiler, or directly over a gas burner. When the side against the heat blackens, turn the pepper with a pair of tongs. When it is charred on all sides, close it up in a plastic bag. Let it steam awhile inside the bag, and when it is cool enough to hold, take it out and pull off the skin. It will come away easily in shreds. Split open the pepper, remove the white pith and seeds, and cut it lengthwise into broad fillets. Lay these flat on a plate, sprinkle with salt, and cover with olive oil. It is the simplest and most delectable thing you can do with a vegetable. If you prepare the fillets ahead of time, refrigerate them, but be aware that they will taste incomparably better the day you’ve made them, never having known the refrigerator’s chill.


Le Patate

Don’t take potatoes for granted. Select your favorite variety as carefully as you would another vegetable: Look at it, hold it, turn it over, press it. The potato you take home should be clean and very hard. No spongy spots, no indentations, no dark splotches. Buy them of a size, so they’ll cook evenly. Except for large, heavy russet baking potatoes that sometimes bear small nicks from the harvesting machines, there should be no cuts in the potato’s skin.

Keep potatoes in a cool, airy, dark place, storing them in brown paper bags. If bringing them home in plastic, punch holes in the bag. Don’t keep them, as I once did, under the sink, where the hot water running above them can make it too warm. Don’t wash them until you are ready to cook them. No potato likes bright light. Their skin may turn green, which means a bitter chemical called solanine has developed. Cut away any decidedly green sections before cooking.

When stored correctly, but for a long while, in a cool, dark place, potatoes will sometimes begin to sprout. They do it because they think they’ve been planted and prepare to grow. Little sprouts are not serious, but cut them off before cooking.

Potatoes come in many shapes, sizes, and colors, but for cooking purposes they all belong, with some individual variations, to one of two groups, either to those with waxy, moist texture or to the dry, starchy kind.

For salads, side dishes, soups, meat braises, or panfrying, your best choice would be one of the moist, waxy, and low- to medium-starch varieties such as yellow, red, white, fingerling, or Peruvian blue or purple potatoes.

Yukon Gold yellow potatoes or Red Bliss are what I use for an Italian potato salad. Aside from the condiments, an Italian potato salad has just one ingredient: the potatoes. We boil them with their skins on, peel them while still very warm—we don’t attach any flavor value whatever to a boiled potato peel—and slice them, before they are cold, into disks that we season with sea salt, high quality red wine vinegar, and our fruitiest olive oil. No, no balsamic. No mayonnaise. With good, waxy, creamy potatoes and well-chosen condiments, this is one of the most satisfying side dishes we can bring to the table.

For baking, for deep-frying, and for fluffy mashed potatoes, you need the floury and dry texture that you find in russet potatoes.

The most ethereal confection that you can produce with potatoes is Italy’s gnocchi. The only ingredients that go into gnocchi are potatoes and flour. It takes patience to learn to combine the flour and mashed boiled potato into a dough that can be turned by hand into heavenly gnocchi dumplings. Many cooks, probably most cooks, even otherwise good cooks, add egg to the dough to make it firmer and easier to handle. We call that method alla parigina (Paris style), and it isn’t a compliment. Good gnocchi are meant to be cloud light, not pellet firm. They don’t need much chewing, because they dissolve in the mouth.

There are four ways to sauce gnocchi. The simplest is lots of fine butter and a mound of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. An alternative is a sauce made with Gorgonzola Dolce dissolved over low heat with butter and heavy cream. Yet another way is with a light and fresh tomato sauce, such as my tomato sauce with tomato, butter, and onion that so many cooks are now making. My husband’s favorite gnocchi are sauced with basil pesto.


I Ravanelli


A radish is an enjoyable way to refresh one’s appetite in between courses at dinner. For that purpose, after washing the radish, I trim a little bit off the top to expose its flesh and bring it to the table with the rattail on, together with a little saucer heaped with sea salt. It’s unnecessary to peel it, although some like to trim it for decorative purposes. Holding it by the tail, one taps the salt with the radish and eats it in little bites.

Buy salad radishes with their tops on so that you can judge freshness from their leaves. A radish can be spongy—cai we call it in the dialect of my town—so it may help to squeeze it hard to check its firmness.

Cut off and discard the tops before storing radishes in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator. Don’t wash any until you are ready to eat it. If I am using it in a salad, I cut off the rattail and slice the radish very thin. If the radishes are truly firm, crisp, and possibly elongated, add them to other vegetables served with one of two traditional Italian dips, one cold, the other hot. The cold one is pinzimonio in which you mix salt, a drop or two of red wine vinegar, and good, fruity olive oil in individual small dipping bowls. The hot dip is bagna cauda, a vigorous blend of olive oil, butter, garlic, and anchovies.


Le Cime di Rapa/I Broccoletti di Rapa


In the flavor spectrum of regional Italian food, bitterness flashes brightly. Anticipating the pungency, and relishing it when it shows up, is essential to the appreciation and enjoyment of the taste of many leaf vegetables, from the north of Italy to the south, from radicchio to rapini. Rapini, with their explicit bitterness, star in a broad repertory of dishes from Apulia and Campania in the south, and from Rome in the center.

The iconic sauce of rapini, garlic, olive oil, chili pepper, and anchovies on orecchiette pasta comes from Apulia. In my experience, the satisfactions of rustic Italian cooking are never more profound than in Apulia’s combination of sautéed rapini with pureed dried fava beans. In Naples, blanched rapini are strascinati—literal translation, “dragged”—stirred vigorously for several minutes in a skillet with olive oil, chili pepper, and anchovies, then served with sausages or on their own. In Rome, rapini sometimes skip a preliminary blanching and slowly braise in a covered saucepan in olive oil, and of course garlic, with an occasional spoonful of water added to prevent sticking. In my town, on the northern Adriatic shore, blanched, chopped rapini are combined with Savoy cabbage and Swiss chard and sautéed in olive oil and garlic. I serve them as a side dish or on piadina—a flat bread—with a fresh, soft cheese.

Rapini stalks are exactly as good as the tops, and it is a pity that many recipes instruct you to discard them. They can be tough, however. After slicing away a very small section from their cut ends, use a swiveling blade peeler to peel the rest.

Wash the vegetable in cold water just before cooking. If unwashed, you can refrigerate it for up to four days in a loose plastic bag.

Select rapini whose leaves are firm and bright green. Pass up any whose tops are wilting or slimy. The buds should be closed. If they are bright yellow they have begun to open, an undesirable sign. The stalks also should be firm and green to the very bottom where they have been cut from the plant.


Gli Spinaci

Blanch spinach, sauté it in garlic and olive oil, and you have a dish that summarizes the simplicity, directness, and satisfaction of vegetables cooked the Italian way. Spinach is a familiar part of all styles of Italian cooking: a torta rustica with ricotta from Apulia; a soup of spinach and chickpeas from Friuli; spinach gnocchi in Tuscany; the Riviera’s savory Easter cake, torta pasqualina; in Venice a risotto with the sweet-tasting spinach grown in the island farms of the lagoon; in Bologna, the loftiest example of burghers’ cooking, multilayered green dough lasagne.

Spinach leaves are of two basic types, either puckered or smooth, to which one should add an in-between variety with moderate crinkling. If they are fresh, they are all good, although I find the broad, smooth kind milder and sweeter.

If you are buying fresh loose spinach, choose crisp leaves that are a deep, vivid green, none of which should be wilted or blackened by bruises. Unless you cook it the same day, store it unwashed, wrapping each bunch of spinach in a paper towel and stowing it in a resealable bag. It should stay fresh for four to five days. Do not keep spinach after it’s cooked, because it develops an unpleasantly tinny taste.

You must wash the spinach you buy loose in several changes of water before you cook it. Use a large basin that you can empty out frequently until you see no traces of grit settling at its bottom. The crinkly spinach will take more to wash clear of grit than the flat.

In recent years I have been buying prewashed spinach sealed in a plastic box. I can refrigerate the unopened box for up to a week if I have to. At first I used to wash it before cooking it, but packaged spinach has already been triple washed and, as I have learned, does not need to be washed at home. In fact, it is better not to, lest it become contaminated by bacteria present in the kitchen.



Le Ortiche


Why cook with them? They taste good. They resemble spinach, but cooked, they have a firmer, more appealing texture, a brighter color, and an untamed, earthy flavor. Nettles won’t sting if you wear gloves while handling them when they are raw. A minute of cooking eliminates their sting.

Pasta verde con le ortiche—green pasta with nettles—is very popular in Emilia-Romagna. Briefly blanch and chop the nettles before kneading them into the dough. You can also serve them, after blanching, sautéed with garlic and olive oil. They are terrific with sausages and beans, in a frittata, or in a risotto.

If you are going to use them in a braise, with pasta, or in a risotto, handle them with gloves and blanch them first in boiling water for one minute. You can safely handle them without gloves afterward. If you are going to chop them and use them raw, as in a frittata batter or in the stuffing of tortelloni, use gloves the entire time that you will be in contact with them until after they are cooked.


I Topinambur

This sweet root of sunflowers has long been in search of a name. Italians have called it a Canadian potato or a cane truffle, but oddly, nearly everyone in Italy now refers to it as topinambur, the name of an indigenous Brazilian tribe. In America it used to be known as Jerusalem artichoke, but its growers have decided to adopt the name sunchoke, which they have registered. A pity that so fine an ingredient has had to struggle for identity.

The sunchoke, as we now call it, is a knobby, twisty tuber that, to the uninformed, looks like ginger. When I first arrived from Italy, I was one of the uninformed. I had never seen ginger; I thought I had found what I knew as topinambur. “I’ll have a pound of it, please,” I told the greengrocer. What I eventually did with all that ginger I no longer recall.

Choose the tubers first by their color. A clear, unblemished, creamy brown shade is a good indication of freshness. Sunchokes absorb humidity quickly, so feel them for firmness, avoiding those with soft spots and wrinkled skins. If I am going to use them the same week I have bought them, I keep them loose in the refrigerator’s vegetable drawer. To keep the tubers another week, or at most two, I wrap them in paper towels and refrigerate them in an open plastic bag.

Sunchokes have a tough skin, but if you are cooking them in a soup, where they form flavorful liaisons with other vegetables such as asparagus or mushrooms, or if you are eating them raw because they are so juicy and nutty, you might not need to peel them, on condition that the tubers are very fresh, and their skin has not turned leathery. Scrub them hard with a rough cloth or brush under cold water and slice them very thin using a sharp chef’s knife or a mandoline or the food processor’s fine slicing disk. The skin becomes an impediment, however, to full enjoyment of sunchokes’ creamy texture and almond-like flavor when you sauté them, braise them, or in what may be the most irresistible display of their merits, bake them with butter under a blanket of grated Parmesan. In these instances, cut off the most troublesome bumps and use the swiveling blade peeler to remove their skin. Blanch them whole and always slice them into very thin disks before proceeding to other cooking methods.


La Bieta


The many uses of Swiss chard take us to some of the most satisfying moments in the cooking of the Mediterranean, and particularly of Italy. Both the broad, firm, dark green leaves and the meaty stalks of mature chard find much useful employment in an Italian kitchen. The whole chard, blanched and cut up, may end in a torta rustica with prosciutto, hard-boiled eggs, grated Parmesan, and herbs. The leaves alone are combined with ricotta for the filling of homemade tortelloni. Leaves and stalks go into a minestrone, or a frittata, or a sformato baked with ham and béchamel. The stalks can be prepared as a separate dish, washed, trimmed of strings, and baked with butter and Parmesan cheese. Or fried. When we lived in Rome, we would sometimes have the city’s chard panino: Blanched chard leaves are chopped and added to garlic, mashed anchovies, chili pepper, and tomatoes cooked in olive oil and when done are served between two thick slices of grilled bread. In my hometown, we sauté chard chopped together with Savoy cabbage and rapini in garlic and olive oil and spread it over piadina, a pizzalike flat bread.

The two common varieties of Swiss chard have either red or white stalks. The white are preferable because they are meatier and lend themselves better to independent uses. Make sure the leaves are firm, not wilted, and free of bruises. At home, separate the leaves and stalks and refrigerate the stalks in a resealable plastic bag. They will keep for a week. The leaves, however, won’t be at their best after two or three days. Refrigerate them separately in a loose plastic bag. Before cooking, wash the leaves in two or three changes of cold water. Unless you are adding them to a liquid medium such as a soup, blanch them very briefly in liberally salted water. The stalks must be blanched separately in boiling water with just a pinch of salt. If they are very broad, as they sometimes are in mature chard, split them in two lengthwise before cooking.


I Pomodori

Which is it to be, sauce tomatoes or salad tomatoes? Their paths may even converge, but let’s think about sauce tomatoes first. Tomato sauce is not all there is to Italian cooking, yet, in its infinite variety, in its animated application to seafood dishes, to the cooking of vegetables, to meat braises, and finally to pasta, the transformation of tomatoes into sauce may be the Italian art of cooking’s happiest achievement.

Now the question is which tomato? Poor tomatoes do not make good sauce. Examples abound in pizzerias, restaurants, and home kitchens. When they are ripe and firm-fleshed, I like to use fresh tomatoes, which produce a sauce with fruity exuberance. The plum tomato, of which Roma is the universally available variety, is my first choice. It has few seeds, its cylindrical form is solidly packed with flavorful meaty flesh, and it is a sturdy tomato, which makes it easier to handle and ship, hence it is picked at a riper stage than the other tomatoes in the market. With good plum tomatoes you can make one of the cardinal Italian sauces, the pure Neapolitan filetto di pomodoro, tomato fillet. Peel raw, ripe tomatoes with a swiveling blade peeler, cut the tomatoes lengthwise, cut off the ends, scoop out the seeds, and cut them into long strips, the fillets. Cook these fillets in olive oil, turning them without mashing them too much, letting them become sauce while maintaining some of their original fleshy consistency.


Skin a tomato with a peeler’s swiveling blade.

Another fresh variety suitable for sauce is the small, round, globe tomato usually sold in clusters attached to a length of its vine. It may be labeled “vine-ripened,” a misleading description because it acquires its intense ripe-red color after it has been picked. To make a good sauce, it must be cooked longer than a ripe Roma. A similar, smaller variety called Campari, which is sweet and juicy, also makes good sauce, but the peeling of it takes patience. To peel these and other fresh tomatoes for any sauce except the Neapolitan filetto described above, I plunge them in boiling water for less than a minute. A longer hot bath is not necessary and would undermine their consistency, making them too watery.

To make a sauce with great depth of flavor, the genuine canned, peeled Italian San Marzano tomatoes are matchless. Genuine is a necessary word, because there are many imitations, packed both in this country and in Italy, all of them inferior. Authentic San Marzanos are grown only in the valley of the Sarno River near Salerno. They are described on the label as Pomodoro S. Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino and bear the designation DOP, which certifies their legally protected origin.

The San Marzano, like the Roma, is a plum tomato, tapered at the stem end, with a slimmer, longer body than the Roma. It has few seeds, and the taste of its dense flesh is the fruitiest, most intense of any plum tomato. The cans come in two sizes, and if you are not always cooking for a crowd, it would be convenient to stock both sizes and use the smaller one when you don’t need to make too much sauce. If you have San Marzanos left over in the can, transfer them to a glass jar, float a very small amount of olive oil on top, screw a cap on tightly, and refrigerate. They should keep well for a week or more.

In other areas near Naples they cultivate and pack small, round, unpeeled tomatoes, pomodorini. These are excellent for a lighter sauce, but they must be strained to remove their tough skins.

Beefsteak is the classic salad tomato, a true fruit of summer, juicy and richly tomatoey in its season, mealy and flavorless out of it. I like using it alone in garlic-scented seasoning. Peel and mash a clove or two of garlic, sprinkle it lightly with sea salt, and let it soak in red wine vinegar for at least thirty minutes. Peel and cut the tomato, sprinkle very little salt on it, and pour the scented vinegar over it, holding back the garlic. Drizzle olive oil over the tomato, turning it two or three times.

An excellent variety of beefsteak that I have sometimes come across is the Brandywine, exceptionally full-flavored. The list of beefsteak varieties is endless. Because of its climate, Florida produces a type of beefsteak under the registered name Ugly Ripe that is available most of the year. It is the tastiest tomato in our supermarket, but its deeply ridged shape is uneven, which apparently makes it look ugly to some. Costoluto is a tomato variety of Italian origin, also uneven in shape and heavily ridged. In Italy costoluto is known as a Florentine tomato; in America it has become Genoese. It is delicious and very good for making sauce as well as using in a salad.


Roma tomatoes

The prevalent tomato shape in the stores and in the markets is the smooth-skinned, evenly round globe. It rarely has much flavor. I’d rather use Romas than globes for a salad.

The miniature tomatoes in cherry, grape, or pear shapes have had sweetness bred into them and are consequently very agreeable in a salad. I slice them in half so that they can better pick up salt.

Tomatoes of many colors—pink, yellow, green, brown—are sold as heirlooms, although the beefsteaks are also heirlooms. Sometimes they are very, very good, but their shelf life is short, and if they don’t sell quickly, they become too soft for my taste. In a salad tomato I look not only for ripeness, but also for firmness. Mushy I don’t like.

All tomatoes going into a salad, except for the miniatures, should be peeled raw, using a swiveling blade vegetable peeler. The skin is bitter, its texture holds no pleasure, and if taste is a criterion, it should be eliminated. I also believe that a tomato cut into irregular wedges soaks up seasoning better than when it is cut into thin, even, round slices.

The tomatoes you buy should have no cracks, no soft spots, no dark splotches. They should have a decidedly earthy, almost farmyard scent, which you can pick up from the end opposite the stem. Be watchful at checkout when they are bagging your carefully chosen tomatoes. Don’t let them pack them together with any hard, heavy, or sharp-edged objects. It is best to ask that the tomatoes go separately into a bag of their own. Do not store tomatoes in the refrigerator. Store them at room temperature in a dark corner, their stem ends up. Feel them gently from time to time to make sure they are not becoming too soft. If they are cut or cracked, refrigerate them for at most a couple of days in a resealable plastic bag. If you are putting them in a salad, bring them to room temperature first.


I Tartufi

A truffle is a fungus, but that doesn’t make it a mushroom, because even though a mushroom is also a fungus, not every fungus is a mushroom. Mushrooms rise out of the ground; truffles lurk beneath it, out of sight but within range of a dog’s trained nose. Dogs are a better choice than pigs, which some countries use, because a dog denies itself the pleasure of eating the truffle it has just dug up, whereas—if not opportunely restrained—the pig will gobble it up.

The white and the black truffle are the two most desirable and most valuable truffles; the winter bianchetto and the summer scorzone truffles are two lesser, but useful varieties, whereas at a much lower level there are several other kinds whose contributions, in terms of flavor and aroma, are negligible.

The white truffle of Alba grows wild in the Piedmontese woods, and it may also be unearthed in other regions of northern and central Italy. Attempts to cultivate it have failed, allowing it to become, by a considerable spread, the most expensive single food harvested from the ground. It is worth the price to one who is swayed by the penetrating, musky aroma that shavings of freshly harvested white truffle bestow on pasta or risotto. If you fancy white truffles, you must get a steel truffle slicer, which will quickly and evenly blanket a plate of tagliatelle or risotto with shavings from the precious nugget.


Shave white truffles with a steel truffle slicer.

White truffles dispense their aroma most effusively when raw, but if they are very fresh, they can have a notable impact on cooking. In one of the rare Italian dishes with turkey, Bologna celebrates the truffle season with a cutlet of turkey breast sautéed in butter and layered with prosciutto and white truffle. I celebrate my husband’s birthday, which happily for him comes during the heart of the truffle season, with a baked tortino al tartufo. It is composed of a layer of peeled, sliced, boiled potatoes covered by truffle shavings, topped with slivers of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and dotted in turn with butter. Several such layers mount up in sequence toward a crown of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and butter.

The white truffle season begins in mid-September and ends after Christmas. The latter half of its season coincides with the start of the black truffle season, which runs from mid-November to March. The black truffle is less expensive than the white, but it is nonetheless the most precious crop when it is at the peak of its season. It grows in central Italy, in Périgord in the southwest of France, in Spain, and in many other countries. Its aroma is not pungent; it is gently earthy, woodsy, and quite satisfying. I shave black truffles into slivers or grate them, depending on what I want to make. A pasta dish called alla nursina—“in the style of Norcia,” a town in the center of black truffle production in Umbria—is the best foil for the truffle’s earthiness and depth. The sauce is brilliantly simple: You mince garlic very fine, brown it lightly in olive oil, put in some chili pepper, dissolve two or three mashed anchovy fillets in the oil, and off heat, just as you are about to drop the drained hot pasta into the pan, swirl the gratings of a good-size truffle into the sauce. Grating is tedious; I prefer to throw the whole truffle into the food processor, which pulverizes it in seconds.

Unlike white truffles, which resist cultivation, it has been relatively simple to grow black truffles. It only takes time—time to raise, in suitable soil and a favorable climate, a grove of oak trees to whose roots the truffle’s spores attach themselves. The Australian island of Tasmania has entered black truffle production with great promise. Its cold months are June to August, so Tasmania now brings us the wintry pleasures of black truffles to delight our summers.

From mid-January to the beginning of April, a new white truffle crop comes to the market. These are called bianchetti truffles, a more modest variety than the autumnal Alba truffles. Their aroma is feebler, yet distinctly garlicky and spicy. If you buy a jar of truffled condiment that is described as made with white truffles, it is probably produced with bianchetti.

From the beginning of May to the end of August, while waiting for the Alba truffle season to begin, one can satisfy one’s longings with a dark summer variety called scorzone. It is a knobby, black nugget with a marbled, medium brown interior. Its subdued aroma is less reminiscent of any other truffle than it is of mushrooms.

A truffle’s aroma is its sole desirable feature, and the intensity of that aroma is the clue to the truffle’s freshness, a clue that must guide your purchase. Don’t buy truffles too long before you intend to use them. The black will keep better than the white, but none will keep for longer than a few days, and none can maintain their scent unaltered for even that long. Do not store truffles in rice unless you are interested only in infusing rice with truffle aromas. If you cannot use a truffle the day you buy it, wrap it in butcher paper or a paper towel and store it in a large glass jar on the lowest level of the refrigerator. A truffle needs to be kept dry. If you are going to keep it another day or two, unwrap it, ­discarding the paper, rub the truffle with a clean toothbrush, and rewrap it with clean, dry paper.



Le Zucchine


With few and uncommon variations, zucchini come in two shades of green, one dark, the other pale. I prefer the paler version when I can get it, because it has a richer, fuller taste. Size is important. Very large zucchini are watery and bland, while the appeal of a baby vegetable is prevalently ornamental. Choose zucchini that are about one and a half inches thick and not more than seven inches long. The skin should be glossy and free of nicks, scrapes, and dents. Look at the end that was attached to the stem. If part of the stem is still attached, its color should be fresh, not darkened by age. Fresh zucchini are firm, unyielding to pressure.

If truly fresh, they will keep in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator for a week. Keeping them loose rather than in a bag will better maintain their crispness. Zucchini skin is very soft, and grit can easily become embedded in it, particularly in zucchini purchased directly from farmers. To prepare them for cooking, I always soak uncut zucchini in cold water for at least fifteen minutes, then scrub them under running water with a rough cloth or a vegetable brush.

I can’t think of a vegetable with greater versatility than zucchini. It can be fried, sautéed, grilled, boiled, or baked; it can be cooked whole, sliced, shredded, or hollowed out and stuffed. There are two types of the tool you need for hollowing out zucchini. One is fully cylindrical with a cutting edge at its tip; the other is half of a cylinder ending in a sharp point. The latter is more maneuverable and does a better job. When you hollow out zucchini, keep the core you have removed to use in a frittata with caramelized onions and grated Parmesan. Of the many stuffings that zucchini may contain, one of my favorites is composed of ground meat, preferably lamb, but also pork and beef mixed, and rice. Once stuffed, I brown them in butter or olive oil, depending on the inclination of the moment, with onion sliced very fine, then I braise them slowly with tomatoes.

The blossoms of the zucchini or squash plant are also edible. The bright yellow flower that emerges directly from the ends of the zucchini as they issue from the plant is the female blossom. A second, slightly smaller flower is attached to a slender stalk that grows from the stem of the plant. It is the male blossom. The blossoms you choose for the kitchen must be firm, not limp, and both the petals and the ­pistils must be colored a very bright yellow. Remove the pistils, because they are slightly bitter. The stalk of the male flower is not edible, but one may want to keep it as a convenient handle.

There are recipes in which zucchini or squash blossoms are folded around a variety of ingredients and sautéed or baked. A terrible waste, I think. Nothing capitalizes so perfectly on the texture of the flower, transforming it into a crisp yet diaphanous biteful, as dipping it in a plain batter of flour and water or flour and beer and quickly deep-frying it in lard or in a neutral-tasting vegetable oil.