hile the cold and damp days of winter are perfect for thick soups and hearty stews, Italy’s greener side is all too is easily overlooked. At this time of year markets swell with bitter greens, which are tasty eaten raw or cooked. Local hillsides also offer plenty of “free” food (if you know what to look for), including wild dandelions, arugula and plants with names like terracrepoli and cicerbite. Meanwhile, vendors in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori hawk chicory, punterelle, cleaned, sliced, and ready for dressing with anchovy and lemon vinaigrette.
Cardoons (carducci) are another acquired winter taste. I make them once a year for my husband. Cardoons (young artichoke shoots) are cut off and their stalks cleaned of leaves, which are not edible. The “threads” are then removed and the stalks boiled to tenderness. They’re floured, fried, and finally oven-baked with butter and cheese or stewed in a tomato sauce.
For those who have haven’t come around to bitter flavors, you might want to consider “taming” tactics. Pair the greens with an acid or a fat. In salads, add fruit such as fresh orange bits, peeled and chopped. Citrus juice can mixed with sweet traditional balsamic vinegar for dressing. Or try peeling blood oranges and squeezing some of the juice on the salad, then adding unfiltered olive oil and sea salt. I also like combining curly endive greens with thinly sliced radicchio. At the end of a heavy meal, slices of tart green apples can add another sweet but acidic layer and help clean the palate.
Another anti-bitter trick is to pre-boil the greens. Broccoli rabe is a favorite. Double-cooking is common. The first cooking parboils the vegetable in salt water after which it’s drained, chopped and given a second cooking in a skillet with olive oil and garlic.
In Naples, broccoli rabe is known as friarelli. It is sautéed in a oil-coated skillet and served with grilled sausages. Pancetta, sausages and pork are all good bitter green companions.
Even desserts have a bitter side. Amaretti cookies get their flavor from “bitter almonds” (actually the inside of a peach pit and trace amounts of cyanide). Dangerous no, delicious yes.
Bitter wine also appears. Barolo Chinato, infused with quinine bark and other essences, was created in Piedmonte by Giulio Cocchi in 1891. Originally used for medicinal purposes, the Barolo Chinato is now paired with milk chocolate and hazelnut Gianduiotto chocolates.
The bitter food harvest also slops into digestive liquors such as Campari and Fernet Branca, which depend on quinine bark. The palate-grabbing tannins of raw artichoke can dry your mouth in a hurry. Red Campari, created in 1860 in Milan, is an acquired taste, so are bitters as a whole. Their herbs and aromatic plants are though to “open” the stomach before a meal. Campari is too strong on its own and generally mixed into cocktails. Campari soda (on the rocks with a slice of orange) is a perfect summer drink.
But my own favorite is the Negroni, created in Florence by Count Camillo Negroni who mixed Campari, red Vermouth, and a splash of gin. For me, Fernet Branca and Cynar are off limits. Cynar is made from artichokes and 13 other herbs. Fernet Branca, another potent mix, is probably Italy’s favorite big-meal chaser. As with all things spicy and bitter, you have to taste it to make up your mind.
Pizza di Scarola
Escarole (scarola) is a salad green eaten raw and cooked. Most recipes use anchovies, raisins and pine nuts to balance out the bitterness. This one is great for a buffet, served in wedges or made into individual “pies.”
For a 25 cm pan of “pizza” use 400 grams raw bread dough. (you can make your own with 2 cups of flour, 1 package of yeast and water, salt and olive oil.)
- 1 head of scarola salad.
- 1 clove garlic, sliced.
- 2 tbs raisins.
- 2 tbs pine nuts.
- Olive oil.
- Remove the hard core of the scarola.
- Place in a sauté pan with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Cover and let steam until it is tender.
- Remove and chop. Heat olive oil in the same pan and add the garlic slices. Before the garlic turns golden, place the chopped scarola back into the pan. Add raisins and pine nuts. Let cool.
- Divide the dough into two equal parts.
- Roll out bottom half and top with scarola.
- Cover with remaining dough, rolled out thinly.
- Seal edges and bake at 180C for 20 minutes or until golden.
This light dough is easy to make at home and can be grilled on a stovetop, in a skillet or oven baked. Sliced open and filled with Naple broccoli rabe (friarelli), it’s topped with pieces of sausage, covered with smoked Provolone slice, and returned to the oven to melt the cheese. For me it was love at first bite.
- 500 grams/5 cups Italian flour (lower in gluten than American all-purpose).
- 1 envelope dry yeast.
- 2 tbs sugar.
- 300 ml/1 1/4 cups warm water.
- 3 tbs olive oil.
- 2 tsp salt.
- Mix all the ingredients together.
- Stir until all is well-mixed.
- Cover the bowl and let rise until doubles in size.
- Flour worktable and put dough onto workspace.
- Lightly knead the dough to form a ball.
- Break into 4 pieces.
- Roll the dough out into oval shapes and bake at 350 until golden, about 20 minutes.
- Let cool.
- To serve, slice open the bread.
Prepare the broccoli rabe by removing the leaves and tender stalks from the thick tougher stalks. Wash the leaves and place them in pan with water still clinging to the leaves. Sautee the greens with olive oil and cover to steam.
Place the sautéed greens on the bottom layer of bread and top with sliced cooked sausage. Cover with sliced smoked provolone cheese.
Heat oven until the cheese starts to melt. Cover with the top.
- Clean the cardoons of leaves and the stringy threads.
- Parboil in salted water, with lemon.
- Lightly flour and fry.
- Bake with butter and parmesan or in a tomato sauce topped with grated parmesan cheese.
- Bake until the cheese is golden.
- 1/3 gin.
- 1/3 Campari.
- 1/3 Martini Rossi Red Vermouth.
Fill large tumbler with ice and pour the liquors on top. Stir and serve with 1/2 orange slice. Never drink more than two!