hen I discovered Rome to be the most beautiful city on earth and Italian food to be superior to most other cuisines — well, at least among the best: China has some pretty amazing dishes — I enlisted the help of my friends to learn more about the subtleties of the country’s abundant seasonal cooking.
If autumn’s ubiquitous tartufi and porcini mushrooms make that season at home, Italy heralds spring with fava beans, tiny peas, tender artichokes, young green onions and early Romaine or butter lettuces, all of which are flung together in a ritual dish known as vignarola. It’s a concoction my Italian compatriots wax poetic about as March and April roll around. But combining such extraordinarily separate group of ingredients is a bit like having five husbands at once. Better, I think, to have one at a time and relish each one’s individuality.
My take on this marriage of vegetables is as follows. Cook absolutely nothing in plain old water. The small (or large) beans need to be cleaned to the yellow and sautéed, along with the sliced artichokes, in a little olive oil. Ensure you place a lid on to maintain tenderness. After that, add the rest of the vegetable friends.
Overall, I don’t like much that’s boiled or steamed when there’s a lovely bottle of green virgin oil at hand, but I do begrudge the new potato, the fresh egg and a particular soup I’ve written about before. Still, sautéing is my choice for cooking tender new vegetables.
In making vignarola, it’s the carciofi that get the first sizzle, followed by the young tender onions, sliced and cooked for a minute. The fave, new peas and lettuce (cut crosswise into slices) finish off the stew. For it is a stew.
To suit carnivores, crisp Italian bacon, pancetta, or prosciutto may be added to the mix along with a cup of rich chicken broth for moistening. Remember that the stew cooks very quickly — tenderizing the fave and peas doesn’t take long if they’re truly spring’s first. Oh, and I do not peel my fave.
Though I love these traditional dishes from time to time, my garden often takes me in different directions, toward sorcery. I toss my fresh fave with roasted garlic and toasted sage. I cook my tiny new peas quickly (as they do in Spain) with tidbits of pata negra, or mint, and a squeeze of lemon and a spoon of oil. I take young carciofi pieces and shake them in a bag with flour, salt, pepper and paprika, quickly browning them to a crunch in oil. These ingredients go into a cool, crisp salad with butter lettuce. A miser adds vinegar, a spendthrift pours the cold-pressed, a wise man adds salt, while the resident madman, the pazzo, tosses it.
I love the distinct tastes of these delicate new offerings and often pluck young wild asparagus in the woods and munch it right then and then — when I can spot it, that is. The French relish their wild asperges in a simple omelet, salt and pepper only, and the tiny spears cut into pieces mixed in with the eggs. But to me, those magically-appearing stalks, so hard to find and to pluck, are overwhelmed even by a simple egg, and all the intensely strange and acidly exotic asparagus flavor vanishes.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Italian traditions and dishes. As soon as I see vignarola on spring menus, especially when I’m among fellow Romans, I’ll order it. But when I’m at home in my French garden, a hunk of pecorino and a dish of raw, just-picked fave will do just fine. Or better still, join me, and we’ll combine spring’s bounty together.