trawberries in January? “E perché?” That’s how Giuliana, my greengrocer replies when I tell her how the organic supermarket in California where my dad lives sells off-season goods all year long. Tomatoes, peaches, cardoons, cabbage and raspberries all share the same space. At the same time.
It’s a given for Giuliana, and for her long-standing clients — and Italians in general — that agricultural bounty be closely tied to nature’s cycles, to climactic fluctuation, sun, rain, ice. Rhythmically defined by the seasons.
May is a harbinger of summer. Market stalls bloom with color, offering up an array of fresh and novel ingredients for everyday cooking. After months of minestrone soups, beans, cabbage and hearty green stews, comes a garden of delights.
The fruit section brings dribbly nespole (medlar), pale cherries, and a multitude of sweet berries, strawberries and fragoline di bosco. Local cuisine reflects this cornucopia of seasonal treats, gracing springtime menus with savory dishes such as wild asparagus frittata and braised or fried artichokes (or plucked raw and dipped in olive oil, pinzimonio).
There’s also the appealing dark green agretti — a meaty spinach-flavored grassy plant that’s served steamed and is hugely popular with kids (and parents, given its iron content). Or striped and blossom-topped zucchini that can be used in pasta condiment or pizza toppings. You can also stuff and deep fry zucchini flowers. Baby greens in salads enjoy the company of lush cucumbers, and the first timid datterini tomatoes. Also keep your eyes peeled for buckets of chilled water that contain the last of the year’s puntarelle.
If there’s one Roman dish that sums up this regional spring primizie, it’s Vignarola.
Versatile vignarola is a vegetal miscellany of tender artichokes, fava beans, peas, romaine lettuce hearts, spring onions, lavish amounts of black pepper, and, yes, guanciale (I can actually see the smiles fading from your vegetarian faces).
Vignarola can be served as an antipasto or even as a first course. These ingredients appear in markets only for very brief, pre-summer stretch, so hurry up.
- 2 lemons, halved.
- 5 large artichokes (mammole or romaneschi, equivalent to the globe variety).
- 300 gr (1 1/2 cups) shelled and peeled fresh fava beans.
- 50 gr (1/4 cup) extra virgin olive oil, more if needed.
- 2 spring onions , thinly sliced.
- 60 gr (2 oz) guanciale, slivered.
- 400 gr (2 cups) shelled baby peas.
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice (flavor booster).
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
— Trim the artichokes, freeing them of the tough dark leaves, bitter outer stem coating, and the inner fuzz we Romans call barbe, for “beards.” Some market vendors sell them already pared and ready to cook, bobbing in lemony water (to keep them from turning tawny ) .
— To trim them yourself, fill a large bowl with cold acidulated water (squeeze the lemons in the water and drop them in, too) .
— Using a serrated knife, slice off the tough parts of the globe, and that means the pointy spiked tips and the outer coriaceous leaves, peeling off the spiked blades and working inwards to where the leaves are more tender and light colored. This is much like peeling an apple, and in this process the artichoke will become spherical. Be sure to keep rubbing it with lemon juice as you trim along.
— Using a paring knife, trim away the ridged outer part of the stem while leaving the heart intact. If you look at the end of the stem you will see a dark ring; trim away the outside of the ring exposing the center, and cut the stalk in shorter sections. Lastly, scoop out the prickly leaves and the fuzzy choke. Drop them into the water and repeat with the remaining artichokes. Cut each in half, and then into wedges, and put them back in the water until ready to use.
— Film-coat a large pot with olive oil, and lightly sauté the guanciale and spring onion until translucent, about 10 minutes.
— Drain the quartered artichokes and add to the pan, along with 2 cups of water and a pinch of salt. Bring the liquid to a boil, and reduce the heat to a simmer, cooking until the artichokes are just shy of tender, about 20-25 minutes.
— Add the shelled and peeled fava beans along with the peas, and cover. Continue to simmer gently until all the vegetables are nearly tender. Next add some finely shredded Romaine lettuce hearts, and continue cooking until wilted, and the liquid is almost completely absorbed.
I like my vignarola moist. But the rest of the vegetables should not be reduced to a mush.
Season with a few drops of lemon juice, and freshly ground black pepper. I serve it hot, drizzled with a thread more olive oil and crusty bread on the side. Or — if there’s any left over the next day — at room temperature, singing, “È primavera, svegliatevi bambineee!”