In 2008, my family and I took a trip to Venice. Five years later, my most vivid memory of that trip is not of the Piazza San Marco, or the cathedral, or the gondolas wending their way through the canals. It is of the incredible display of vegetables at the Rialto farmers’ market. The selection of radicchio alone was enough to make me dizzy–fat, scarlet bouquets of Chioggia and Verona; furled red and white fingers of Treviso; pale green and pink-speckled heads of Castelfranco. Behind them spilled blood-red tomatoes and peppers, and atop those sat a big, squat winter squash, sliced in half, its orange flesh practically glowing. What a show!”
That’s the opening paragraph of The Glorious Vegetables of Italy, which is officially out today. Those words pretty much sum up why I decided to write a book on Italian vegetables ~ or, more accurately, the vegetables that star in Italian cooking, from artichokes to zucchini. So much color, so many choices ~ who wouldn’t be inspired?
Pasta and pizza may be the rock stars of Italian food, but they owe a debt of gratitude to vegetables. Most of my favorite pasta dishes aren’t covered in sauce, but rather tossed with whatever vegetables happen to be in season (right now it would be eggplant, peppers, tomatoes or zucchini ~ or eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and zucchini).
I’m thinking, too, of a dinner I had just last month in Abruzzo, at the home of my friend Fabrizio Lucci. His mom, aunt and cousin served us guests no fewer than 12 different types of pizza, each pie topped with a different vegetable ~ artichokes, eggplant, fennel, peppers, rapini, zucchini, and so on. There was an especially memorable one stuffed with slow-cooked onions.
In a happy coincidence, there is a chapter on pizza (plus calzoni and panini) in the book, with recipes for potato pizza, pizza with roasted fennel, and grilled pizzas with all sorts of vegetable toppings. And possibly the best panino you’ll ever eat ~ stuffed with fried zucchini blossoms, tomato and fresh mozzarella. There are also chapters on pasta (of course), garden soups and salads, main courses, sides, desserts, and preserves and condiments.
I also want to mention the Gallery of Italian Vegetables, a section in the front that profiles the players (Beans: a big, broad family; Spinach: the virtuous vegetable; and so on) and includes helpful information on choosing, cleaning and preparing them.
I love my new book, but I’m not going to go on and on about it. If you’d like to know more, I’ll happily direct you to the book’s page here on the site. Also, I have scheduled a number of events ~ cooking classes, demos, tastings and book signings ~ both near and far. The kick-off event is a tasting and book signing on September 7 at one of my favorite D.C. boutiques ~ Salt & Sundry, in Union Market. You’ll find all the necessary details on my Events page. Please stop by and say hi if you come to one of my events. I’d really like to meet you.
I’m continuing to schedule events well into fall and beyond, so if there is a venue that you think I ought to contact, please let me know about it. Also, if you happen to write or blog about The Glorious Vegetables of Italy, please do let me know about that, too. My friend Olga Berman (a.k.a. Mango & Tomato) made the Swiss Chard and Spinach Ravioli Nudi in Simple Tomato Sauce for her monthly cookbook dinner club and wrote this post about it. Joe Yonan, food and travel editor at The Washington Post, wrote about the Eggplant “Meatballs” in Tomato Sauce for his Weeknight Vegetarian column. And Theresa at Food Hunter’s Guide posted this review of the book on her site. Feel free to share any links in the comments section below.
Here’s one of my favorite recipes from the book; nothing fancy, just an easy mash of potatoes and green beans. But I love it. It’s adapted from a dish I had at a restaurant called La Loggia Antica, in the hills of Abruzzo’s Teramo province. It’s typical of Abruzzese country cooking, rustic, comforting and thoroughly satisfying ~ Italian vegetable cooking at its best. Buon appetito!
La Loggia Antica is an agritourism restaurant situated high in the hills above Bisenti, in the Teramo province of Abruzzo. The restaurant is known for the creative ways in which it features local vegetables, and it was there that I first had this comforting mash of green beans and potatoes, flavored with crispy pancetta and good olive oil. It's delicious served warm or at room temperature and makes a great accompaniment to roast chicken, pork, fish or a frittata. Photo by Sang An, for Chronicle Books
- 1 pound medium-size yellow potatoes, such as Yukon gold, peeled and cut in half crosswise
- 1 pound fresh young green beans, ends trimmed
- 4 ounces pancetta, diced
- 1/2 cup good-quality extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- Fine sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
Put the potatoes and green beans in a large pot and fill with cold water to cover. Set the pot over high heat and salt generously. Bring the water to a boil and reduce the heat to medium-high to maintain a lively (but not violent) simmer. Boil the vegetables until they are very tender, about 25 minutes.
While the potatoes and green beans are cooking, place the pancetta in a medium skillet (I use a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet) and set over medium heat. Sauté the pancetta, turning it frequently, for about 10 minutes, until it has rendered some of its fat and has just begun to crisp and turn brown. Remove from the heat and cover to keep warm.
When the vegetables are tender, drain them in a colander. Return them to the pot and slowly drizzle in in the olive oil. Use a potato masher to mash the potatoes and green beans together as you drizzle. What you're aiming for is a somewhat lumpy, textured mash--no need to puree completely.
With a spatula or wooden spoon, scrape the pancetta and drippings into the pot and stir to combine with the potato-bean mash. Season with salt and pepper.
Spoon the mixture into a serving bowl and drizzle with a little more olive oil if you like. Serve warm or at room temperature.
NOTE You can make this vegetarian by omitting the pancetta.