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eat you verdure: two books that will help

two book covers Italian vege cooking and Verdure.

Just when we thought we were doing well to get almost five-a-day down us we are now told that it should be seven. I was already aware that key thinkers on health (such as Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health) believe we should be eating veg and fruit ‘in abundance’. They regard the old golden number as insufficient (the number ‘five’ was plucked out of the air anyway). Basically you should eat as many vegetables as you can. As a bald statement this is both annoying and laughable: a desire for food is never engendered by words like ‘should’ and ‘must’. The novelist Penny Vincenzi recently tweeted (mirroring the thoughts of many of us, I suspect) that she didn’t have time to consume seven vegetables every day. But once I had pushed my dislike of being told what to do aside, I started to feel hungry. Cooking more vegetables has been the biggest change in my culinary habits over the last five years. Purple-sprouting broccoli with anchovy and chilli? Yes please. Harissa roasted tomatoes with spinach and labneh? Just put them there.

I cook a lot of Middle Eastern vegetable dishes, but it is the imagination and taste of Italians that are most responsible for my ever-increasing love of vegetables. Their attitude to edible plants has always been different to ours. Years ago I worked on Antonio Carluccio’s book Vegetables and was struck by how movingly he talked about them. He would describe to me the joy of long skinny aubergines and squat, fat ones – cupping his hands to show me the different sizes and shapes – and enthuse about humble broccoli, a vegetable his mum used to cook, long and slow, with garlic and olive oil. Italians don’t think of vegetables as ‘something on the side’. Celebrated dishes – aubergine parmigiana, caponata, bagna cauda – are built entirely on vegetables. And many risottos and pasta dishes simply provide the starch against which vegetables can strut their stuff.

I always make lists of dishes I want to cook on holidays before I go (it sounds nerdish but is as great a pleasure as eventually eating the food). If it’s Italy I scribble pages of notes: stuffed courgettes flowers; sweet-and-sour Sicilian aubergines; marinated courgettes; puntarelle (those bitter chicory-like leaves) with melted anchovies. Once you start thinking about Italian markets it’s the vegetables you home in on… and you just can’t stem the desire to fondle and buy. About 10 years ago I went to Verona with Anne del Conte’s Secrets from an Italian Kitchen stashed in my luggage. Over the next two weeks the only meat dish I cooked was osso bucco. Everything else was based on the vegetables I found in the Verona markets.

No matter how many you already cook, there is always another Italian vegetable dish to be discovered. These are two of my favourite sources for recipes, one a new book, the other an old one.

Verdure is another in a series of cracking little books from the American Academy in Rome (they’ve also done a book on pasta and another on soups). The Academy is home to students who win scholarships to study there but, until 2007, the food in the dining room was nothing to write home about. The then-president went to Alice Waters to ask her how they could improve things and the Rome Sustainable Food Project was born. The Project not only cooks all the food for the Academy (lunch and dinner are served every day), it also planted its own fruit and vegetable garden from which it harvests over 6,000 pounds of food every year.

Chefs peeling beans.

People serving themselves in a restaurant.

People sitting eating in a restaurant

The kitchen is now headed by chef Christopher Boswell who previously worked at Chez Panisse and is the author of this book. He doesn’t just care about seasonality but about ‘micro-seasonality’ so, although peppers are around in the summer, Boswell urges us to cook peperonata, a dish of stewed peppers, in September when the peppers have been ripening in the sun for several months. I applaud this thinking. I generally cook seasonally myself but it is irritating that magazines and newspapers – especially if you are writing for them months before the recipes are to be published – tend to be rigid about the seasonal demarcations. Figs and tomatoes, for example, are not seen as autumnal but any gardener will tell you that they carry on beyond the end of September, well into October; with this in mind, Boswell offers a recipe for a potato and tomato gratin for the autumn. Blackberries appear at the end of the summer but I think of them as an autumnal fruit. Roasted aubergines are still good at the end of October and their smoky flavour and velvety texture seem just right for that month, too. Boswell points out that even the lunch and dinner menus in September and early October use different ingredients. Lighter more summery dishes are offered at lunch, while the colder evenings are for cooking more autumnal vegetables. He also acknowledges that vegetables need to be cooked differently as they age within a season (broad beans are a case in point).

Some dishes that are not strictly Italian but which come from the Chez Panisse kitchen are included (a salad of leeks, beets and fennel in a mustard dressing comes to mind, and he adds saffron to braised green beans and tomatoes) but there’s nothing wrong with that. Honest ideas abound: try the bruschetta with olive oil-braised broccoli and ‘nduja or fresh borlotti beans with tomatoes, breadcrumbs and aïoli.

The other book is an old and much-loved favourite. There were never any fanfares about Italian Vegetarian Cookery when it came out and I have never read a review. I don’t know where the author, Paola Gavin, now lives; the book tells me only that she was born in Northampton and lived in Rome for some time. But she has written three books – that I know of – one on Italian, one on French and one on Mediterranean vegetable cookery and I use them all. (In fact, I frequently lose them, not because I don’t value them but because I read them all over the house – when planning meals – and can’t remember where I’ve put them.)

I don’t know where I stumbled across the Italian book. It’s now out of print, though second-hand versions can be found on the internet and some publisher keen on keeping worthwhile books in print should think about acquiring the rights. First and foremost it is crammed with dishes you want to cook (and which I hadn’t found in any other volume): sedani gratinate, a celery gratin from Verona, gianfottere, a kind of ratatouille from Calabria that contains potatoes and saffron, and purea di lenticchie, a subtly spiced and creamy lentil purée from Lombardy.

Secondly it includes an overview of vegetable cookery (and desserts, an odd inclusion given that the book is really about vegetables, but a delightful one) in each area of Italy at the front, an overview that makes your mouth water and stimulates your intellect. Not all the dishes covered here actually appear as recipes but it doesn’t take much thought to work out how to make them. Gavin mentions gnocchi padovani, potato gnocchi made with buckwheat flour from the Veneto, fertae cu lis jerbuzzis, a herb omelette that contains nasturtium leaves from Friuli, and melanzane all’agrodolce, aubergines with a sweet-and-sour sauce that contains candied peel, marsala and chocolate from Calabria. There are succinct little portraits on each region too. Writing about Sardinia she quotes DH Lawrence. ‘So different from Sicily; none of the airs and graces, none of the glamour. Rather bare, rather stark, sometimes like Malta but without Malta’s liveliness… lost between Europe and Africa.’

Every time I open this book, something I hadn’t noticed before catches my eye. I add a post-it note (to a volume littered with post-it notes) and am grateful that Paola Gavin started collecting recipes. The book could have been subtitled with the name of one of the Calabrian dishes she records. Millecosedde is a soup made of odds and ends of dried pasta, dried beans and vegetables, and also means ‘a thousand little things’.

 Recipes from Verdure

 Asparagus with salsa rustica

asparagus and egg with salsa on a white plate.

At home I have a habit of adding an egg to just about any dish. Whether poached, fried, or hard-boiled, an egg always seems to make it better, but few things beat eggs and asparagus: the pairing is to die for. At the RSFP, we like to serve asparagus with this salsa verde that has (surprise!) hard-boiled eggs added to it. Throughout Italy, salsa verde is prepared in many different ways, but salsa rustica—salsa verde with eggs—might be my favorite.

1 batch salsa verde

2 bunches fresh asparagus (about 2 lbs [907 kg]),

preferably thin and young 2 large eggs, room temperature

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1. Bring a large pot of cold water to a boil. Snap off the tough ends of the asparagus and, if the stems are very thick, peel them. When the water comes to a rolling boil, salt it, and add the asparagus. Cook until the asparagus is tender, but still firm, about 5 minutes. Drain it and scatter the asparagus on a baking sheet to cool.

2. Bring a small pot of cold water to a boil. When the water comes to a rolling boil, carefully lower the eggs into the water. Simmer for 10 minutes and immediately transfer them to a bowl of ice water. Let the eggs cool for 5 minutes, drain and crack them and put them back in a bowl of tepid water for 5 more minutes. Gently peel the eggs under the water (it’s easier).

3. Roughly chop the eggs and add them to the salsa verde. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.

4. In a large bowl toss the asparagus with the olive oil and season with salt.

5. To serve, lay the asparagus flat or in the shape of a fan and spoon over the salsa rustica. Top with pepper and serve at room temperature.

Leeks with romesco & arugula

leaks and rocket on a white plate.

Romesco sauce is a traditional Spanish sauce composed of toasted nuts, dried chilies, and breadcrumbs. We like to serve this version at the RSFP because it uses almonds and hazelnuts, which are typical ingredients in Italian cooking. Traditionally, in a salsa romesco, the nuts and breadcrumbs are fried, but we prefer to toast them, which results in a lighter dish. Romesco sauce is delicious with grilled leeks, spring onions, or scallions. We make this dish most often in the late spring and early summer, when the first peppers have started to appear, and when we have tiny leeks that fit so nicely on a plate or platter.

1⁄2 batch roasted and marinated red peppers

1 batch romesco 

4 medium leeks

1 lb (454 g) arugula, trimmed

2 tablespoons olive oil

Bring a large pot of cold water to a boil.

1. Cut the leeks on the bias into 1⁄2-inch (1.3-cm) slices. Carefully wash the leeks very well in plenty of lukewarm water to get rid of any sand or dirt that may be caught in the layers.

2. When the water comes to a rolling boil, salt it and add the leeks. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the leeks are tender and slightly translucent, about 4 minutes. It is important that the leeks are not crunchy or mushy, but just tender. Remove the leeks using a slotted spoon and spread them out on a baking sheet to cool.

3. In a large bowl toss the arugula with 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Add the roasted peppers.

4. Spread the leeks out in an even layer on a plate or platter. Stir the romesco well before using and dot the leeks generously with romesco sauce. Top with arugula and roasted peppers and serve.

Verdure, by Christopher Boswell. Published by The Little Bookworm.

Italian Vegetarian Cookery, by Paola Gavin. Published by Optima (1987)

Other good Italian vegetable books:

Verdura: Vegetables Italian Style, by Viana La Place. Published by Grub Street.

Antonio Carluccio’s Vegetables, by Antonio Carluccio. Published by Headline.

Tags: American Academy in Rome, Anna del Conte, Antonio Carluccio, Antonio Carluccio Vegetables, Chez Panisse, Christopher Boswell, Italian Vegetarian Cookery, Paola Gavin, Penni Vincenzi, Rome Sustainable Food Project, Secrets from an Italian Kitchen, verdure

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