Miriam's Garden: Foraging for spring greens -- in New York City



In my garden, the peas are just beginning their curly, upward climb. The potatoes may have been planted when the ground was too damp and cold, so fingers crossed that they'll make it. Red and sweet white onions, tucked into the ground just before a week of rain, line up in waving rows.

In the laundryroom-greenhouse, tomatoes, basil, parsley and peppers -- both sweet and hot -- sprout enthusiastically. But besides a bit of rhubarb and a wonderful array of lettuce, it's too early for anything to be ready to eat.

It's another, altogether more leafy story in New York City's Union Square Greenmarket. I was in the big city for about a week while attending the Beard Foundation media awards.

In the Greenmarket, notebook in tow, I strolled with Michele Scicolone to discuss her newest work, "The Italian Vegetable Cookbook." Greens were on our minds, and the freshest, springiest things we found there were leaves and shoots.

Her latest book is a lovely, personal collection of Italian vegetable recipes. Note these are not vegetarian dishes, but feel free to adapt. She isn't vegetarian, so she adds a little prosciutto, sausage or pancetta when their savory touch is called for, as in her recipe for Green Beans with Pancetta, Red Onions, and Parsley.

The genius behind this book is that the recipes are absolutely simple. "This is the way I cook," she said. "Not time-consuming. Quick and easy with not a lot of ingredients."

A great example is her Kale and Cannellini Bean Stew. Garlic, olive oil, chopped tomato, cooked cannellini beans (you can use canned), chopped kale. Done in about 30 minutes. Don't like kale or it doesn't look fresh in the market? Substitute escarole or broccoli rabe, which is pretty much the point with greens. Use what you like; choose what looks best.

She points to some small new kale: "These little leaves would be nice in a salad." As they get bigger, she explained, they can be massaged with olive oil to make them tender enough for salad. Use them any place you'd use spinach or escarole.

We moved on to some dandelion greens, rejecting those with heavy, thick stems and selecting smaller, tender ones. Tear off the ribs and toss them with a really nice, gutsy dressing with anchovies and garlic.

She admired some Tuscan kale, holding up a bunch. But one of her favorite all-purpose greens is escarole: "It's good in soups, salad, as a side dish. It's a great under-appreciated vegetable."

Usually well-priced, too. "You get a whole big head," she continued. "Use the outer leaves for soups, and the tender inner ones for salad." She described a soup she'd prepared the other day, inspired by a head of escarole. Sauteed it with onion in olive oil, added some good chicken broth and a small tubetti pasta. Finished with some Pecorino-Romano. She then recalled a dreamy dish she had in Naples of escarole leaves stuffed with a breadcrumb mixture, shaped back into an escarole head and steamed or braised.

Pea shoots were next, with their sweet, nutty flavor. "Saute them with garlic and ginger," she said. From a little research I learned the best varieties to sow if you wish to harvest shoots and tendrils are snow peas and sugar snaps; they grow rapidly and are prolific.

We then spied an unusual green, agretti. A spicy, slightly salty, succulent; it's served boiled or steamed, with olive oil or butter, sometimes a touch of lemon juice. "Agro means bitter in Italian and another word for the vegetable is barba di frate, meaning monk's beard," she said, noting that Italians love bitter flavors.

Lastly we looked at some fat bunches of lamb's quarters. "They're sweet, to use like spinach," she said. I know lamb's quarters well as a garden weed. Maybe it's time to think good thoughts about it -- and the purslane I unwittingly planted years back.

Eat your greens!

Spinach & Polenta Soup

My family enjoyed this on a lovely warm day. My father had seconds. It's so easy to prepare you'll want to keep the recipe handy.

Writes the author: "The creamy texture and buttery flavor of this soup makes it particularly comforting on a cold winter day. Cornmeal (polenta) is the unusual thickener for the soup. Kale or a combination of greens can be used in place of the spinach."

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, divided

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 10-ounce bags spinach, washed, tough stems removed, and torn into bite-size pieces (I added some baby kale as well)

5 cups vegetable or chicken broth, divided

1/2 cup finely ground yellow cornmeal

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

In a large pot, melt 3 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add garlic and cook, stirring, until lightly golden, about 1 minute. Stir in the spinach, in batches, and cook until wilted, about 5 minutes. Add 4 cups of the broth and bring to a simmer.

Stir together remaining 1 cup broth and cornmeal in a small bowl until smooth. Add to the pot, stir well, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the soup is thickened, about 30 minutes; if the soup becomes too thick, add some warm water and stir well.

Taste for seasoning. Stir in the remaining tablespoon of butter and the cheese and serve.

Makes 6 servings.

-- Adapted from "The Italian Vegetable Cookbook: 200 Favorite Recipes for Antipasto, Soups, Pasta, Main Dishes, and Desserts" by Michele Scicolone (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, $30)

Orecchiette with Potatoes and Arugula

Arugula is ideal as a salad green, but that doesn't mean it's not good cooked, writes Ms. Scicolone. She called for orecchiette, little ear-shaped pasta, but I used large shells, which worked well, too. The potatoes become creamy cooking with the pasta. Delicious.

Salt

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

Pinch crushed red pepper flakes

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

2 medium waxy potatoes (I used 3), such as Yukon Golds, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice

1 pound orecchiette

8 ounces arugula, washed and trimmed (I used arugula and baby kale)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

Meanwhile, in a skillet large enough to hold all of the ingredients (I used a Dutch oven), cook the garlic and crushed red pepper in the oil over medium heat until garlic is golden and fragrant, about 1 minute. Remove from heat.

Add potatoes to the boiling water. When the water is boiling again, stir in pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are tender and the pasta is al dente. Stir in arugula. Scoop out some of the cooking water and set aside. Drain the pasta.

Place the skillet of garlic and oil over medium heat, add pasta and vegetables, and toss well. Add a little cooking water if the pasta seems dry. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and serve immediately.

Makes 6 servings.

-- Adapted from "The Italian Vegetable Cookbook: 200 Favorite Recipes for Antipasto, Soups, Pasta, Main Dishes, and Desserts" by Michele Scicolone (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, $30)

 


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