A few years ago I headed to Rome for a long weekend of sightseeing, culture… and food! My abiding memory is of the latter: sensuous, flavoursome dishes at every turn, all served without pretention or gimmicks, using recipes that allowed the quality of the produce to shine.
Take, for example, the fiore di zucca – deep-fried zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese and anchovies – or the ribollita, a soup originally from Tuscany that’s absolutely loaded with vegetables such cannellini beans and ‘Cavolo Nero’ kale – simple ‘peasant food’ fit for a king! When you have produce this good you don’t need to muck about with it; keep it simple and let the food speak for itself.
As vegetable gardeners we’re in a privileged position. With no one but ourselves to satisfy we can choose varieties of vegetables renowned for their taste and character. Many of these are Italian in origin, so we can all bring a little Italian flair to the kitchen.
Truly Italian Tomatoes
Any lineup of Italian vegetables has to start with the tomato: the pomodoro or apple of gold. The tomato is a winner in any kitchen, but for Italian flair it’s the traditional plum and beefsteak types that take the prize. Mid-spring is a great time to start the seeds off in moist compost, ideally with a little warmth in the form of a propagator to get them up and away strongly.
The Italian-sounding varieties are the ones to go for, like the paste or plum variety ‘San Marzano’ whose sweet and meaty flesh is ideal for making your own pasta sauces. Or, for fist-sized fruits perfect for slicing up into salads, go for a heavyweight beefsteak like ‘Costoluto Fiorentino’ from Florence.
Italian food markets are places of great beauty! Peruse the produce on display and you’ll see great big bunches of leafy greens – for sautéing, steaming or slicing up into stews. Nothing beats the strap-like, dimpled leaves of Italian kale, usually sold as ‘Cavolo Nero’ or ‘Black Tuscan’. The dark, dark green leaves are intensely good for you and your taste buds. It’s doggedly hardy too, standing through the coldest winters.
Start the seedlings off in a seedbed or in module trays, then set out the well-grown seedlings about 45cm (18in) apart. The leaves will be ready to pick within three months. If you haven’t the patience (though it really is worth the wait) grow some spinach for luscious, tender leaves that are equally as versatile.
Zucchini Fruits and Flowers
Whether smooth, sleek and green, or ribbed for slicing into ‘cogwheels’, the zucchini is almost as ubiquitous as the tomato within Italian cooking. There are plenty of Italian varieties to try – including a few tennis ball-shaped fruits perfect for stuffing – and they’re great fun to grow.
For me it’s the added bonus of the flowers that are the exciting prospect here. They’re a treat you can only hope to experience if you grow them – just try sourcing them in the grocery store! Pick the flowers early in the day when they are still fresh and turgid. The male flowers – which do not have a swelling behind the base of the flower – will never turn into fruits, so as long as you leave enough to pollinate the females you can go ahead and pick them with abandon. Scout around for a good recipe, or enjoy them simply fried in butter then served up with a twist of the peppermill.
Wholesome Borlotti and Cannellini Beans
The staple ingredients of a decent minestrone soup, borlotti and cannellini beans can be enjoyed whole in salads, served in their pods just like any other fresh beans, or dried and shelled for storing. It’s this last use that makes them so popular in the Italian kitchen – they’re the ever-ready beans that bring a touch of luxury to winter cooking.
There are many Italian varieties to choose from, so have fun exploring. Neither type takes kindly to cold soil, so either start them off under cover or plant them once the soil has warmed up and any danger of frost has passed. Don’t forget to install stakes, canes or trellis for climbing types.
Aromatic Italian Herbs
Whether it’s freshly torn basil leaves, scattered oregano or a sprinkle of flat-leaved parsley, you’re going to need some pots of fresh herbs to complete your home-grown Italian recipes. I love to grow them in pots on the patio, nestled together in a sunny corner where they create both a lush backdrop and a cornucopia of aromas as you brush against them. Harvest a few leaves from each plant at a time, nipping them off from the top of the plant to encourage it to bush out further.
Basil is something it’s hard to get enough of. It’s the basis to any decent pesto and livens up any salad. If you’re a basil fan like me, make repeated sowings throughout the growing season so you never have to wait long for another generous handful of leaves.
If you grow any must-have Italian vegetables or varieties of vegetable then I’d love to hear about them – so please do drop me a comment below.