In our Italian kitchen we are eating sausage, pasta, rice, and lots of vegetables. The market has such an amazing range of fresh seasonal vegetables that it is easy to get carried away. It is easy to buy only vegetables produced in Italy, mostly from the south it is true, but they haven’t travelled far. The other thing I love is that you can buy as little as you like. The assumption is that you are shopping for the next meal. Italian women, and it is mostly women who shop, often shop twice a day, in the morning for pranzo and again in the evening for cena. I am shopping every one or two days because I can, and because our fridge is very small. This means that if I need celery for a soup I might buy just one stick, or I could ask for a small bunch from a larger bunch of grapes. Herbs are often added free of charge, so I usually get a small quantity of parsley each time I shop. This approach is great for reducing waste.
Now that it is truly winter, I find myself making a hearty vegetable soup at least once a week. This is usually a minestra, a mix of stock, vegetables, beans and pasta with a leafy green. It is really simple to make and will just use up what you have on hand. Start with a soffritto of onion or leek, carrot, celery. Cook these until softened, about 5-10 minutes. Add minced garlic, chilli – fresh, finely chopped or dried flakes – a sprig of herbs to be removed later – thyme, rosemary, bay – and cook a further couple of minutes. Add chicken or vegetable stock and bring to the boil. Once the soup is boiling add canned beans – cannellini, chick peas, butter beans – and soup pasta – a rice-like pasta such as orzo, a small shape like ditalini, maybe alphabet pasta or even farro. Cook for a couple of minutes less than the time indicated on the packet. Add a pile of sliced or torn leafy greens – spinach, chard, friarielli, kale – and let them wilt for a couple of minutes. Add more water if you think at this point it is not soupy enough. Serve and garnish with spring onions, grated cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. Chilli oil is nice. You can add other vegetables if you have something you want to use up. Just add at the right stage during the process for it to be cooked at the end. This is like making the same thing different every time. And delicious. For a treat, you could top with a slice of bread covered with grated cheese and grilled until golden.
I have a favourite vegetable dish that I have cooked for all our visitors. It is easy to prepare, delicious to eat and magnificent to look at on the table. This uses Romanesco broccoli, which is really more cauliflower than broccoli, and is sometimes known as Roman cauliflower. If you can’t get this, use regular cauliflower rather than broccoli. The coloured cauliflowers would look suitably impressive. Cut the Romanesco into medium florets and lightly blanch, then arrange in a single layer in a baking dish. Season lightly. Scatter torn pieces of fresh buffalo mozarella over the top, then sprinkle with grated Parmigiano or pecorino. Arrange a handful of black pitted olives here and there. In a small bowl, make a dressing, mixing 1 tsp chopped capers, 4 roughly chopped anchovy fillets, 3 cloves crushed garlic, 1/2 tsp chilli flakes and 3 tbsp olive oil. I prepare to this stage in advance, then drizzle the dressing over just before I put in the oven. Bake 30 minutes at 175C until the cheese is golden and the Romanesco tender. Sprinkle with dried oregano to serve. If you are serving vegetarians just leave out the anchovies but note that they add significant flavour and you may want to adjust seasoning. Don’t skimp on the dressing.
I will be growing Romanesco in my garden in Wellington when I get home and if you visit you may well be served this wonderful meal.