Greens, More greens … and Some Yellows and Purples, Too
During the warmest months of the year, its time for fresh, leafy greens and raw salads - what Italians call “verdure” or greens. In this article, we journey through a hearty helping of different greens -- from arugula to endive -- that you need to see!
By Piergiorgio and Amy Nicoletti
Summer is the green season. In the countryside, there is green everywhere—we see it, smell it, and feel it all around us. We are instinctively attracted to this color in all its tonalities—delicate green buds, silvery green leaves on trees, fields of grass—we are drawn to all of them. Our palates too are strongly attracted to greens, especially in the summertime; during the warmest months of the year, many of us long for fresh, raw salads—our bodies just seem to crave what Italians call “verdure” or greens. Perhaps our knowledge of how healthy leafy greens are creates a desire for them, but for many, the craving feels innate and irresistible.
It’s common knowledge nowadays that ortaggi—the Italian word for “vegetables”—are essential for our health and an irreplaceable part of our diet. But, of course, the parts of the vegetable we use in our kitchens varies from plant to plant—for instance, when we eat carrots and beets, we are eating the roots of the plant; when we eat celery we are eating the stems. Eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers are the fruits of the plants; whereas, beans—such as lentils, peas, beans, and chickpeas—are the seeds; cauliflower, broccoli and broccoli rabe are inflorescences or flowers. When we eat greens—such as lettuce, cabbage, spinach, and chard—we are eating the leaves. Leafy greens are kind of miracle vegetables—not only are they are low in calories, rich in amino acids, vitamins A and C, minerals and fiber, they also help with digestion and boost the metabolism. In addition, they are believed to provide a host of health benefits—from building up the immune system to balancing hormones. In other words, you can eat spinach, chard, chicory, and lettuce of all kinds with reckless abandon, and then compliment yourself on your virtuous nature.
Though, of course, virtue does not come naturally to all of us; so, it may be comforting for some of you to know that when I was a kid, I hated vegetables of all kinds—but especially salads. Perhaps it was the traditional salad dressing commonly used in northern Italy in the early 60s—white vinegar and olive oil; like many kids, sour tastes didn’t appeal to me. Though I always marveled at those who seemed to naturally enjoy salads (and vegetables in general), I was never one of them—and the truth is I still have to work at it. Though, I now can honestly say I love rughetta—the wild variety of arugula that grows in the Italian countryside—there are many other types of luscious-looking lettuces available here in Italy that I still admire from afar: crescione (watercress), cuori di lattuga (romaine hearts) and insalata mista—which is the Italian version of a mixed salad—usually made of lettuce hearts, lollo, rughetta, frisée and whatever the local markets offer in season. My American wife can never get enough of these home-grown Italian lettuces; compared to Italians, Americans are much more accustomed to eating salads and much more innovative in the ingredients they use. Though in recent years, Italians have become more open to the idea that a salad can be more than just a few leaves of lettuce and a sliced tomato.
Below are some of the most common types of leafy greens and lettuce (called lattughe in Italian) found in most good Italian fruttivendoli (fruit and vegetable stores) and in a vast portion of the United States as well. The green—and yellow and purple and reddish—lettuces are delicious in salads, and the leafy green vegetables described below make wonderful contorni (side dishes) when cooked for just a few minutes:
For salads, baby spinach is preferable because the leaves are more tender and tasty, but the more mature spinach is used in Italian cuisine in a myriad of ways—from the classic contorno di spinaci (side dish of spinach) to the fillings for a variety of paste ripiene (filled pastas). Also, many pasta dishes, rolled meat preparations, and crespelle (filled crêpes) use spinach as a main ingredient.
The best way to prepare spinach is by following this simple procedure:
Trim off the reddish roots from each bundle, and eliminate any yellowish leave or other parts to be discarded. Then wash the leaves three times in a clean sink filled with running water. Fresh spinach often comes with a good deal of sand and dirt—which is not at all a bad sign, but you want to be sure to thoroughly wash the spinach before cooking or serving. So, after you have carefully washed the leaves, let them dry out a bit in a big colander. In a large sauce pan, heat up some extra virgin olive oil on a low-medium flame; add one clove of peeled garlic (pressed with a knife), and then add your spinach, a bit of salt (very important because this will help release the spinach juices) and cover—sealing the pan well with the lid for a couple of minutes, until the leaves cook (they will shrink substantially). Then, remove the lid and allow the excess liquid to evaporate—now your spinach is ready. You can now add some freshly grated nutmeg as they do in the Piemonte region, or just some fresh butter.
Note: This basic and natural method can be used with any greens and other vegetables with a high content of water. None of the leafy greens’ nutritious juices are wasted when you cook and steam them in this way—it’s one of the quickest and healthiest ways to prepare them.
Bieta or bietola (chard)
This gorgeous garden vegetable with long and sometimes large green leaves is actually the leafy greens of the beet plant. It is used a great deal in Italian cuisine in all its forms—as verdure cotte (cooked vegetables) or biete saltate in padella (sautéed in a pan).
Because the white central part of the chard (bieta) takes longer to cook than the green, it’s best to cut out the white stems (before washing), and cut them in half-inch pieces. Boil these pieces first in a small amount of salted water, and then two minutes later, add the green parts, cut in slices. After cooking another two minutes or less, drain with care and sauté the greens right away on a high flame in olive oil with a crushed clove of garlic. After just a couple of stirs, they’re ready to serve—as a delicious contorno (side dish) just drizzle some good organic extra virgin olive oil on top.
For other more complex preparations, the following method for cooking the bieta can be applied to other greens, such as chicory: Drain the chard from the boiling water with a strainer and immerse them right away in ice and water. Then eliminate all the liquid—either with both your hands (pressing the leaves firmly to remove the water) or in a salad spinner. Next, sauté the bieta in a pan as described above. Also, bieta cotta (cooked chard) can be used in pasta dishes, or as a filling for a focaccia, in frittatas, or as part of the filling for involtini (stuffed, rolled meat). Bieta can be prepared with other vegetables, such as endives, and baked in the oven with béchamel, cheese and cooked ham, for example. (For a unique pasta and bieta recipe, see Linguine alla bieta, pomodoro, basilico e panna.)
Swiss Chard with Pancetta and Potatoes
Radicchio lungo trevigiano (Long radicchio from Trevise)
Mostly cultivated in the Veneto region of northern Italy, radicchio trevigiano is perfect for grilling over charcoal with just a drizzle of olive oil. It’s also used in the regional specialty called Risotto al radicchio. This variety of radicchio is great in salads too.
Radicchio rosso tondo (Round radicchio)
Radicchio’s gorgeous deep purple and white leaves add color and taste to salads. Eliminate the first outer leaves, then cut in half, wash and dry. Now cut in quarters and use the leaves in whatever way you like; in Italy, it’s very common to cut the radicchio in a sort of julienne—not too thin though—and add it to your tossed salad.
Rucola or rughetta (Arugula)
The demand for this extraordinary lettuce has skyrocketed in the last fifteen years. Contrary to popular belief, the term arugula is actually Sicilian, not Italian. In Italy, this lettuce is generally called rucola and it grows in the wild in many regions of the country (the wild variety is called “rughetta”). Its aromatic and peppery flavor is the perfect complement to a great variety of preparations. Arugula salad is delicious served along side beef, poultry and fish, and rucola leaves give a special kick to many pasta dishes. Rucola is especially delicious when sprinkled on top of summer pasta salads, and it’s a great cold topping for pizzas. This lettuce is also used in panini (sandwiches) with cheese—such as fontina val d’aosta or brie—and speck, for example and many others. When served as a salad, rucola is best dressed simply with olive oil and lemon or balsamic or regular wine vinegar. Rucola cleanses the palate and helps with digestion of heavy meals.
In Italy, this lettuce is occasionally used in mixed green salads—just be sure to eliminate the hard stems. Crescione is also often paired with cold tuna fish salad, boiled potatoes, and boiled eggs with a couple of teaspoonfuls of homemade mayonnaise or just olive oil and lemon juice.
Lattuga romana (Romaine)
This popular lettuce is a classic in salads the world over—the elegant, long leaves are usually deep green, crispy and flavorful. Romaine lettuce is often the essential component of a tossed green salad.
Lattuga Trocadero (Butterhead lettuce)
This is silky lettuce is very resistant to low temperatures, and is easily recognizable by its voluminous, full “cappuccio” (cap). The tips of the leaves sometimes have a reddish brown tone, which adds a special color to salads. The taste is delicate and slightly sweet, and very fresh and light.
Lattuga gentilina, also called scarola (Curly endive)
This is a gorgeous looking lettuce with a compact tuft of crispy long leaves on the exterior and a very tender open heart inside. Native to Europe, this is one of the most demanded lettuces of all in Italy. Extremely healthy, this gift of nature is much appreciated in insalata mista (mixed salads) of all kinds.
Cicoria (Chicory or frisée)
With over 2,000 species, this is one the largest botanic families of lettuce—with quite a bit of confusion around the names for each variety. Some of the wild species are commonly found in fields and gardens throughout Italy. Cicoria (the dark, curly- leaf variety) is fantastic sbollentata—that is, quickly deep boiled—and then sautéed in padella (in the pan). Slightly bitter when cooked, but incredibly tasty, this is commonly served as a contorno, with a lemon wedge. The yellowish, broad-leaf variety (called escarole, or “scarola” in Italian) is less bitter and often used in salads, and is available year round.
All your salads can be seasoned the Italian way—that is, with a simple vinaigrette of extra virgin olive oil and vinegar or lemon, salt and pepper. Or you could try a Franco-Italian “entente” vinaigrette: olive oil, aged balsamic vinegar, a teaspoonful of Dijon mustard, a bit of scallion very finely chopped and pepper. With a fork or whisk, beat the vinaigrette, starting with just the balsamic and Dijon. Then, slowly add the olive oil, and then the rest of the ingredients. Traditionally, in Italy, we don’t use any other seasonings than these with our salads—though younger generations, who are bolder and more open-minded, do try other types of dressings occasionally. Whatever dressing you use, one important reminder: always season your salads just before serving them so that the lettuce will be crisp.