Gardens & Gardeners
Plus a couple of enticing recipes
L’orto del professore: Lunch from the Professor’s Garden
Last week I talked about the importance of eating greens, lots of greens, and easy ways to prepare them. Continuing with that idea, I remembered a visit a few years ago to Sicily with Salvatore Denaro, an old friend who works as a chef in Umbria but travels back to his home base in Piazza Armerina as often as he can. This is truly the heart of the heart of Sicily, and when Salvatore proposed that we meet the professore, who lives nearby, I jumped at the chance.
It was early autumn and the orto del professore, the professor’s garden, was riotous, an unruly tumult of beans and squashes, tomatoes and peppers,
il professor with a cucuzza squash (sorry, gourd) in hand
cabbages, kale, lettuce, cucumbers, and wild things too. There were green beans twining up poles and low borlotti bush beans (the kind that, when dried, get turned into zuppa di fagioli); there were climbing squashes and long, pale, snake-like squashes--Sicilian favorites called cucuzza--and big round pumpkins in various shapes and shades of yellow-stained orange; there were eggplants and tomatoes and cabbages, and peppers in all sizes and degrees of spiciness. Everything grew together in helter-skelter fashion and there was also everywhere a surfeit of what you (and I) might call weeds—but they all had names and they all had purposes, from familiar purslane, growing close to the ground, so healthy and delicious in salads, to tall plants of amaranth with their graceful pink flower stalks laden with seeds, and lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album), nettles, and mallow (Malva sylvestris), all of them valuable sources of food for anyone who knows what he’s about.
And the professor knows what he’s about. He is a noted gardener, forager, teacher, and expert on all manner of living creatures, but especially those that grow in the ground. Salvatore himself is no mean forager of wild greens, and he always tries to spend time with the professore when he’s visiting his native ground. I met up with the two genial gentlemen after a morning during which they had rambled through the adjacent pine forest, looking for mushrooms without notable success. Earlier that year, Salvatore had sent the professore seeds of cavolo nero, a type of kale that’s a foundation of wintertime tables in Tuscany and Umbria, and now he wanted me to see how the plants had done in the unfamiliar environment of central Sicily.
cavolo nero (lacinato kale) in the professore’s orto
In brief, they had done spectacularly well in this hotter, drier climate, growing thick, dark, blistery, blue-green leaves that, when stripped of their tough central stems, would be steamed or fried or added to soups. It’s sometimes hard for outsiders to understand the kind of niche levels of consumption that exist in Italy. It’s less than 400 miles from Salvatore’s garden in Umbria to the professore’s in central Sicily, and yet cavolo nero is as exotic in Sicily as some Chinese herb might be in New England. And just as no one in Umbria would think of using the fragrant dried oregano that’s ubiquitous in Sicilian cooking, so no one in Sicily, as far as I could tell, had ever tried to grow cavolo nero. (In U.S. markets, where it’s been appearing for several years now, cavolo nero is sometimes known as Tuscan kale or lacinato kale.)
I admired the professore’s success with cavolo nero but I was more interested in the garden as a whole and its riotous profusion. I can’t think when I’ve seen a garden that looked more undisciplined, even abandoned.
Used to the trim and tightly weeded rows of a New England vegetable garden, I was undone by what looked like an uncontrollable wilderness. And yet the plants were healthy, with no trace of bugs or diseases. As we stalked through bean patches and clambered over pumpkin vines, it suddenly struck me. “This is a very Catholic garden,” I said. What did I mean? “Well, it’s wide open to anything and everything, saints and sinners alike.” The professore laughed. “I’m not a Catholic,” he said. “I’m somewhere between an atheist and an agnostic.” “So was my father,” I replied, “but he had a thoroughly Protestant garden, straight rows, tidy, neat, disciplined.”
Can that be? Is there really such a thing as a Catholic garden or a Protestant garden? It’s fun to think about and maybe there’s a bit of truth in it. We continued our banter as we made our way back to the house where a lovely lunch awaited us—pasta with tenerumi, fresh from the garden; a sweet-and-sour braise of rabbit with caponata, that great Sicilian combination of eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, onions, garlic, and olive oil (talk about Catholic!) on the side; and a dessert of simple slices of chilled melon. All this was prepared by the professore’s wife, whose 94-year-old mother, a testament to the virtues of this Mediterranean, fresh-from-the-garden diet, joined us at the table.
Now, you may be asking, what exactly are these tenerumi? Tenerumi are the tender (tenere—get it?) green leaves and budding tips from that same cucuzza squash, the long, snake-like squash I mentioned earlier that is such a favorite in Sicily, and, like the oregano I also mentioned above, quite unknown in more northern parts of Italy. The squash itself is a summertime favorite, harvested when young, then chunked and stewed gently with other vegetables. It’s considered “cooling” according to the Doctrine of Signatures, which goes all the way back to Hippocrates if not earlier. But the leaves and tender shoots of the plant are also edible, and indeed prized in Sicily, and they were growing all over the professore’s orto, putting out delicate white flowers. (The white flowers are technically a reminder that this is a gourd not a squash, which has yellow flours.) Tenerumi leaves are deliciously refreshing, slightly astringent, and when cooked with pasta, make an exciting and unusual first course. The professore’s wife prepared her tenerumi by slicing the leaves and part of the stems, discarding any tough or wooden stem-ends along with the tendrils, which won’t soften with cooking.
a brisk grating of aged Sicilian pecorino is the final touch
Could you make pasta con tenerumi with other types of squash leaves too? I don’t see why not, as long as they are not too big, old, tough, and covered with prickles. The leaves and shoots of young zucchini and other types of summer squash would be just fine, but I wouldn’t use the big hairy leaves of pumpkins or hard winter squash. You can also order seeds for cucuzza from www.Growitalian.com (search for zucchetta) and plant them in your garden next spring, just like zucchini. Harvest the squash (sorry, gourds) when they’re not more than a foot long, and pull off the leaves and tender shoots whenever you feel the urge—you can go on with this all summer long.
Lacking tenerumi, however, I’ve made a similar pasta dish with other greens. This time I used chard, slivering the leaves and stems together to make a contrasting texture but because chard, in my opinion, is the most boring vegetable in the entire plant kingdom, I added a handful of slivered turnip greens to spark things up. You could use other greens as well—spicy, spring dandelions, mustard greens, collards, or that same lacinato kale, would be really good or use spicy Asian greens like Chinese broccoli, tatsoi, or mizuna; I wouldn’t use spinach simply because it cooks up too quickly. The interesting piece of this is cooking the pasta right in the water with the greens. The pasta absorbs flavors from the greens and makes the whole dish tastier.
Pasta con tenerumi (or any other suitable greens)
This produces enough for 4 servings—and note that it’s more soup than pasta and should be eaten with forks and soup spoons.
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to garnish the bowls
About ½ pound small cherry or grape tomatoes, halved or quartered
1 small fresh chili pepper, seeded and chopped (or to taste)
big bunches of greens, leaves and tender stalks, sliced thin (6 cups)
2 small potatoes, peeled and sliced or chunked
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ pound (250 grams) thin spaghetti, broken into one-inch lengths
Freshly grated cheese (mild pecorino or parmigiano reggiano)
Add the garlic and oil to the bottom of a 3- to 4-quart stock pot and set over medium heat. Cook briefly, stirring, until the garlic has softened--but don’t let it brown. Stir in the tomatoes and chili pepper and continue cooking, until the tomatoes start to collapse and give off juice and the bits of chili have softened. Add the greens along with the potatoes and a generous amount of salt and black pepper. Stir very well to mix all the ingredients together, then add about 6 cups of water and bring it to a simmer.
Let the liquid simmer, uncovered, for 5 or 10 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender but not falling apart. Then stir the pasta into the pot along with another pinch of salt. Cook until the pasta is done—approximately 8 minutes, or according to your own preference. Serve immediately, in soup bowls or plates. Add a generous dollop of extra-virgin olive oil to the top of each serving along with a handful of freshly grated cheese.
In summertime, this is often served at room temperature but the professore’s wife served it hot from the pot and it was delicious too.
My Father’s Garden: L’Orto di Papà
My father, may he rest in peace, was a champion Yankee gardener, as proud of his own vegetables as he was of the considerable flowerbeds that surrounded his bayside home. He did almost all the work himself--preparing the beds and cold frames, planting, transplanting, weeding, dead-heading and harvesting, although there was a man who came to mow the lawns once a week or so. He was not a church goer but his was a thoroughly Protestant garden, straight rows, neatly weeded, hoed and cultivated with a long-handled claw-like tool that he claimed to have invented for himself. I am reminded of course of the universal sentiment that a weed is any plant that grows where you don’t want it. (Someone recently attributed this to Thoreau but I don’t think so—Thoreau treasured weeds.)
Like most champion gardeners in these chilly northern parts, my father relished especially the first springtime harvests, no matter what they were: first peas,
first strawberries, first lettuce (served at table the old-fashioned way, with sugar and vinegar as a dressing), and above all the first asparagus. All summer, it seemed, or from the last frost to the first in autumn, we ate what came from the garden, beans and peas, broccoli, beets and beet greens, radishes and cucumbers (both of these served up in a bowl with vinegar), tomatoes, sweet, green peppers, corn of course (because we knew there’s no corn like what goes straight from the garden to the kettle). He managed all this while working nine to five in his law office and serving in various official and unofficial town capacities, resolving marital disputes, rescuing the indigent, intervening in politics from behind the scenes.
But that first spring asparagus was something special. May mornings would find him out in his garden almost at sunrise, snapping off the tender shoots of asparagus right at the base. Then for breakfast we’d have aspara-grass, as we called it, cooked in my father’s unique and fortunately almost inimitable fashion, boiled or steamed until the poor, plump stalks were limp and gray with exhaustion, then piling them atop a toasted slice of Wonder Bread, liberally spread with butter, and with more butter, melted now, pooled on top -- along with the leftover juices, which of course turned the toast to soggy pap. My father was a much better gardener than he was a cook.
I was fully grown before I discovered the pleasures of underdone asparagus and had to wait for my own garden patch before I understood that the best asparagus in the world, like the best peas, is consumed standing in the garden and contemplatively chewing on what you’ve harvested only seconds before. Come to think of it, because in the normal course of things all fruits and vegetables begin to deteriorate as soon as they’re harvested, don’t you get the fullest impact of all those vitamins, minerals and fiber when you eat food, as it were, straight from the ground? I’m no raw foodist, but it does seem to me there’s an argument there.
In any case, I do cook asparagus, since I no longer have it in my garden for raw consumption, and when I do it’s in what my father would consider an entirely unorthodox manner, either searing it on the stove-top in an olive oil-coated iron skillet or grill pan, or blanching it in boiling salty water for no more than 4 or 5 minutes, just until the stalks can be pierced with the point of a paring knife.
The bread is a toasted slice of crusty whole-grain sourdough from a local baker and it gets well coated with butter before the hot asparagus, thoroughly drained, is arranged on top. Then more melted butter, sizzling with a teaspoon of cider vinegar, preferably from Sewall Orchards, also local (www.sewallorchard.com), is poured on top and the whole thing is consumed immediately.
Like most good things, this is even better if topped with a fried or soft-boiled egg, the yolk broken to mingle with the butter and make a sauce. (In Italy this is called—in French—à la Bismarck.) And it is as fine a supper meal as it is for breakfast.